We got off the train in Hue (pronounced “Whey”) and walked the mile or so to the street that the hotel we were hoping to stay in was. We checked in, ate at a little breakfast place across the street then walked to the Citadel – a walled part of the city which also has the Imperial Enclosure where the emperor lived back in the day. So you have a fortress within a fortress. There’s even a moat.
On the way I saw the centipede which was about 8” long. When I pointed it out to Tina, people came over and freaked out. I got a stick and tried to get it off the sidewalk and into the bushes but some man grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let me. I tried to explain that I wanted to help it, but he didn’t want me near it. Then one of his buddies came over and they got two sicks and, well, I’ll let the video tell the rest…
Along the sidewalk near the Citadel walls, people had set up an informal market by laying out some pottery, old clothes, fish tanks, and other random stuff – it was more like a junk sale. However, there was some stuff from the War for sale, too. Canteens, flashlights, helmets. But the most disturbing items were dog tags. There must have been about a thousand different tags all lined up for sale – some were for Vietnamese solders, but most were American. Tina wondered what would happen if someone who lost a son in the War came over to visit and saw his tag for sale.
The Enclosure was filled with courtyards, pagodas, and temple complexes. And in contrast to China, the restoration kept everything looking old. And because of how humid it is, most buildings had a patina of mold which added to the romance and mystery, It also made for some darn slippery walkways.
After wandering around the Enclosure, but still in the Citadel, we started walking to a street that we were told had some good street food. We found one of them, but the food didn’t look that good and no one was eating – which was odd considering it was around 1pm. We found a place that was kinda busy and got a table outside and ordered banh khoai – a fried rice and egg cake that is a Hue specialty. They came with pork, cilantro, bean sprouts and on the side we had lime, chills and a killer peanut and sesame seed sauce. Fantastic.
We headed to some lakes which ended up being overrun with lilly pads and people in little boats casting nets. The boats were tiny and the fisherman rowed with little paddles in each hand. But not rowing in the classic sense – it was more like a doggy-paddling motion. It reminded me of Gullum from the animated version of The Hobbit.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a bakery and got some yummies, then headed to a pagoda along the river. It was closed so we sat on the steps and ate our snacks while some rain fell and bats flew around our heads. But the day was only going to get better: we stopped by a cheap Indian place for dinner. Turned out to be the best Indian food we’ve had since leaving SF.
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Hue has several interesting temples and tombs in the surrounding hills, so we rented a motorbike and set off for a full day exploring. Tina was a unsure if I knew how to drive a motorbike and how I would handle driving through the traffic. But since it’s standard practice here to rent you the bike with an empty tank, I did a solo test run to the gas station to prove I knew what I was doing. Or at least give her the impression I did.
I’ll admit I was a bit wobbly at first. And I might have rounded the first corner a bit too fast, but I made it to the station just fine. After putting about three litters in the tank, I came back to the hotel and picked up Tina. We circled around the block, made it through the round about and headed out of town.
The road started off pretty wide – except for a sudden narrow bit over a bridge where I had my feet down and was ‘walking’ the bike across because it was too crowded to drive. And driving through the traffic wasn’t too bad because we didn’t have to make any turns or anything yet. I say “through” because even though we are going straight, there were other bikes cutting across or driving on the wrong side. So there isn’t a lot of driving “with” traffic.
The LP had a pretty basic map of the surrounds, so we bought one from the hotel that was marginally better. We could fold it up, making it easier to use then the guidebook map, and it had a few more street names.
We missed the first turn and had to make a u-turn back to the road we thought was the right way. According to the legend on the map, there was major roads and normal roads. “Normal” turned out to mean anything from a two lane road to a dirt path going through a village. The path kept going through some files, and even past a huge cemetery on a hill. We even passed a temple in ruins that wasn’t on any of the maps. It was beautiful – partially overgrown with grass and weeds. There were even cows grazing on some of the terraces.
At one point, while looking for the Tomb of Minh Mang, we got pretty lost and ended up driving down this rocky dirt path heading in the jungle. We passed a little stand where a woman came out of nowhere yelling, Coffee? Coffee? A few minutes further down the road, it became too muddy to continue – it had been raining the past few days – so we turned around and we back to the main road.
We tried another side road that someone suggested to us that also got muddy – and somehow took us past that coffee shop back to where it had been really muddy. So I slowed down a bit and we went through the mud and crossed a river which matched up with the map. Then the dirt trail got really narrow and took us through a village. There were chickens and pigs and little kids in the road who where thrilled to see two foreigners on a bike riding around – for the record, I assume the kids were more excited then the chickens or pigs.
We still weren’t sure where to go next so we would ask “Minh Mang?” to anyone we passed. They would usually just point or gesture to make the next left or whatever. Then the trail got even narrower and we were riding through what looked like people’s yards. Then the trail opened up onto a huge expanse of rice paddies. We turned along the paddies and road for a while until coming upon a paved road. I stopped the bike to see where we might be on the map. At that point a woman rode up to us and asked us where we were going. Minh Mang, I said. She told us she lived close to there and was on her way home fro Hue, and to follow her.
We turned down the paved road as I made out some landmarks for the way back. At this point we were riding along a river climbing up into the hillside. After a bit, she slowed down and gestured for us to pull up next to her. We started having a conversation about where we were from, where we had been in Vietnam, etc. She then sped up and we followed.
A little later she slowed and we came along side and she said she’d like to show us around Minh Mang then have us over for dinner. Now, I wanted to trust her, and I wanted the experience of dining with her family. But I am so jaded by the constant scamming here that I didn’t want to take the chance.
As I told this story to someone later, they mentioned that this kind of invite was common, with the outcome being that the guest would be told the family didn’t have any food at home, and they should go out to eat. Well, you can guess who get stuck with the huge bill. This is also how the tea house scams in China work.
So, I politely said we were meeting friends that night and that would couldn’t make dinner. She responded by just looking at me with no expression. At that moment the road forked and she went off the right. I pointed to the left and she nodded once, then looked away. I thought it odd that she would make the invite right when her chance of getting out was coming up. I then felt bad for all the honest people who don’t get trusted because of things like this.
We got to Minh Mang, parked the bike where a shopkeeper would “watch it good” for me and we made the hike out to the tomb. The trail took us by a banana plantation lined with barefoot kids selling bananas. We were serenaded a chorus of little lyrical voices, singing “You buy baaanaaaaaana? Madam? You buy baaanaaaaana?”
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By the time we arrived back in Hue, it was dusk. There was one more pagoda I wanted to see. Tina, however, had enough of the traffic so I dropped her off at the hotel and promised to be back in an hour. I took off down the road and blended in with the traffic, assimilating as best I could to the culture of the Vietnamese motorbiker. I honked, darted, ran lights, sped. It was glorious.
The pagoda was next to the highway, which followed the river. It was dark now, but still pretty warm. The highway was pretty empty save a few locals who slowed to say “hi” as they passed. I was cruising along at a pretty fast pace not worrying about seeing the pagoda since it was probably closed. I was now just riding to ride. I think I should do that more often.