Arriving in Hue was a pleasant change from the cramped chaos of Hanoi. As my sleeper bus rumbled into town in the early hours of the morning, the bright sunshine and almost coastal vibe I got from the city washed away my memories of the drenching rains of Ninh Binh and the miserable night on the sleeper bus. I only had plans to stay in Hue for 2 nights, and after ditching my bags at the Hue backpackers hostel I set off with Doug and Sophie to explore some of the city in the sweltering heat.
Hue is famous for being the capital of the Nguyen emperors in pre-communist Vietnam, and has a ridiculous Russian doll situation going on with it’s citadel within a citadel within a citadel. We planned to head there in the afternoon and spent the morning exploring some markets and then headed for some lunch. We passed a British guy, Dan, who we had met on the bus, he recommended a place he just ate at around the corner, but warned us there were two places with the same name. This was a bit of an understatement, when we got there they didn’t just have same name, it was two restaurants with the same name and identical signs and advertisements hanging on the front and competing touts from both places a assaulted us with menus and cries of “you eat here!”. We paniced and couldn’t remember if Dan had told us to go to the first or second place and ended up getting dragged into the second one (we later found out we were supposed to go to the first one). After giving our orders to a strange stout woman she started asking where we were from and then got a little excited by Doug who said he was Canadian. This became a theme in my travels with Doug, as he is Chinese-canadian and quite tanned, so Vietnamese people always reply with “nooooo, where you really from? You look Vietnamese”, to which he grudgingly replies “Chinese”. This particular lady wasn’t content to just leave it there though. She seriously told Doug, “You be carful here, you fucking machine!” and then hobbled away as we all sat thinking “did she just say what I think she did?”. The three of us agreed she did.
When the lady came back she had a big folder of small silk paintings that she began forcing on us. This ended up being the theme of Hue, you couldn’t eat a meal without some artist trying to sell you his paintings. These ones in particular were supposedly done by orphans and she kept harassing us until we agreed to buy one each. I’m sure it was all a scam and there were no orphans, but I liked one of the paintings and paid $2 for it (which was probably double what it was worth).
When we finally got to the citadel, which first involved escaping all the cyclo drivers trying to take us to the “better” sites of he city, we joined up with German couple, Florence and Borris, who we met at the entrance and decided to split the cost of hiring an English speaking guide. While waiting for Borris to arrange the guide we amused ourselves taking photos of all the koi in the large pools by the entrance. Sophie bought some fish food and dropped a handful in and the fish went ballistic, swarming like graduate students to a free lunch till there were so many fish they were literally layered two or three deep.
The tour was quite interesting, hearing about the old emperors and their fall to the french and then the communists. In the very centre their were two citadels within citadels ad infintum, one for the emperor and one a harem for his many wives. The only people allowed in were eunuch servants, lest anyone else dally with one of the emperor’s wives. One of the emperors had had over 200 wives, yet never managed to concede an heir. After the citadel we went to the market and with some shrewd haggling Doug and I bought ridiculous matching Tin Tin in Vietnam t-shirts to wear on our planned bike ride to Hoi An in a couple of days.
The next day we got up at 6am to do a tour to the infamous demilitarized zone (DMZ) which separated north and south Vietnam in the war. The tour wasn’t particularly great as we spent nearly all our Ike sitting on a bus driving the long distances to the places, then very little time there. The highlight was walking through some of the Vinh Moc tunnels, a cramped warren of tunnels used by the Viet Cong ti funnel supplies south and local families who lived underground to escape aggressive American bombing.
Another interesting part was our guide, who was a young evangelical patriot of Ho Chi Minh and the communist Vietnamese liberation army. Rumor had it in a tour a few days before ours he had been a little to enthusiastic in slandering America and was asked to tone it down by some American tourists. Also a lot of what he said sounded like it was quoted from the lonely planet, and a lot of his statistics and information were just plain made up. Luckily Dan, who joined Sophie Doug and myself on the tour, had studied history at university and had written his thesis on the Vietnam war, so he pointed out some of the more inaccurate “facts” to us. The patriotic exaggeration continued in a war museum we visited, where war photographs had captions slandering the “cowardly imperialist invaders and the Saigon puppet regime” and praising the “brave soldiers of the liberation army”. The photo below gives an example.
During the tour we also stopped in at a small local village and got swarmed by super cute children. I whipped out my SLR and web crazy snapping shots of their antics, it felt kind of exploitative just sticking a big camera in their faces, but that was sort of the point of the stop. There was one particularly funny kid who we dubbed Bono, he came strutting out in a little purple buttonup with slicked up hair, wrap around sunglasses and holding a microphone. He just kind of posed for a second, looked at us contemptuously, the strutted back off to resume his karaoke or whatever his was doing.
One the long ride back to Hue I met some of the other people from our group. There was a welsh pair, Owen and Chantel, and a Californian called Nando (as in Nando’s chicken as he enthusiastically told us). It also turned out to be Dan’s birthday, so we went back to the hostel for some celebrations, though Doug, Sophie and I turned in pretty early because we were hiring motorbikes to head down to Hoi An the next morning, and I had never ridden a motorbike before (excluding a peewee 50 on a cousins farm when I was around 8), and the roads in Vietnam are ridiculously anarchic, so not a good idea to do tired or hung over.