I'm now in Hue (pronounced Hway), which was Vietnam's capital city and home of the Royal Family until 1945, when Ho Chi Minh declared independance from France. At this time the last King surrendered his powers and soon after moved abroad, thereby ending Vietnam's royal dynasty forever. I'm taking the time to update tonight because it may be a few days before I get the chance to get online again. Tomorrow morning we are visiting the Imperial Citadel, before we take a mid afternoon train to Hanoi, scheduled to take 14 hours. This is a journey I'm really not looking forward to as we cannot check into our hotel on arrival even though we arrive at 4.10am. This is something I am really not happy about. I can't see why Intrepid can't book us another night at the hotel as it would only add around 10 pound (hotels are cheap) to the overall cost. I've no idea what we're going to do at that time in the morning - the sun doesn't even come up till 6.30am!
The last time I updated we were about to depart Hoi An on our scenic private bus journey to Hue. Our first stop was the Marble Mountains - a series of karst rock formations I had driven to the previous day on my moped. We ascended one of the mountains which housed a series of Buddhist temples, pagodas and caves. Even though we weren't that high up we got a nice view as the surrounding land was so flat. We couldn't enter any of the temples as they were closed, but I've seen inside plenty anyway! At least the architecture of them is a bit different here in Vietnam so it is a slight change seeing them from the outside! The highlight of the Marble Mountains was visiting the caves. They weren't completely covered, but the holes in the ceiling let in beautiful rays of light which lit up the Buddha carvings. It was quite stunning, but not something I could capture on camera.
On exiting the caves our tour guide Dat was approached by some local girls who bizarrely requested a photograph with me! It is likely that the girls were from an isolated rural area and so had never seen many white people before! Its hard for me to comprehend how this could be as everywhere I've travelled there have been plenty of other white tourists about, but apparently this is common in Vietnam. Everyone was entertained as I posed for pictures and I felt like a bit of a film star! The girls were all 18 years old, though they looked younger, and none of them spoke any English. Asian people age really well and most look a lot younger than they are.
After the caves we drove through the port city of Danang and headed up into the hills to cross the Hai Van Pass. Just north of Danang the weather disappointingly took a turn for the worse, and as we approached the 500m summit of the road we disappeared into thick cloud. The cloud remained until we descended almost to sea level on the other side. I was disappointed we didn't see much of the scenery as the one thing my Asia tour has lacked so far is natural beauty. There should be plenty of that in Laos at least, but it was still annoying as the pass looked so beautiful on Top Gear. We stopped for coffees on the other side at a beach restaurant and despite having only travelled around 70km from Hoi An, it was noticably colder. The Hai Van Pass provides a climate zone border between north and south Vietnam, and here in the north is much cooler and wetter than the south. Today it can't have been much above 20C, which feels cold when you're used to 30 plus! It was another 1.5 hours from our coffee stop to Hue, but it felt longer as I spent most of the journey with my heart in my mouth over some of the shocking overtaking on display. Luckily there was very little traffic on the Hai Van Pass because they recently opened a tunnel, but once we rejoined the main road it was chaotic. It seems to be OK to overtake anywhere in Vietnam so long as you blast your horn to the hilt! We were coming round blind corners on hillsides to be confronted by trucks and busses in our lane coming the other way - I can't believe we didn't hit anything!
Soon after we arrived we headed off into town for a Royal Banquet! On arrival at the restaurant we all got dressed up in royal robes and were seated at a royal table for a buffet dinner. The whole time we ate a royal band serenaded us and a woman gave us talks about Central Vietnamese folk music. I thought the whole occassion was a bit tacky, and the food was awful, but it was an experience and a bit of fun.
Hue wasn't exactly what I was expecting. I was prepared for another small and quaint old town, much like Hoi An, but its much more modern and busier than I pictured. We haven't spent much time in the town itself though as we spent today having a motorbike tour of the surrounding area. 12 of us opted for the tour, and our drivers arrived at 8.30am to pick us up, in spite of the steady rain. Hue is the wettest place in Vietnam, and even though now is dry season, its been pretty wet on and off today. Our drivers were prepared with heavy duty ponchos though so I stayed dry even when it was raining. The tour took us everywhere. First through the chaotic city streets at rush hour and then on down narrow country lanes. We were passing through paddy fields and local markets on a twisty route. At the start I was holding on for my life as we went over some bad bumps, but I soon got used to being a passenger. After about 20 minutes we made a stop at a village market for a closer look. There was a nice covered bridge there, as well as a small museum in which a 75 year old woman demostrated some physically demanding local farming techniques. Some of the girls then had their palms read by the local fortune teller before we set off back into the city. We rarely went down any main roads as the drivers weaved their way down narrow back streets. Pedestrians and cyclists had to be quick to get out of our way as we sped by! We next visited the house of a one armed woman who made conical hats. She showed us how it was done before offering us the chance to buy one - I would have if they weren't so awkward to carry about. Our tour continued to an incense makers, before we headed off onto narrow dirt tracks and up to a viewpoint at the top of a hill. The lanes we were using were more like public footpaths than roads but it was great fun. Our final morning stop was at the grand tomb of a former king, where our guide told us a bit about the history of the Vietnam Royal Family. The exact location of the King's coffin is kept a secret, and back in the 1800s it was a requirement for whoever buried the King to kill themselves to safeguard this information.
One thing I really like about Intrepid Travel is that the excursions they arrange really do support local businesses. Some of the places we saw really were off the tourist trail and you really get a feel for how your money is helping to support local people. For lunch we stopped at a Buddhist nunnery, where they had laid out a vegetarian buffet for us. We had little contact with any of the nuns themselves, but around the end of our meal one of the elders came down and force fed some people some of the leftovers! After lunch they let us nap for one hour before it was back on the bikes for a short trip to the Perfume River - so called because the herbs that grow within it apparently offer a nice smell. At this point we boarded a boat for yet another boat trip, but it was only short one as we soon got off to explore a nice pagoda. We saw young Buddhist monks picking off leaves in preperation for Tet (lunar new year). They kill all flowers so that they have to start afresh come the dawning of Tet. The monastery also housed the car which was used by a self immolating Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in Saigon in protest over the South Vietnam Regime back in the 1960s. After a tour round the pagoda it was back on the boat and then back on the motorbikes for one last time. We certainly covered some miles today on the bikes and saw plenty of the Hue countryside. All in all it has probably been my favourite day in Vietnam despite the lousy weather and I'm really glad they didn't postpone it.
Today in case you didn't know is Australia Day, which commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet into Sydney Cove in 1788. As the bulk of our tour group (and it seems the majority of travellers in Asia at the moment) are Australian we are going out to celebrate in true Aussie style - which will no doubt involve lots of alcohol! I can envisage a few sore heads when we meet in the morning for the Citadel tour. Anyway now I must get back to watching the tennis! Murray is playing Nadal in the Australian Open quarters finals and I watched him win the first set 6-3. He's just gone on to take the 2nd 7-2 on a tie break and is now one set away from a place in the semis. He's been playing some great stuff all week. Come on Andy!