Hue, Vietnam (29th Nov 2007)
Our journey to Hue was about 4 hours on a tourist coach and instead of taking 8 hours on the High Van Pass Tour we decided it would be quicker and cheaper to just go through the big tunnel in the middle of the mountain rather than climb it for hours on end just to get a photo or two for up high. When we arrived, the usual touts appeared from various hotels and taxi companies, but again we had booked one night already and weren't going to just take off with some random guy claiming to be from a hotel. The bus took us very close to our hotel and were we very happy when we eventually realized were only had to walk a couple of blocks to get there. When we arrived at the hotel we were surprised to find out that we had got there before the Intrepid lot so we checked in and were again surprised at the quality of the hotel considering what we pay per night; we had a double room with en suite (hot water and a plughole that drains) and AC for $16 a night. Hue, was originally a stop off to break the long journey up to Hanoi, so we hadn't done much research on what we could do with our day and a half.
When the Intrepid gang arrived we had a few minutes before being whisked away on a cyclo to visit the main attraction of the city, the Royal Citadel which is an imperial city and the emperor's tombs. After another crazy bout with the local traffic we finally arrived at the Royal Citadel. Standing right in front of the Ngo Mon Gate (where we got dropped off) on the south of the complex is The Flag Tower which is also part of the royal Citadel. The flag can be seen from miles around as it stands proud of the ground a whopping 37M, to the locals and I guess most in Vietnam it is also known as the King Knight and is Vietnam's tallest flagpole. Our local guide told us that the reason is it constructed how it is in three tiers is to represent the natural order of earth, human beings and heaven?
The Royal Citadel complex has the characteristic of many strongholds and fortresses, for example it is surrounded by a wide zigzag moat, it has multiple layers of walls (for those of you who like facts the defensive all is 10 kilometre long, 7 meters high and 21 meters thick) canons which are impressive in their own right and it also has loads of gates that presumably were heavily guarded when it was in its full glory. The fort itself is massive and covers a huge land area meaning access is through10 gates for pedestrians and 2 gates for water for the people who used to live inside its walls. The actual Imperial Enclosure is encircled within another smaller wall (2.5 km long and 6 m wide) and was the reserved place for the private life of the kings and the royal members only that lived here. Inside the complex, there is also a large cluster of smaller constructions all of which were built so that the royals never had to leave the place to do anything, there was a place for the concubines, a temple, multiple living quarters for all ranks of people that work/served there and anything else that a royal might need, all built in the typical modest style that they seem to like (as if); it was head to toe gold and the deepest reds and blues that gave the impression of wealth an power.
Hue is similar to Hoi An in that there are tailor shops everywhere all crying out for your attention. Clothes can be made to measure within 24 hours. There are some lovely fabrics here too including silk of all colours. We always felt a bit dubious as to who actually makes these clothes (having visions of 11 year old children staying up all night in sweaty sewing rooms so we can have our exclusive items of clothing) many of the shops have the sewing factories next door where you can see the workers and their conditions, therefore able to decide for yourself if it is morally ok to order something. This did not stop Kara who had a slinky little dress made in a mere 5 hours or so...
One other little observation we have been able to make on our way through Vietnam so far is that tunes such as 'Jingle Bells', 'Happy Birthday' and 'Auld Langs Syne' are not understood as tunes for specific occasions as we understand them, rather as quite jiggy tunes to dance to, have on your mobile phone or as accompaniment to your vending cart. Another thing worth noting is our knowledge of Vietnamese language and how it has greatly improved over the last few days; Hello, thank you, go away, all roll of the tongue like something that doesn't roll easily, still, the locals appreciate (we think) the attempts!
Day two in Hue is when we would again be leaving our friends behind and making our own way to our next stop in Vietnam, but not until we had been on a day trip around the city and local areas to see some more of the sites. Waiting out the front of our hotel were a gang of guys on mopeds, most of with had the attitude that you might expect from a member of the Hells Angels, not a teen on a 100cc moped. It was a free for all regarding who's bike you got on so instinctively were both looked for a young guy on a new clean bike, as the last time we got on the 'motorbikes' the girl in our group who broke down was on the back of a 1970's looking machine with a guy that wouldn't look out of place in the stone age.
The bikes didn't take us anywhere that was really worth much of a special mention and the tour went pretty much like this: Stop one, a local meat and veg market which was no different to any other market. Stop two was just opposite the market where we got to meet a crazy old lady with bright red lips and jet black teeth and we were told she was like that from chewing on some kind of plant; anyway she didn't speak English but no words were needed as she showed us the old way of making rice from the grain to the plate and it was fascinating, probably the best part of the day. Stop three was at a place where we got to see a one armed woman making the traditional Vietnamese hats, again from start to finish, leaves to the finely decorated pointy hats. Stop four was one that neither of us knew was part of the tour and hadn't been previously mentioned, the bike winded through more streets, back lanes, and even off road to our next stop which was the Tomb of Tu Doc. The tomb was made before Emperor Tu Doc died and was used as another place for him to live in the acquired luxury he was used to. The guide told us quite a lot about Tu Doc and he was one of the most well know Emperors because he unlike all the others before and after him never fathered a child of his own even though he had over 100 concubines and ruled the longest of all the emperors (35 Years). The thing that makes this place of any real interest is the story behind it and not really the place itself; although it was a luxurious place it wasn't really anything really special or spectacular and after all in the end it was going to be a tomb not a home. Legend has it that since the king was buried with so much gold, jewels and money etc, the entire team of builders, servants, and everyone else involved in building the place and finally burying the body was beheaded so not to let anyone find out exactly where he was buried (over 2000 people). We stopped one final time before we left the group as we needed to depart earlier than them since we got the train before theirs. Our last stop was at a place on the side of the road where we watched a young girl roll the sticks of incense from a big pile of... something and coating it in some spices so it smelled good. A few of the group took turns at doing the rolling and all failed miserably and it's another example of something that looks so easy but in actual fact is really quite hard to do. The rest of the group headed off to do their Perfume River cruise and we took the motorbikes back to the hotel as apparently we didn't have time as we were getting an earlier train. As we had a couple of hours to kill we went for a bit of a wonder, had some dinner, played some pool and picked up some sandwiches for the train journey. Back at the hotel we made use of the free internet access and as we were waiting for our taxi the group arrived back so we could have joined them for the river cruise! At first we were quite annoyed but after talking to a few of the guys we realised we hadn't missed all that much so weren't too bothered. After a short ride to the train station and nearly an hour wait we boarded our overnight train to Hanoi where we were surprised to find a Buddhist Monk sharing a cabin with us. Tiredness soon got the better of us and before we knew it we were pulling into Hanoi train station in the early hours of the morning.