Friendly Hue

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Friday, December 9, 2005

Its a fairly short hop by bus from Hoi An to Hue. En route, we unexpectedly stop at Marble Mountain, a town that specialises in stone sculptures made from the local marble. The town is lined with endless shops and workshops all unimaginatively selling bits of stone. In the carpark, the sound of power-tools is deafening and a layer of white dust covers everything. I see ten foot tall Mother Marys and five ton Buddha's displayed alongside delicate bangles and mortar and pestles. Stone is not an ideal souvenir for the long term traveller to be carrying so we hop back into the bus looking forward to getting away from the hundreds of touts fruitlessly trying to sell stone-ware to uninterested travellers. The bus sets off after a delay of 10 minutes without a couple of Spaniards who inexplicably walk off up the mountain nearby.

At lunch time we stop in a typical roadside cafe and order a cup of tea each. The owner is surprisingly unfriendly, cursing vehemently when we ask for a top up of hot water. Some people are just not well suited to customer facing roles, we surmise. When we are leaving Rachel pays for the tea but the owner doesn't give her back all the change, muttering about the hot water top up we had. We argue with him and he gives back some, but not all of the change due. By this time everyone is back on the bus and I start to get a bit annoyed with this crazy restaurant owner. I grab my glass and Rachel takes a bottle of chilli sauce and we tell the owner we'll take these in lieu of the change. Swearing, he shells out the last 3000 Dong owed to us and we hand back his stuff. As we sit in the bus afterwards we are amazed at how unfriendly nearly all of the people in the tourist industry are. It is another of the annoying aspects of backpacking in Vietnam that mount up and get on your nerves. I hope Hue lives up to its reputation of being a friendly town.

We get to Hue and we are dropped off at Thai Binh hotel in the city centre where the owners kindly give out city maps and offer rooms at USD$10. Rachel is very tempted after inspecting one of the clean and tidy rooms but we have heard that there is a very friendly place even nearer the town centre where the rooms are USD$7. Throwing on our rucksacks we trudge along the wide city streets down past the mighty Perfume River to get to the backpacker area. Fifteen minutes later, we're at Canh Tien guesthouse which is at the end of a narrow alley off 66 Le Loi, the main road. The wide eyed manager/owner, Nguyen greets us with a warm smile and an enthusiastic welcome to his city. Rachel is shown a comfortable room in the brand new guest house and he agrees to let us have it for USD$6.

Nguyen, who looks a bit like the Rumplestiltskin character in a ladybird fairytail book I had when I was 6, recommends a restaurant round the corner for lunch. There, we feast on a variety of tasty rice cakes and special dumplings of prawns, tamarind, and taro washed down with green tea. The restaurant owners speak no English, and there is no English menu, so the meal, which costs us 50,000 Dong (about GBP2.00) works out surprisingly well for pot luck ordering.

Later on in the afternoon we meet Nguyen's dad who introduces himself: 'allow me to introduce myself, I am a professor of modern languages'. Its unusual to meet such distinguished academics in the heart of the backpacker world, but I guess people need to make money, and the tourist industry is the most sensible place to start since academic salaries are so low in Vietnam.

We meet frieds Gregg and Cat from Oz, who happen to be staying in the same guesthouse, and head out to another of Nguyen's recommended eateries in the evening. Ong Tau restaurant starts off promisingly when we meet two Westerners exiting who claim they've just eaten the best spring rolls in the whole of Vietnam. We head upstairs and find the decor somewhat stark, with its bare whitewashed walls, and flourescent lighting. However the meal of shrimps, eel, river fish, beef wrapped in mint, and spring rolls is exceptionally good and comes only to 200,000 Dong (GBP 7.00) for four of us. After dinner we head out for a drink. In an experimental mood, I order Vietnamese whisky, which disappointingly tastes like vanilla flavoured kerosene.

In the morning we take a motorcycle tour to the royal tombs, palaces, and pagodas in and around Hue. I hire a sparkling new Honda Wave 110 from Ngygen's sister for USD$5 for the day and Rachel hires a moto diver/guide for USD$7 for the day. Its the first time I've driven a motorcycle in six months and it feels great to be out on the road albeit with less than one fifth of the cc's I'm accustomed to. Manoeuvering through the frenetic traffic is scarey at first, but I soon get used to it, and following Rachel's driver takes the pressure off by not having to navigate. As we're bombing along in the countryside I glance down at the speedo to see we are only doing 50Km/hr - at least it feels fast.

First we visit Tu Hien pagoda, where we see monks chanting and praying in the misty gloom of the wooden temple complex. We drive up to bunker hill, an old American gun position with a commanding view over a bend in the perfume river. In the greyness of the morning the river merges with the sky and it feels cold and depressing.

A few kilometres further we stop at the royal tomb of Tu Duc, who was a poet and king of Vietnam from 1847 to 1883. His Mausoleum is spectacular, reminiscent of chinese palaces we have seen on our travels. We also see a wooden pavillion build in a peaceful spot beside a lake where the King used to write his romantic poetry. Despite the relatively steep entry fee of 55,000 Dong (GBP2.00) each, these buildings are not well cared for and are crumbling and leaking. As we wander around it is strange to imagine staunchly communist Vietnam as a country with a monarchy up until the 1930's.

We stop at another mausoleum for Khai Din, who ruled from 1916 to 1925. Built on a hillside, it has commanding views over the pine clad mountains around. The heavily European-influenced design is richly decorated with 3G murals made of broken crockery. Some interior walls are covered in concrete with marble paint effect. I am again surprised by how little care is given to these rare architectural and cultural treasures in Vietnam. I suppose it is partly because these imperialist remnants are still a politically incorrect reminder of the past.

In the afternoon we stop at Ho Quyen, an amphitheatre where the Vietnamese Royal family used to enjoy watching elephant and tiger fights. Since the elephant was much loved and revered, the tigers were doped beforehand and had their canines and claws removed prior to the duel. This ensured that although the bouts were lengthy and action packed, the elephant would invariably win. Its amazing to think that this amphitheatre was used right up until the early 1900's.

We take a look at Thien Mu Pagoda, close to the citadel in Hue. We see a rusting blue Austin car which transported a monk called Thich Quang Duc who burned himself to death in Saigon in protest at the President Diem's the government's inadequacies in 1963.

Back at Canh Tien guesthouse I reluctantly return the Honda and Rachel asks Nguyen where she can go to mass. Nguyen nearly explodes with excitement when he finds out that Rachel wants to go to his local church, reminding me of the scene in Rumplestiltskin where he puts his foot through the floorboards. He offers to join us, and suggests that we also visit a friend of his Sister Benedictine who runs a charity hospital near the citadel. He calls Sister Benedictine and arranges for us to visit the next day.

Tired of visiting all the temples, pagodas, and mausoleums we can't be bothered to find another good restaurant that night, and lazily head to Ong Tau again where the food is guaranteed tasty.

In the morning we hire a couple of bicycles from Nguyen's sister for 10,000 Dong each (GBP 0.40) and head out through the heavy rain to the Citadel in the centre of Hue old town. We are glad that we have brought our waterproof jackets, leggings, and boots as it feels freezing in the lashing rain. We are surprised at how the temperature seems to be dropping fast as we head North in Vietnam.

We park our bikes at the bike park in the Citadel and wander through the massive gates into the interior. The external brick and earthwork wall has a perimeter of about 10km and this houses two further enclosures, the next one being the Imperial City which reminds us of the scale and design of the Forbidden City in Beijing. We see carefully laid out palaces with red tiled roofs and sturdy ironwood structural columns. The expansive tiled coutyards between these buildings are scattered with puddles as the rain pours down noisily. Beyond the first 20 buildings or so, we find that many of the earlier structures have been levelled by bombs in the American war, and they are now no more than rough grassy spaces with the odd brick poking through the weeds. During the Vietnam War, the citadel was occupied by the North Vietnamese Army for a few days, before the American forces bombed them out, destroying most of the 150 Royal buildings in the complex.

Its getting near our 2pm appointment with Mother Surperior, so we jump back on our push bikes and ride down the banks of the Perfume River to Kim Long Charity Clinic. Rachel is lagging behind, at first I think she's nervous of meeting the nun, but soon I discover her front brake is stuck on. After some selective banging with a stone I find in the verge we're back on the road again.

As we get the hospital, Sister Benedictine MD is standing outside to meet us. She ushers us in with a kindly smile and describes the work that she carries out here. They are open three days a week for free medical consultation, and every day they are open they see over 200 poor and needy patients. They have a dispensary for drugs which are free for patients.

As well as consultations, the clinic specialises in helping HIV/AIDS patients in the region - of which there are over 80. They provide help for the patients in their homes and for their families. We meet a young lady who's husband died of AIDS, she is now living with her baby in the grounds of the clinic. We also meet two orphan sisters who lost both their parents to AIDS. Sister Benedictine asks the younger one, who is about 6, to sing us a song. She sings her melancholy little song and we learn that it is a song for her parents so that she doesn't forget them. We are very touched.

We see a new building that was erected using funding of USD$80,000 provided by an American medical doctor. Downstairs is a vast waiting room, consultation rooms, and dispensary. Upstairs is a large conference hall for holding meetings, and then on the top floor are rooms for the few people who stay in the clinic compound - including the little orphan girls. Rachel inquisitively looks into their spartan room with little metal beds and just a few toys tidied away carefully on the shelf.

We part company with Sr M Benedictine Nguyen Thi Dien MD, marvelling that she has dedicated her life to helping the local people in such a meaningful way.

After returning the bikes to our guesthouse we call a taxi and head to the train station to get the 16:35 sleeper train to Hanoi scheduled to arrive at 04:30 the next morning. As we sit in the waiting room we agree that Hue has been the most friendly place we've visited in Vietnam so far. We hope that this trend continues as we head north to Hanoi.
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