On the Saturday we were picked up by 12 motorbikes and headed off into the country side. It was my first time on a bike but it was great fun and within seconds I felt perfectly safe as we entered the city centre and swerved in and out, dodging the odd car and the stream of other bikes all darting around randomly, each to their own, honking their horns as they went. After leaving the city we drove along narrow dirt tracks in the middle of nowhere (meant really for locals), with paddy fields either side until we found a small market. As we crossed the little bridge which seemed to be the locals meeting point, Ellen had her fortune told by the village fortune teller who was obviously a stunner in her day (which made up for her poor prediction skills!). She had such an interesting face, complete with penciled on eyebrows and perfectly formed wrinkles and smile lines which probably told a real story. She had married a young American years ago, moved to the US and shortly after was widowed, where upon she quickly returned back to Vietnam, fearing that she would not fit in with the American way of life. At the market (which is all there seemed to be in the village) we were greeted by a cow sunning itself and enjoying the company (it was not tied up). Within the tiny market there was an array of herbs and spices, salads and fruits - all of which were sold by women sat cross legged on cloths on the floor. The fish thrashed around in the half empty bowls placed on the mud and the local butcher displayed her four chunks of meat on an oversized empty table. It was fascinating - such a hive of activity in the middle of nowhere, reached only by a dirt track and with no evidence of village huts or houses.The next port of call on this already fantastic day was the conical hat lady's house which was in a white washed village which contained not a single street. The "road" we traveled along was about a meter wide and twisted and turned around the house walls - thankfully we didn't meet anyone coming in the opposite direction! The lady we met had been making hats since she became an orphan at aged 8 and is said to be the best in the whole of the country - despite only having one proper arm. To make the hats she sits on the floor and uses her feet to assist her. There are typically 7 rings to a hat (7 symbolizing the number of times that Buddha was reincarnated as well as also being a lucky number). There are two layers of bamboo on the hat, between these she inserts a layer of newspaper which she has precut with the shapes of people and animals. Thus telling a story when the hat is held up to the light and the sun shines through. The bamboo used is flattened by heating it on an old American bomb shell from the war upon a stove.Shortly after, we had a quick stop at the incense maker where we had a go at making them ourselves. It was actually very difficult to coat the sticks in the putty substance which was made from sand, resin, coal, sawdust and water. Next on our busy trip was the orphanage. To get there we crossed a very high rickety old bridge, left behind by the Americans. To do this we had to dismount from our bikes and basically watch our footing as there was lots of slats missing and those that were there were only nailed down at one end - luckily there was one piece of string to hold onto! The orphanage was in the country and was run by female Buddhist nuns who all wore grey tunics and had shaven heads. We gave the nuns notebooks, pens and 10kg bags of rice which we had bought in Hue - it would have been unfair of us to try and distribute these fairly amongst the 240 children. When we arrived the children were having a bath - 10 to a tub. We walked through and were shown the cold sterile looking rooms where the children slept. These consisted of wooden bunk beds and metal slatted cots which were the length of the room (probably capable of sleeping 30 children in each one). There was no bedding, pillows, cuddly toys or pictures in these rooms - the children literally slept on the bare hard boards. When I entered the room with the children, I was greeted by an older nun that shoved a child in my face. All she kept saying was "he's blind, his eyes" repeatedly. I did not know how to react; he needed constant care and was unable to play with the others. As I saw the other children I tried to smile my hardest, knowing this was our common language and could not be misinterpreted as anything but friendly. But I found it more and more difficult. I just wanted to cry. They seemed so happy and innocent but they had nothing. Had they known their parents, were they still sad? What had they seen in their life and what had they gone through? There is so much more to the world outside the walls of this confine, but this would be their life for the next 18 years until they had to leave - then what, I wondered? Did they get visitors every week? Were they like us - spend 5 minutes looking, snapping their faces, wave and then leave - off into the distance on their bikes, with their fancy watches and cameras, never to return? Did they ever think "pick me, pick me?” Before entering the room, which contained the older children who were victims of Agent Orange, we took some pictures. I don't know if this was the right thing to do but they loved seeing themselves - with no mirrors in the building I guess this was a novelty and they kept gesturing for us to take more. Downstairs it was even more sad as a couple of the teenagers were in wheel chairs. They were older and wiser and possibly mentally scarred. I felt bad that everybody left this room within seconds - it was very disturbing. As they were older they just stared at us and we had no way to play with them and make them laugh - I think we just stared back.As we walked past the hall downstairs, we could see about 50 children walking round and round, heads bowed chanting (praying for the souls of the dead to enter nirvana). This strange, unusual noise was relentless and very upsetting - I can still hear the sound now. These children had this to look forward to for the next 18 years - they should be playing, fighting, dressing up or making up stories - not this. I couldn't talk afterwards and everyone else was the same. Back on the bike I cried under my sunglasses and remained quiet. There are certain things I will remember for ever - seeing those children chanting and the sadness I felt inside will always remain with me.I was glad when we arrived at the nunnery, an hour later, and there were no children about. We were fed a very simple meal (containing no "aphrodisiacs" i.e. meat and garlic, in line with the Buddhist nuns’ way of life) followed by a siesta. Shortly after this the heavens opened and the winds blew. Straight away the nuns brought out buckets and large tubs to collect the rain. They ran about like ants, each with their own domain and job to do. As the bins reached the top in only a very short space of time they set about transferring water to smaller tubs and carrying these across the courtyard. It was amazing to watch and not once did they stop and talk, argue or rest they just carried on whilst the rain poured down the muddy path like a raging river, carrying along frogs, toads and shoes as it flowed. Before we knew it we were marooned on the step and were unable to cross back to the others who were in a different room. Phoung explained to us that this was fantastic - it hadn't rained in 6 months! Once it finally subsided we drove away passing fallen trees and women scurrying around sweeping the roads of leaves - everyone was doing their bit.Next stop was a King's mausoleum - to this day his body hasn't been found. Whilst he was alive it was predicted that his body would be exhumed after his death so he ordered the guards, who would bury him, to place his body in an obscure place - he then had them beheaded. Today there have been many attempts to dig up his body and hence his wealth but each person has failed.
One of our final stops was to the US bunkers which overlook the Perfume River (so called because the frangipani trees blow their fragrant blossom over the river in the summer). It's amazing that these are still here. Later we visited the Thien Pagoda where we saw the Austin car driven by the monk, Thich Quang Duc, who is famous for setting himself alight in 1963 in protest against the communist governments anti Buddhist rules. The day finally ended with a trip down the river and a cyclo tour round Hue once we returned.