We boarded the coach with some trepidation and discovered that our ‘bed’ for the night was a narrow strip of passageway sandwiched between the first two lines of two storey bunks. There were three lines of bunks in this bus and so two passageways. It meant that in normal circumstances no one had to sleep directly next to a stranger, but our situation made this rather more intimate! The driver laid down a couple of thin and stained foam mattresses for us to lie on and we shuffled ourselves into position – flat on our backs, wedged tightly between the lower bunks and with our knees up as there was not enough room to store our small rucksacks AND stretch out our legs. A Chilean man who was in the ‘cave’ behind me (at the very back of the bus, the beds were crammed together to fit more people in and the bunks overhead formed a dark cavern for those below) kindly offered to store my shoes for me so I had more room. Whenever anyone near the back of the bus needed to get on or off, they had to scramble like a monkey over the network of ladders so that they didn’t tread on us. My neighbours were very nice and didn’t appear to mind too much about my proximity, seeming to feel sorry for us more than anything! The coach finally pulled out of the station, and our 17 hour journey commenced! It was a rough night, where we slept in fits and starts, waking at intervals feeling stiff and wriggling to alter our positions in the confined space. At one point we went over a big dip in the road causing the whole of the bus to give a massive jolt and we heard the Chilean man cry out as he bumped his head on the ceiling.
Luckily, by the time the bus stopped for breakfast at 9am the next morning, enough people had got off for us to move into bunks, although Luke inexplicably decided he preferred to stay in his uncomfortable nest in the corridor – possibly as some sort of self-punishment? The ‘service station’ consisted of a large, open barn with rows of plastic tables and chairs and a small canteen at one end. We queued up with the rest and got our bowls of hot chicken pho – delicious noodle and spring onion soup to which we added lime and chilli. The bathroom area was interesting – it was in a sunny yard, where shoots of plants sprouted from the cracks in the concrete, and along one side were cubicles of squat toilets. There was no running water, so the loos were flushed with basins of water scooped from a large tub outside. The floor could also be ‘flushed’ and there was a drainage hole at the back. Everyone performed their duties properly and the result was that the toilets were very clean and smelt pleasantly of soap! (Much better than those at Haiphong coach station where the toilet attendant sat reclining on an armchair lazily beckoning for money with one hand. As I paddled my way through the quagmire they had assigned as toilet, I felt like asking for my money back.) In a sheltered part of the yard, there were two large pools of water about waist deep dotted with plastic tubs, and the passengers clustered around these scooping out water to wash faces and brush teeth.
After everyone was fed and had performed their ablutions, we reluctantly got back onto the bus. Shortly after we set off we realised our Chilean friend, Christophe, was not on board, yet all his luggage was. Luke hurried to tell the bus driver, who didn’t seem to take much notice of his urgency and refused to turn back. He took a phone call and told Luke to sit back down. Thankfully, Christophe had managed to get onto another bus, which caught us up at the next stop. The driver knew all about this, so hadn’t been planning to desert him as we had originally thought! The more we got to know Christophe over the ensuing weeks, the more we began to realise that what had seemed like an unfortunate incident that could happen to anyone, was actually quite in keeping with his character. Lovable and kind-hearted, you couldn’t help but warm to him, though he did seem to attract misfortune through his blithely optimistic, happy-go-lucky nature. He appeared to bumble around the world, charming everyone with his enthusiastic conversation and slapstick episodes of clumsiness.
The journey dragged on and on, but the scenery was beautiful. We passed vivid green rice paddies and people in conical hats working in the fields. Several hour after our projected arrival time, we arrived in Hue (pronounced Hway). As we stepped out of the bus we were struck by the blazing heat of the afternoon sun. Luke was in his element, but I was melting!
We said goodbye to Christophe and headed our separate ways to our accommodation. As it was Valentine’s Day, I had chosen the aptly named Valentine Hotel, partly because it made me chuckle but also because it was cheap and well reviewed. The staff were incredibly welcoming and in honour of their hotel’s name day, they gave us each a free beer wrapped in wool and a crocheted heart. We later found out that their extravagant friendliness had been helped along a little by the Tet celebrations as they were all a little drunk!
We were both stinky and sweaty after our long, cramped journey, so the first thing we did was have a much needed shower, before going out for an early dinner. As we walked through the streets, it felt like there was a constant stream of people asking us to hire motorbikes, cyclos or to take a boat trip and we had so little energy left to deflect them that after eating, we turned in for an early night.
The next morning we went for a wander along the banks of the Huong, or Perfume River, which was much cleaner and more pleasant to look at than the one in Haiphong! It was another very hot day, and we hadn’t been out for long before I started to feel dizzy and strange, so we returned to the hotel and I had a lie down and drank a rehydration drink. I remembered the cooling neck scarves my mum had given to us which we had not needed until now and left one to soak in cold water. Once I had recuperated, we had an excellent lunch at a small café called Gecko, which turned out to be the best meal we had had in Vietnam so far. Opposite the café, an elderly lady with wonderful fine bone structure was sat on a step packing salad leaves. Luke drew a picture of her and the waiter asked if he would do his portrait too. He was a very good model, evidently taking the whole thing very seriously!
After lunch, we decided to visit a famous pagoda that was on our map, but we hadn’t realised quite how far away it was. We navigated busy roads and crowds of people buying flowers for the lunar new year. The streets were lined with vendors and row upon row of huge tubs of bright yellow chrysanthemums, so that there was a gorgeous sunny sea of blossoms. They all looked the same to me, so I don’t know how people chose who to buy from. Now and then there would be dahlias, bonsai trees and apricot trees (hoa mai) with their delicate yellow blossoms. The latter are like the Tet equivalent of a Christmas tree and they are gorgeously pretty and very expensive. Luckily, once you have spent your hard earned cash on one of these beautiful trees, you can rest assured you will have a successful year ahead as they are a symbol of prosperity and well-being for your family! Eager customers, including several monks and nuns, were strapping these enormous pots on to the back of their motorbikes and they would wobble precariously as they zoomed off. In the north of Vietnam, the peach tree with its pink blooms is very popular. The hoa mai cannot grow further north as it is too cold, but the peach tree is hardy and symbolises strength. One legend tells of how the land was terrorised by evil spirits. The two powerful deities who protected the people lived in an enormous peach tree, and the mere sight of this tree was enough to scare away the demons. However, the deities had to visit the Jade Emperor at the lunar new year and so people started the tradition of placing branches of the peach tree outside their houses to keep the baddies at bay. Another popular Tet tree is the kumquat. Representing wealth and happiness for the family, an ideal specimen has mature dark green leaves, buds, and both green and ripe orange fruits.
In the ornamental park by the river, there was a large display of bonsai trees and people were out in their best clothes having their photos taken. Bonsai trees always instil in me a feeling of guilt, as I remember the two that perished under my care. I don’t know what the knack is, but I certainly haven’t got it!
We entered an area of scrubby parkland just outside the walls of the Imperial City, and asked an elderly man on duty in his cabin how far it was to the pagoda, by way of the pointing and waving technique. He had evidently been drinking and was theatrically funny as he made a show of producing his glasses and peering at our map. With a merry grin, he indicated that we had a long walk ahead, then gave us a high five and a whoop as we left!
It was indeed a long way and after passing a row of grand Christian monasteries and convents, we caved in and took a xe om taxi (a motorbike) to the pagoda. It was in a secluded area, right next to the river, on a small hill. Thien Mu Pagoda is one of the great symbols of Hue, but we had arrived so late that the sun was already sinking low in the sky. A steep flight of stone steps led up to the pagoda and at the top of the steps were four tall pillars. The pagoda itself was octagonal in shape and had seven layers. Each storey was quite significantly smaller than the last, and this tapering perspective gave the impression that it was taller than its 21m. The current pagoda was built in 1844, but construction of religious buildings on this site first began in 1601, on command of the lord Nguyen Hoang. Legend tells of an old woman who made a prophecy about a lord who would build a pagoda on the hill, before disappearing. Naturally, hearing of this, Nguyen Hoang thought this was a jolly good idea. Over the years, much destruction and rebuilding has taken place, but it has certainly retained a certain charm of ancient grandeur.
On either side of the pagoda were two pavilions – one housed an impressively large bell (supposedly when it is tolled it can be heard 10km away) and the other a stone stele mounted on an enormous tortoise. We then meandered through to the Buddhist temple complex which lay behind the pagoda. The gardens were beautiful, a fragrant smell hung in the air and it was so peaceful away from the hustle of the city. Vibrant yellow Tet chrysanthemums flanked the doorway and the magnolia trees that edged the path thrust their stubby fingers to the sky, proudly showing off their new leaves that had just started to poke through from the tips like flames of candles. Around the back of the temple we saw some young teenage monks playing badminton!
We caught a couple of xe oms back towards our hotel, stopping by a nice looking Italian/Vietnamese restaurant. Quite by chance, we had parked up right next to the English couple we had met crossing the border from China to Vietnam! They were sat outside having dinner with the girl’s father and sister who had come out to visit them. Their food looked great, so we decided to dine there as well. We felt the necessity of eating Vietnamese food, and it was certainly very tasty, but the pizzas looked amazing, so we resolved to go back.
Next door to our hotel they had been finishing work on a new café bar and as we passed it on the way back, we noticed a buzz of customers and heard a brilliant live band. They told us it was their opening night, so we stopped by for a cocktail and cookies, which actually turned out to be an enormous milkshake. The décor inside was like a stylish mud hut, which sounds a bit dodgy but was really rather effective. The music was a mix of classical guitar, Latin rhythms and jazz, and as well as two guitarists, there was a cajon player (one of those box-shaped drums you sit on) and a female singer who had a lovely voice. When other customers got up to sing with the band, I went and got my flute. I played along to ‘Tears in Heaven’ and then they called me up to play the Boyzone hit, ‘When you say nothing at all’, which I find cringeworthy, and I certainly didn’t do it any favours! I partially made up for it with a rendition of Scarborough Fair (everyone seems to know that!) and then we retired to bed.
The next day, the hotel arranged for a taxi to take us on a tour of the city sights. The banks of the Perfume River are dotted with tombs of Nguyen lords, who ruled southern Vietnam from Hue from the 17th to the 19th century. From 1802 to 1945, when the power of the Nguyen dynasty reached its pinnacle, Hue was capital of a united Vietnam. Our driver took us to see two of these tombs – one in traditional Vietnamese style and the other a hybrid of colonial French and Vietnamese influences. Along the way, we chatted to our driver. He told us how he spent years in Malaysia in the 80s and 90s as an economic refugee. It was there, with the help of a dictionary, that he taught himself English – highly impressive!
The first, traditional, tomb, Tu Duc, was my favourite. Perhaps like me, when you think of a tomb, you think of an elaborate grave. Then you remember that the Taj Mahal is a tomb… The complex was huge; set in a pine forest and packed with crumbling buildings in shabby colours – terracotta, blackened stone and mosaics of blue and white ceramic. There were temples, a royal residence, lakes and pavilions. The whole area with its lush greenery and dilapidated buildings exuded peace and tranquillity. As I was rounding a corner of one of the buildings, I bumped into Christophe again! He was as taken with the ruins as we were.
In fact, the mausoleum was designed by the emperor (who ruled from 1848-1883) and built as a place of reflection for him before his death, so at least he got to enjoy it before he popped his clogs! There were several tombs: one for the emperor, one for his wife, one for his lesser wives (!) and one for his adopted son, who sadly died aged 15 and only ruled for around 8 months. I found it interesting that he had no children of his own despite the myriad wives, but it turns out he had smallpox as a child, which may have left him sterile. There was a stele in a pavilion that was engraved with his self-critical autobiography. Normally these would be written by the heir. I thought he must have been quite a philosophical man; it is rather refreshing to think of a leader who is happy to criticise their faults – most of the places like this we have visited simply assert how wonderful the leader was and how utterly irreproachable. Of course, I couldn’t read what it said, but I liked the idea. However, it turns out that he only wrote it himself because he hadn’t fathered a son to do it for him, and my original impression of a sensitive, introspective soul is quite far from the truth, as he was in fact something of a tyrant. He isn’t even buried at his tomb – he ordered all the people involved with his interment to be executed after his death so that no one would know the location of his final resting place. It seems he was quite the control freak and a nasty piece of work! As we wandered through the site, we were oblivious to all the gory details, so they didn’t tarnish our enjoyment!
Khai Dinh tomb was our next stop. This particular emperor, who ruled from 1916 to 1925, was the last of the Nguyen Dynasty to order a tomb built in his honour. He was closely involved with the French colonial government and was unpopular with his subjects because of this. However, this influence led to the extraordinary fusion of styles in his mausoleum. Drawing on elements of western architecture and blending them with those of the orient, it is an unusual and interesting building of grey stone, with a grand flight of stairs leading to the entrance and a large pair of carved dragons poised to greet (or scare?) visitors. Inside, the walls were covered with beautifully intricate mosaics of glass and ceramic depicting wildlife, flowers and trees. Elaborate designs seemed to dominate every surface, and in the back room, atop his coffin, was a life-size seated statue of the man himself. Apparently he raised taxes by 30% to pay for this tomb, so you can see why he wasn’t well-liked! I found it fascinating, but much preferred the crumbling, secluded Tu Duc to this showy masterpiece.
Whilst studying the frieze on a wall, I spotted the man I had made pose for what I had thought to be an arty photograph at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi! I felt embarrassed, but decided to pre-empt any awkwardness by saying hello (partly because Luke kept telling me to in loud whispers, which only made it worse). Luckily he didn’t comment on what a pile of rubbish the photo was and we had a brief chat about how you always seem to bump into the same people when travelling. I think this is especially true of Vietnam as all tourists seem to be funnelled along the same route. As it is a long, thin country, there are two main routes you can do – one is up, the other is down!
Our final destination for the day was the Imperial City and we spent a lovely two hours wandering the grounds. Huge thick walls fortified the imposing Citadel and within these walls a moat surrounded the square enclave of the Imperial City, which itself was bordered by a tall wall. The layout was similar to the Imperial City in Beijing, only smaller and even in its dilapidated state, I felt its grandeur was of a more accessible type. Gardens seemed to be integrated into the whole complex here, whereas in Beijing, the sweeping stairways and vast courtyards dominated the space between buildings. Many of the structures were destroyed during the 1968 Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War, but this means there is more space for greenery; in some places nature had quite taken over, and horses could be seen grazing amongst the rubble. Some of the intact buildings included temples, libraries and even a theatre. Within the grounds there was another walled off section – ‘The Forbidden Purple City.’ This was exclusively for the emperor, his mother, wives, concubines, female servants and eunuchs. Any other man crossing the threshold would be killed. I think they liked their privacy! Some buildings have been restored and it may be that more restoration will take place. It is indeed a great pity that the Imperial City suffered so in the war, but its scars tell another chapter of Vietnamese history and I find there is beauty and poetry in a ruin that you just don’t get with the perfectly preserved.
There were so many gateways and paths that it was easy to get lost, and we nearly got locked in at closing time! After a kindly member of staff had unbarred the big wooden door for us, we walked back along the river, to a backdrop of pretty colourful lights on the bridge whose reflections twinkled on the water. The ‘Risotto’ restaurant did not disappoint, and we finished the day with the best pizza we had had in months! Once again, we saw Christophe, out with a group of girls from his hostel. Luke asked him if, like us, he was off to Hoi An the next day. I knew he was because he had told me at Tu Duc that he had just bought his ticket. He replied with a furrowed brow and a look of deep concentration on his face, ‘No, it’s called….. Yes, yes! Hoi An!’ We were pleased and hoped that our paths would cross again.