Thursday-Friday, February 18-20
An early morning flight via Vietnam Air brought us halfway down the coast to Hue, another World Heritage Site and the capital of unified Vietnam from 1802-1945. The cool, gray weather followed us south but didn’t deter us from exploring this city and the environs.
Our friend Carol whom we met in Luang Prabang had provided us with several recommendations for restaurants, so we unpacked our bags and went on the hunt for one of them, the Golden Rice . And, we weren’t disappointed. Like the other ones she suggested in Luang Prabang, this one also offered delicious meals. So much so, we went back for dinner that night.
With full stomachs a walk was in order so we headed down to the Suong Huong (Perfume River) and checked out the main draw of Hue: the Citadel, where the emperors ruled from the early 1800s until 1945 when Ho Chi Minh convinced the last emperor, Bao Dai, to abdicate.
Located on the southern side of the river our hotel was only a few blocks away from the waterfront. The broad avenues and large parks bordering the river were deserted except for the occasional hawker for dragon boat rides and sellers of pet birds and fish from sidewalk stalls. We crossed to the north via one of the large, connecting bridges and made our way towards the Citadel.
As in most of the cities we’ve explored in SE Asia entrepreneurs beckoned us into their shops. Loads of branded merchandise covered tables and hung from walls… from North Face jackets to RayBan glasses to Kipling bags, someone interested in picking up bargains would be in heaven; yet, in spite of Vietnam manufacturing many products sold internationally, you can’t always be certain what you’re buying is authentic. But, hey, if it looks good, feels good, and the price is right, who cares?
Thinking we didn’t have enough time to actually explore the Citadel we did a u-turn and crossed back to the south side of the river via another bridge.
Friday, February 19
Yahoo! Sun was out, which meant warmth and sunscreen and a motor scooter adventure. We had arranged to rent one the night before, and at 9am we donned our helmets, mounted the bike and headed northeast towards the coast. A narrow island several miles long serves as a barrier between Hue and the South China Sea, and it was this stretch of land we rode down with a lagoon on one side and the sea on the other.
Passing shrimp farming framed by wooden fences
and vegetable gardens carefully plotted out
we came upon a boat yard. Seeing two other tourists wandering around we opted to stop to do the same.
Allowed free rein to roam we did just that, peering at the various stages of boat building and repairs. Not speaking Vietnamese and the builders not knowing English, we pantomined our interest and were received with smiles and chuckles.
The yard was pretty self-sufficient, including its own sawmill.
Marveling at how much work is done by hand with limited mechanical tools, we watched the the use of fire to shape planks…
the fitting of a plank to a new hull…
and an old woman cleaning up the yard.
We also noticed a stand with remnants of burnt incense by the launching area. I don’t know if this was left over from a Tet celebration or if the ritual related to the launching of boats.
Having poked around the yard enough, as we headed towards our scooter Max noticed some numbers written on a door. They appeared to be some sort of measurement conversions, yet we couldn’t figure them out. But, every time I see construction, whether for boats or buildings, it reminds me of my brother’s and sister-in-law’s (Cam and Carmen’s) business, and the adage measure twice and cut once. Just wish we spoke Vietnamese…
We had read religion doesn’t play a part in most Vietnamese’ lives, especially since the communist government declared the country an atheist state. For those that do practice, the folk religion, a blending of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, is the most predominant. Whatever the belief, it obviously involved pink incense sticks.
As we rode down the small backbone of this coastal island, we passed a large number of colorful tombs nestled in and on top of the dunes on the ocean side
Having someone explain the significance of the carvings and illustrations, such as the one espied inside,
would have been great but just seeing the elaborate architecture honoring the dead made a strong impression.
The only way we really got a sense of location was watching for schools since they included the village name; yet, even then we weren’t exactly certain where we were but felt content just to be lost as beeping scooters overtook us and we overtook bikes (a definite pecking order to the traffic around here).
Throughout our ride we got a feel for country living as we saw farmers planting crops in orderly rows
and water buffalo bathing in the lagoon…
then crossing the street to feed on hay.
A side road took us to a fleet of fishing boats, which we most definitely had to inspect.
Continuing on we began searching for a lunch spot and finally found one where we inhaled the traditional, beef noodle soup: Pho Bo, crouched on surprisingly comfortable in plastic chairs.
Waving goodbye to the family who cooked and served us lunch,
we got back on the bike for our return to Hue. (FYI: this is how we were welcomed during most of our travels in SE Asia. Pretty wonderful.)
But, we weren’t going to leave the coast until we at least touched the ocean, which supposedly was lined with “stunning sandy beaches and dunes” as per the Lonely Planet guide. Since the dunes block one’s view of the ocean we finally found a little lane through a few houses that led to the beach and our anointment by the Gulf of Tonkin which flows into the South China Sea.
With butts getting sorer by the mile, it was definitely time to get back and enjoy more tasty Vietnamese dishes. Our adventure in the countryside ensured we wouldn’t be leaving this country without an appreciation for the beauty and the warmth of the coastal-scape and people, a scooter ride we will remember for a long, long time.