The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 25th – Hue

Inside the Imperial City we briefly explore each section, following a map provided in Lonely Planet. There are elephant rides being offered outside, but it’s too hot and the ride takes place inside a small enclosed field, so we settle for a few pictures instead (available in Katka’s photo album I refer to at the end of each diary post).

We visit some residencies of royals and a few temples. Katka is so absorbed with the camera that I succeed in prank-scaring her by hiding behind a big sign and going “peekaboo” when she stops to read it. I am just that kind of a mature and balanced person. Many places we notice groups of workers passing around bricks and reconstructing different sections of the Imperial City. It’s nice to see that such great efforts are dedicated to bringing back the destroyed buildings.

Or are they just stealing construction materials?

We make our way back to the centre of the Citadel and visit the Thai Hoa Palace, otherwise known as “The Palace of Supreme Harmony” (what a kick-ass name). Inside we watch a short educational video on the Citadel, its construction and the history behind it. It’s a bit difficult to feel the “supreme harmony”, because it is now mid-day and the place is getting rapidly filled by groups of loud tourists. There are cameras clicking, fingers pointing, loud screams of amazement and general atmosphere of chaos.

Trying to dodge the throngs of tourist groups we explore the Forbidden City ruins. Then we exit the Imperial City through a side gate , passing by the Royal Theatre and the University of Fine Arts on the way out. We develop a theory that the Fine Arts students are required to work on restoring some of the buildings as part of their education. That way the government saves on paying workers and students get real world practice. There’s nothing to support this theory, but why not? If they haven’t already done that, then Katka and I have dibs on the idea!

Art!

We’re hungry, so we head to a cafe on stilts recommended by the indispensable Lonely Planet book. Here we’re ushered to the second floor of the cafe by a rather “in-your-face” guy. Before taking our order he points at me, looks at Katka, and asks: “Boyfriend?”. When Katka confirms he exclaims: “Very beautiful!” and leaves to fetch the menu cards. I doubt he meant what he said and assume that he’s just mixed up “girlfriend” and “boyfriend”.

However, my doubts disappear when he returns with the menu. He points at my right arm and starts asking me about the bracelets I’m wearing (one from Mexico, one from the Hmong and one from Katka’s brother). He rotates and adjusts the bracelets, grabbing way more of my arm than necessary (which is “none”). Then he gives me a quick neck massage under the pretence of fixing my collar, introducing a whole new level of “creepy” into the situation. Then he finally takes our order and leaves…

…only to come back immediately afterwards for a chat. Maybe he’s bored because they don’t have too many customers at the moment, but he seems to spend way more time at our table than customer-waiter interactions usually warrant. When our food arrives he makes small bite-sized portions from ingredients on the different plates. Then he literally feeds us these portions from his hands, accompanied by a female employee who does the same. They really break new ground here in introducing a human touch to customer service.

“Sir, I’m afraid I’m required to hold your hand until you’re finished with the meal!”

This truly undivided attention continues throughout the meal. He wanders off every few seconds only to circle right back to our table to feed us more bite-sized portions and refill our soup bowls. Every now and then he tries to strike up a chat, which is made difficult by his limited vocabulary and the fact that he’s constantly stuffing food in our faces. He tells us that he’s a commerce student and shows us some bills and coins from China and other places. He seems to be collecting different currencies.

Katka hands him a 5 DKK coin. He asks “for me?” and gets incredibly happy when we say yes. He walks off and returns with a neck chain that holds a Christian cross and an icon of Jesus on it. He lifts the cross and the icon up and asks me if I’m “this”. Even with my overdeveloped God complex I figure he isn’t asking whether I’m Jesus. I answer that I’m agnostic, upon which he says he’s Christian (no way!) and slides the coin onto his chain (the Danish 5 DKK coin has a hole in the middle). Jesus and money, together at last!

The starter dish comes with a lot of coriander in it, which both Katka and I dislike, so it’s left largely untouched. However, the seafood hot pot that the guy is slowly feeding us is delicious.

After dinner we return to the square by the Flag Tower to pick up our bikes. It is evening now and crowds of people are gathered outside. There are street vendors selling various snacks and sweets, but also a variety of toys, including kites. Over a dozen kites are already up in the air and more people seem to be joining the fun.

Unsuspecting crowds below knew nothing of the impending doom. The Great Kite Offensive was going according to plan.

After enjoying the kite parade for a bit we take our bikes back to the Southern bank of the river. We’re hoping to arrange for a short river cruise, so we try to locate boat moorings. Close to the city centre a woman comes up to us and offers a one-hour Perfume River cruise for 200,000 dong, which is actually better than the prices indicated in Lonely Planet.

We’re the only tourists on the boat. The woman starts making dinner in the back while her husband is operating the boat. She later comes out and tries to offer us an extended trip to one of the Pagodas for 150,000 dong extra. Nice up-sell strategy! We decline and insist on just the river cruise itself. We move to the outside deck of the boat and enjoy the slowly passing scenery – Hue city on one side, the Citadel on the other.

On the way back the sun starts to set and the city switches to “night-time mode”. Thousands of lights on billboards, bridges, boats and shops turn on almost simultaneously. By the time we hit the shore again the city’s transformation is complete. People are out for night-time strolls and the Truong Tien Bridge is flashing like a disco ball. Katka stops to take a few photos and has her first rat encounter of the trip (I’ve talked about this fun episode earlier).

But hey, now we’ve got some cool night time shots of dragon boats

Back at the hotel we try to book a trip to Hoi An. We’re told that the 8:00 bus next morning is booked. The train is an option, but it will only take us to Da Nang (Hoi An doesn’t have its own train station). We’re offered a car for 75 dollars with a tour of some landmarks on the way. Since we’re not really interested in sightseeing on the way we decide to explore other options.

Lonely Planet and some Internet sites recommend to check out “Mandarin Cafe”, which also serves as a reliable booking agent. The cafe is a short walk away, so we take the trip there. They confirm that a direct bus to Hoi An is already booked, but suggest to get to Da Nang and try to take some local buses there. We return to our hotel and ask to book the 11:00 AM train to Da Nang. The booking agent promises to go to the train station early tomorrow morning and pick up the tickets for us.

Finally back in our room we enjoy a hot bath and spend a lazy evening relaxing in bed. The TV is on in the background and is showing some local soap opera where almost every character spends a solid ten minutes crying hysterically for unknown reasons. Throughout the evening (but thankfully ending by 21:00) we’re treated to the sounds of a Karaoke competition next door that I’ve also described in a previous post. We fall asleep around midnight, anticipating yet another busy day.

Follow the story right here.

For now, remember to check out Katka’s pictures from the trip.

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