Our carriage seemed to have been designated as the creche carriage. Kids with mothers who do let their children do anything they want really. One noticeable thing about the Vietnamese culture is their complete lack of appreciation of volume. They don’t talk they shout most of the time. This makes things hard to bear, not being used to this way of communicating.
We past all the shops that we had seen from the streets of Hanoi as we quickly left the city into the country. The air-conditioning we had paid so much for did not work, so the windows of the train were opened. A guard that is present in each carriage soon gave us a warning that it is dangerous to stand by the window as people throw things, like stones at trains as they pass and people have been seriously injured. Soon however a guard came around and shut them as the air-con had supposedly been fixed, but barely worked. No wonder people pay the much less price not to have A/C as it barely existed.
People came around the tight 6 bed compartments as people chatted away with fetus eggs that were devoured in ours and left the room stinking. It was a long afternoon of screaming and increasing volume until bedtime, when out of nowhere a group of girls came in and sharing the bottom bunk began to giggle and talk loudly- if it is not one thing it is the next!
Disturbed sleep continued as major stations were past and people joined the train without an ounce of consideration of others sleeping. Not that it mattered but it seems that the Vietnamese are conditioned to deal with this noise as only Laura and I stirred at the loud music, lights being left on and loud phone calls being made from 1pm- 3am.
Luckily morning came and people were still sleeping, which is not usual, as Vietnam tends to wake up at 5-6am. We managed to sleep enough on the 11 hour journey that when, 5 minutes before the train approached Hue, we had just enough sleep to deal with dealing with searching for a Hotel. We sat looking at what seemed a desolate area, confirming the promise by our friends that Hue was not very developed. Two coffees later and a look at the photo we had taken of our friends 2004 Lonely Planet to gauge where town was and how far (our new trick of having knowledge without paying for or needing to carry a guidebook).
We walked most of the way until Laura’s weeping burn made us catch a taxi. We communicated that we didn’t have an address but a road. The guy quickly picked up on the fact we wanted a cheap hotel and proceeded to drive us around various blocks to find $20-25 rooms. We soon had enough and got out frustrated as we reiterated what road we wanted. Refusing to pay the full fare we investigated places nearby and the first place we tried Laura negotiated to $8 per night (most things are priced in dollars when it comes to rooms, this was 20 dong to 1 US$).
The hotel was clean and new. We realised that as it has a lack of marketing, especially in the guidebooks, plus the fact that it wasn’t so near the backpacker area that negotiation was fairly easy. New hotels are our target from now on and have the additional benefit of clean rooms and laundry. Our room was great, A/C, cable TV, en suit the works.
In what is now a routine, we grabbed a shower, unpacked our necessities and headed out for a wander to get our bearings and start to find out the new prices for things. We found the two street backpacker area lined with bars and “Happy Hour” promotions, 15,000 dong water (a rip off price) and each store with their own member of staff saying “hello” and “come in please”. Moving quickly on we past a few close passageways lined with market stalls, crossed the bridge and ended up in an open dusty area that was clearly the new development area and adorned with new high rise hotels. We realised we were off the center of town map, which was actually quite compact. Undeveloped it did not seem however, as there were at least 5 top class 4-5 star hotels with Spa and high class restaurant. The clientele emerging from these places seemed to be old, rich Americans, so Hue is clearly in some travel brochures and appeals to a range of people. The coffee bars and a few discos among the usual collection of electrical shops, that seem to gain custom with loud electronic music. There is a good match there I am sure.
Back over the bridge and we saw the water snail collectors at work coming in on their boats down the brown river under grey sky. Sorting and washing these local favourites that later would be shallow boiled with chilli and sold on the portable glass trollies that line the streets. We found a coffee by the side of the Huong River (Perfume River) that had just one of the many ladies that carry around a board with various items of pressing need: child’s plastic toys, nail clippers, scissors, sunglasses and cheap jewelry of course! What was becoming our favourite rest drink “Ca fe den da”, or “ice, black coffee”, served in a short glass, strong with enough sugar so that it cannot dissolve fully. For just 8 vnd (Vietnam dong) that was a winner, especially as this comes with a glass of tea of some variety and quality.
That evening we found a stall selling Pate baguettes, with various fatty meat, aromatic salad and chilli sauce, similar to those found in Hanoi and are clearly now a national snack. Then next we found a place around the corner and tried a Xoi Ga, which we now know is mixed chicken, kind of a salad with chicken hacked up in it, bone included. We realise that here the chickens have been exercised and are actually quite dense, tough and chewy. We also realise that chicken is the most expensive meat, on par with large shrimps, which was a surprise. Eating and drinking 10vnd Beer Lauru” with the locals, watching football on television is our prime time, especially knowing the tourists are around the corner in stylised restaurants selling a western twist on local food at inflated prices.
We decided to see the citadel the following day and then get out into the countryside the following day as we had seen that the city itself had limited things to see and we had been long awaiting some bike journeys around the countryside.
The citadel was amazing and a worthwhile thing to spend 50,000vnd on. Especially as you could see that investment was going into it to renovate and create replicas where renovation was not possible.
The citadel was the heart of the Nguyen Empire that controlled Southern Vietnam in the early 1800’s and has an impressive collection of gardens and palatial buildings considering they had been through 2 major typhoons and both the French and U.S wars. The restored throne rooms with decorative roof joints and ornate furnishings gave what felt like an accurate restoration.
The rock gardens with steep bridges, dragon flies and numerous rocks were tranquil places to hang out, especially as there was barely anyone else around. Given the size of the place you could easily get lost amongst the numerous halls made for different reasons, roofed walkways etc.
After a few hours walking around the site and trying to decipher some of the foundations that had been leveled, we headed out to have a coffee, before exploring the local shopping centre, complete with KFC and escalators to find some cheap food for that evening. Our conclusion was that there were loads of imported goods both from around Vietnam and foreign countries. The maintenance of the building plus this factor made it just as cheap to buy something in a restaurant or on the street. So far we had not felt bad by the street food, which scares so many people and had it eaten it for more meals than not. We ended up going back to the baguette stall, where we were given some sticky, dried, shredded, chilli fish. An interesting flavour, especially combined with pate in a baguette, but you have to go with the locals suggestions!
We then worked our way around a few motobike rental places to find the cheapest, which was US$5 (100,000vnd) for a 50cc, automatic scooter. We also checked out a few tourist offices to see where they suggest going and found a random map of the area. We recently found it useful in getting all the brochures and maps etc from tourist information or tour organisers who hope for a sale and then put the pieces together to do it ourselves cheaper. Satisfied with our plan we had a few beers and then found an empty tourist place with cheap cocktails a few of those later and we were talking with a group of French people and played some free pool with them until retiring. Usefully they produced a map and as a few worked in Hue gave us more ideas on what to see.
We picked the bike up by 9am the next day and headed off into the country to explore some of the temples. A stop on a random corner on the outskirts of town, a quick lesson to ask and agree prices for everything before you order and we are off again. Eyed over with interest from the people playing cards and drinking sweet fizzy drinks.
We quickly got lost and realised that the road numbers didn’t match up with the road names. There are so many pagodas (Buddhist temples) however that we just stopped in and had a walk around some when we felt like it. Otherwise we were just happy cruising around the semi arid, semi green landscape. Passing numerous roadside tombs that are grand and ornate, apparently each family trying to out do the next with larger tombs.
Most though just made out of painted concrete. Either way this tributes to the families deceased sculpt the scenery in a macabre way. It is also interesting to see how many pine trees there are in this latitude of Vietnam. The few hills around are covered in tall pine, while the rest of the landscape feels crisp and dry, despite a fair covering of green.
The heat and humidity makes us glad that we are zooming around on a bike with a breeze. We drive and take in the country, with little traffic bothering us we feel free and out in the real Vietnam. We finally stop to get some guidance on where we are and where we are going, as we had little clue about either. We were directed to a hill where a tomb was supposed to reside, but instead after climbing a hill of pine needles we reach a church with a pagoda. A sort of hybrid between Christianity and Vietnamese religious design. It was all closed up and after having a brief wander around we set off again, passing a driving school that looks like the remains of a village as low concrete walls dictate various turnings and junctions.
Armed with an idea of where we are we head east to a collection of Nguyen (the ancient rulers) tombs. Briefly stopping at numerous pagodas, all with a similar layout but their own specific points of interest. Some have wonderfully ornate gardens and plants, while others have spectacular decorations and architecture.
Each has a high tiered tower that historically stored relics and religious literature. They have odd numbers of tiers, as odd numbers represent positivity and light. The higher the tower the more significant and important the pagoda. Each pagoda also has a separate shrine depending on the religion represented. Pagodas were traditionally Buddhist, but other religions also adopted the pagoda in Vietnam due to its symbolism.
One pagoda only had 2 people in, one monk and one maintenance worker. The monk was busy giving offerings to Buddha, as he had done seemingly for many years. Another had a lone child monk reading scriptures in serene a perfectly calm gardens, stopping briefly in confusion as to what we were doing there, but quickly went back to his studies.
We eventually found an ancient, but working pagoda. One that was clearly a popular due to the people outside selling incense and water. So far we had not found one of the recommended tombs, but here there were a fair few young Vietnamese people hanging out enjoying the large tree enclosed gardens, lake and peace. Again monks chanted as butterflies flew and the scent of flowers adorned the air.
The tombs and shrine showed their antiquity, but delivered a highly charged spiritual atmosphere.
Off again we headed to the next tomb, but ended up winding our way around small villages and houses next to a poorly maintained road of sorts. Everybody’s head followed us as we past and said “Xin Chao” (hello). Laura had become royalty on the back of the bike, waving at everyone who showed an interest and received beams of smiles and shouts of “HELLO” back. Ending up completely lost up a dirt track and dead end a lady who luckily spoke some English pointed us in the right direction and we were back on the main road to Hue. Back in town we desperately needed some food and headed to the river to try some of the local specialty Banh Hue. The restaurant that we had read about could not be found, so we stopped at a random street stall, where incidentally she served what we were looking for! A delight of crispy pancakes filled with vegetables and prawns dipped in a meaty peanut sauce. A lady next to use showed us what to do, including wiping your chopsticks down before eating and throwing any leaves on the floor that are not up to scratch.
We then had a further drive and found where the new building developments were going up. Rows of 3 story buildings reminiscent of town houses, smooth roads and traditional looking streetlamps. The road just stops dead on the edge of town with no way through, so we headed along the other side of the river. We were soon in the middle of nowhere, with fish nets hanging over the river ready to be lowered. Houses took on a more rural look, despite surely still heading back to Hue? After a few kilometers it was clear we were not in Hue. We emerged on a road that was being built in what looked to be a massive town sized building site, with the odd building complete.
A taxi filled with people getting in was by the road and everyone laughed so hard when they saw us. The driver looked almost scared. We asked where Hue was with everyone falling around semi drunk, semi hysterical we were there. With too many answers to count on your hand, one man trying to trace the route on my hand pointed down towards lorries and diggers.
We headed off confused, but the direction was reinforced by the site workers. When the road ended another man pointed us over a river with a split plank of wood for a bridge. I cannot believe that the bike made it over, with me guiding it from the side and leaping over, further than I have leaped before, eventually letting the bike go and it crashing on the other side, engine still revving. At this point over 20 kids were all there on there floor in laughter, Laura laughing and the man shaking his head. I made it though and as we drove off with a wave, no damage or anything wet at all I took a deep breath and realised I wouldn’t have done that if I gave it serious consideration. No license here means no insurance and thus paying for all damage, including a waterlogged engine. The one rule to driving here is not to do anything wrong. We came out on top- just. We eventually hit shops and bars by the river, wooden houses on stilts owned by the fishermen of the river and then into town.
It was rush hour but that doesn’t stop the cyclist overloaded with bananas to cause more chaos. I am now used (if that is possible) to driving the Vietnamese way and safely near our base we stop for a few beers before heading back.
We went back to the bar we found a few nights before that charged 10vnd, instead of the tourist street’s 15 for a beer and relaxed, exhilarated by our day. A few more cocktails on the way home, releasing the energy we had gained from the day.
We had more to come the next day, but felt a little worse for wear, plus guilty that we had spent too much money on alcohol. We felt that we had slipped into a bad habit and that our priorities on money saving were skewed of late. With a self telling off we left via a water shop to rehydrate. Soon the hairdryer like breeze woke us up and the iced coffee finished the job. We drove south again as we had left the bike lock key in a coffee shop, so needed to pick that up and then headed north towards the beach of Thanh An.
A smooth road out of town past increasing numbers of paddy fields in different stages of cultivation and 18km later we approached a large bridge at Duong Ha and hit the beach pretty much straight down “Quoc lo” (main road) 49. The place was pretty much deserted. Parking our bike under a tree to avoid paying a parking fee we had a wander down the beach past beached fishing boats. We were warned of the rip tide that was larger than normal due to a passing typhoon, so eventually just sat and under a bamboo sun shelter and watched the sea.
It was so hot and humid that it was not so long before we needed the driving breeze again, so headed down the island to explore the small villages that lined the road. Only stopping briefly to eat at what felt like a family home the usual fare of rice, with water spinach, fish in chilli and fried pork. Further down the coast we past many fields of cassava, rice and machines that were shooting out straw and being collected by the rural workers, all of whom smiles and waved at us pass.
An Australian drove along side us at one point, asked us about seeing the royal wedding and exclaimed “well you missed one big event” before “well see ya later champ I gotta go!” before speeding ahead. A classic line.
We just cruised, through more villages, before hitting route 1 back to Hue, with rice drying on more of the road surface, than would allow cars to pass each other.
I briefly stopped to help a lady who had fallen on her bike piled over her head with grass but otherwise we took in the glorious Vietnamese country of endless paddy fields, and baking heat through our hair.
After this adventure we were not quite done and agreed to just keep driving. Fuel was just 21000vnd for a liter and with a motobike rental of just 100,000vnd (3 pounds) so this is a cheap day out. Back to the area where the tombs were supposed to be, we continued our hunt for the different “key sights” not really minding if we got there or not. We eventually found some, but continued when we saw we needed to pay. We had seen so many that paying didn’t seem worth it. Instead we continued past and down a dirt road and found a deserted and decrepit pagoda, falling apart with neglect and closed. Complete quiet in beautiful countryside. We sat and took in our surroundings.
Weheaded to a hill that overlooked the perfume river with a glorious view of it stretching out, sparkling under the golden sun. The chugging river dredgers over riding the peace, and continued along the river until we found a coffee shop en route in the middle of nowhere. We spoke our basic Vietnamese to the owner and hand gestured in communication until the sun was fading. We then got a glimpse of the huge pink sun and raced to the riverside to try and get a better view, but by that time it had disappeared into the haze. We hit town again at nightfall and then had a few drinks before bed.
We were exhausted the next day and spent it watching TV, having what we consider the travelling version of a Sunday at home. Sometimes you need to have a day off travelling. We picked up some pastries to eat in for lunch and Pate sandwiches for dinner ready for our 6 hour journey to Hoi An.