Friday, August 19, 2011
Everyone we met was raving about Hoi An, an old city with great architecture, right on the ocean. It was apparently so nice, both sides in the war left it untouched. All buses there were sold out that day. We could not imagine spending another day in Da Lat, so we explored alternate methods, finally, we were told by one ticket seller that his bus to Hue stops at Danang, an hour from Hoi An. So we boarded the cramped uncomfortable bus for our 12 hour journey north. There are tourist places between but they were mostly beach stops, and Michelle and I had lived quite a long time on a beach. The road was quite amazing, heading over a giant mountain pass, cut through jungle so dense, it just looked like a bumping green coating. This was the real Vietnam from the movies!
Michelle was not in a great mood, which was strange since she's the calmer of the two of us, if such a thing could be possible. The ticket guy was a jerk, constantly making fun of us. The man in front of us was constantly farting vile gas. The driver seemed in love with both his break and horn, plus we were stuck in the dreadful wheel seat with no leg room, and me constantly uttering, "We're getting shipped to Den-ang!" in raspy tough, stereotypical American voice did not help her demeanor. We slept poorly, but at least we weren't stuck in the aisle like 15 other poor souls.
We awoke to some lovely scenery, driving along a narrow stretch of land, an aisle through the rice paddies on the small patch of land between the mountains and the sea. I was sad to have slept through such breathtaking sights. Based on the sunlight however, we were most definitely passed Denang. We never even stopped there; Michelle and I woke up whenever the bus seemed to even turn. It was all fine though, we wanted to go to Hue anyway.
Hue was once the capitol of pre-French Vietnam. It was a lovely city set on the Perfume River. We sprung for a nice hotel room with air-con. Though Michelle and I are both quite against the dry, headache-inducing, heat-tolerance killing machine, Vietnam proved to be way too hot and humid. We'd been without it for months in wet, 90-100 degree weather, but Vietnam was something else. I don't even want to consider how hot it was. Also, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand were all in the middle of the wet monsoon, so the oppressive day heat was canceled by the regular evening rains. Vietnam was not, so even at night, it was over 100.
We took a long nap and decided it was a lost day, or rather a day for relaxing.
The next day, we rented some bicycles and attempted to get a night bus for the next evening to Nimh Binh. They were all sold out of tourist tickets, so we fought the heat and rode five miles to the North bus station for another round of Vietnamese hospitality. We asked if they had buses to Nimh Binh. The woman said no. We asked if there was any way to get there and she explained that we could take a bus to Hanoi, but disembark on the way. We asked if we could buy a ticket to Hanoi and she simply replied, "no bus."
"No bus to Hanoi?"
I found it hard to believe that there were no buses between two of the largest cities in the country, especially since the schedule on the wall said otherwise. I pointed to the schedule, but the woman instead pointed to the door. We then thought maybe, maybe this was not the right bus station. We asked a police officer in our best Vietnamese, (here, translated to English) "Here, North bus station" He replied with an angry look, so we got on our bikes and rode around the old city instead.
What a difference a wall makes! The outside parts of the city were typical Vietnam, hectic, full of mass motorbikes, but the old city was empty, despite housing a large percentage of the city's population. It was lush and green with scattered parks and lakes. We stopped for one of the many local specialties, Bun Bo Hue (or beef noodles in the Hue style) at a tiny father and son shop before buying an overnight ticket the day after next.
Hue is famous for its foods and the five-star hotel near ours advertised a buffet for only $15! So we dressed up, headed up, but found no buffet, no customers either. A glance at the menu showed insane prices (for Vietnam at least). We were about to leave, but well, Michelle and I both like to occasionally treat ourselves to some fine dining, so we order a set menu of local specialties. I was still puzzled by the empty restaurant on a Friday night. Something was wrong.
The meal started with amazing seafood salad, a medley of spicy, sweet, and sour, served with crispy rice cakes. Adorned with squid, prawns, with big chunks of ginger and chilies, it was fantastic burst of flavors and textures. With it was four local spring rolls, rice paper wrapped wrapped around vermicelli green beans, lettuce, mint and prawns. Next was a thick fish soup that was better than average, but didn't really blow me away. The main was honestly quite terrible. There were dry, fatty, tasteless slices of pork served with fermented prawn paste. I'd had this paste in Thailand and was disgusted then as well. The second time was no better. There was some over-cooked chicken in a flavorless lemon-grass sauce as well. Finally we were garlicy fried morning glory that had been done better at hole-in-the-wall shitholes for mere pennies. All came with too wet rice. Our dessert was some lotus seeds in a sweet syrup that was only good because it provided some water; I refused to pay $5 for a glass of water. It was the worst $30 meal of my life. I could understand why they had not one customer on a Friday night.
Michelle and I booked a tour (shut up!) to see a far out temple and the imperial tombs by dragon boat on the Perfume River. The boat ride was lovely; the river led out of town quite quickly, leaving us with only the company of the green mountains, rice fields, and fishing boats. I felt like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, except my motley crew of misfit soldiers were replaced by camera toting Vietnamese tourists and the machine gun in front was replaced with two gay looking dragons. We saw a peaceful garden and a traditional Vietnamese house, an impressive pagoda, and one of three imperial tombs. Our guide said the first was the best, and that was merely nice.
We had already spent three day in town, but had yet to see the grand citadel, home of the Forbidden Purple City, the great palace in Hue. Most importantly though, we wanted to send our packages. We walked to the post office, but international shipping wouldn't open for an hour, so we stopped across the street for some lunch. It was run by a rocking cool old lady and the food was great. A father and son (or so we assumed) were polishing off their tenth beer and we were invited to share a drink with them. Finally, we were able to share some social contact with some Vietnamese locals. Much like the Chinese, when the Vietnamese drink beer, they pour it into small glasses, toast, then down the whole glass in one drink. With the hot sun and quick drinking, it took us about three beers between the two of us to get a bit drunk. We needed more ice (they drink beer with ice in Vietnam) and the healthily drunk older man felt that ice picks were an unnecessary invention, considering that the Chinese invented the karate chop thousands of years ago. The young man implored him to not do it, to just let the waitress hack at it with an icepick, but nothing can match the stubbornness of a drunk Asian man. He reared up in what must have been a pseudo-kung fu pose--he was no Bruce Lee--channeled his qi, then slammed his hand down upon the ice. It broke with much applause. It was when he reared up for a second hack that his younger comrade put up a real fuss. The second chunk was smaller, lower to the ground, thus harder to break and easier to cause injuries. The older man would have none of it. He again channeled his qi (or was experiencing the spins, I'm not sure which) and slammed his hand with great force on the ice. It didn't break. Good thing he was drunk, because it was obviously quite painful. We took this as our cue to leave. We did not want to inspire more drunken antics that could lead to a hospital visit.
So we finally returned to the post office, a bit lightheaded and began the now difficult business of mailing packages. Thankfully, the postwoman knew at least the English names for the countries to which we wished to ship our parcels. It did not take long for the other inevitable effect of beer consumption to arise. Despite the awesome efficiency of the woman, not wasting one second, stamping in a blurred flurry, preparing post cards in the ten seconds it took us to fill out forms, she still was not fast enough for our bladders. We stood cross-legged for most of the process. Michelle's parcels were first and when the postlady finished, Michelle said with tears in her eyes, "I can't wait, I have to use the toilet...now!" She literally ran our the door. I suffered for five more minutes, then doing the same when finished, not caring that I'd even forgotten a couple items. I arrived a minute after Michelle; she got lost.
Michelle was not in the mood for more touring, so I headed to the citadel alone. Honestly, it wasn't too great, but that was mainly due to bombing from the war. Hue was captured by the North and much of the city, including the historic buildings was destroyed in the recapture. A shame; war is hell. Some of the temples on the East side were still intact and quite lovely.
I don't wish to paint a picture of Hue as a bad place; it is a beautiful, mostly friendly city, probably one of the nicest in the whole country. It was one of the few places where I had a chance to see some real culture. Despite being a touristy city, people still go about their lives normally. The food was mostly delicious, the cheaper the better, paradoxically, the people were quite relaxed and friendly, and most of all, it is simply gorgeous for a city. Vietnam seems to be a country of cities; any collection of people seems to exceed 100,000. I'd yet to see a single village. As far as cities go though, Hue is one of the best.