The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 25th – Hue

I’m up at 6:00 and, immediately continuing yesterday’s train of thought, my first move is to check whether my phone is somewhere in the cabin. The French couple is already awake and are out in the train aisle. I climb down and search for my phone on the floor. No luck.

Once Katka is awake we pack our things and wait for the arrival to Hue. After the train stops we let the French couple leave first and I make one final sweep of the cabin, hanging on to the last bit of hope of finding the phone. Chances are slim that…HALLELUJAH…the phone is lodged between a lower bunk and the wall! I kiss and hug my phone, shed a few tears, and promise to never let it go again. Katka frowns and shakes her head, but that’s because she just doesn’t understand our relationship (mine and the phone’s, that is).

We take a cab to our hotel, the price of which I masterfully talk down from 60,000 to 40,000 dong (in case any prospective employers of professional negotiators are reading). Ancient House Hotel is a cosy and clean family-run hotel, with only a few guest rooms.

We arrive there at 7:30, which is well before our scheduled check-in time of 12:00. A polite and constantly smiling young guy leads us to a small dining room, where we get to pick a dish from the free breakfast menu. While we eat our breakfast and drink coffee I take a look around the room. Walls are line with pictures of the family and tasteful paintings of some workers planting rice and tending  to their crops. The outside door is open and several small birds fly in and out of the dining room, circling and chirping above our heads.

An artist’s approximate rendering of said birds…

At 8:00 a young lady walks in and tells us the room is ready! We were initially just hoping to leave our bags at the hotel and go exploring, but they’ve gone to the trouble of preparing our room well ahead of schedule. If this level of hospitality and service continues we may never adjust to Denmark again. Our room is spacious, with two King-sized beds, high-tech air conditioning unit and a huge flat screen TV mounted on a wall. Most importantly, there’s a proper bathtub in the bathroom (also a rarity in Denmark).

We unpack and rest in the room for a while, plotting our following moves. Later, we hand in our laundry to be done and then we’re given free bicycles to explore the city. The weather outside is beautiful – clear blue sky without a single cloud, the air is dry and hot. For almost thirty minutes we just bike around the city without a clear direction, hoping to eventually get to the Perfume River.

Our ultimate destination for the day is Hue’s main attraction – the Citadel. The Citadel is a huge complex on the Northern bank of the Perfume River (our hotel is on the Southern bank). Inside the Citadel itself lies the Imperial City, which in turn houses the so-called Forbidden Purple City. So, to recap – inside the city of Hue lies the Citadel, inside which lies the Imperial City, inside which lies the Forbidden Purple City. It’s the Matryoshka-style of city building.

When in Hue, do as the Russians do

The Forbidden Purple City used to be where the Nguyen imperial family lived. It was naturally forbidden to outsiders, something its subtle name hints at. Nowadays, crowds of tourists can gain access to the site for a token fee. The site has withstood many years of termite and cyclone damage, only to be completely flattened by the French and the Americans during periods of war in the 1940s and 1960s. Right now most of the former buildings exist only as outlines with signs, indicating where they used to stand. However, reconstruction work is actively ongoing and replacement temples and palaces are being erected in their place.

Back to Katka and I. After enjoying the bicycle ride, yet not getting any closer to the Perfume River, we stop by a church (later we’ll find out that it was the Redeemer Church) to get our bearings. We eventually get to a park by the Perfume River, where we sit down for a drink at an outside cafe. Before we order Katka snaps a few pictures of some curious artwork found nearby:

“…help..me…”

We order two ice teas. The order is treated quite literally here: the tea is brought hot, but with a bowl of ice on the side, so that we can regulate the desired temperature ourselves. We discuss our battle plan for the following day. We decide to leave Hue for Hoi Ann early tomorrow, giving us a good part of the day to explore the city itself. Then we’ll have time the day after for a trip to the nearby ruins of Hindu temples at My Son (pronounced “meeson” – mind blowing, I know) and departure to Dong Hoi.

When we want to leave we cannot find any waiters to summon for a while. Then a guy with a tray and without any English skills shows up. For a long time we attempt to get the “we’d like to pay for our drinks” message across, and only succeed after utilising some complex sign language.

We take our bikes across the Truong Tien Bridge to the Northern bank of the Perfume River. On approach to the Citadel we take pictures of the Flag Tower by the Citadel entrance, which is the tallest flagpole in Vietnam. There’s a big open square in front of the Flag Tower, lined on both sides by the Nine Holy Cannons – five on one side and four on the other.

Before we enter the interior grounds of the Imperial City we park our bikes at a “parking lot” behind a food vendor. An older man by the lot writes numbers on our bike seats with chalk. Then he gives us two pieces of paper with pen-written numbers corresponding to these. With such a sophisticated tracking system, we know we’re in good hands! (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

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Vietnam 2011: General Observations (Part II)

You may recall that a few days ago I’d started the process of converting my Vietnam travel notes into blog posts. 85% of my 3 currently active subscribers were overjoyed and screamed “more please!”. Since in all the years of high school I’ve never truly learned to resist peer pressure – here goes the second instalment. It will pick up right where Part I left off, so if you haven’t read that part yet you may want to do it first. While my blog isn’t strictly a travel one, you’ll probably see these Vietnam posts pop up rather frequently over the next months – for better or worse, but mostly for better. Onwards…

Observation 4 – Rats

Granted, Vietnam is home to a lot more exotic and noteworthy animals than good old common rats. However, it’s the rats that live in shadows close to most bodies of water. They come out at night in swarms to hunt human prey…or just, you know, hang out and mind their own business.

The first time we started paying attention was one evening in Hue. Katka was taking some night shots of the Truong Tien Bridge. The bridge had been wired with more lights than a Christmas tree at Central Park, which made for a pretty mesmerizing sight. Somewhere between setting up the night program and trying to find a good angle Katka let out a muffled shriek and jumped a few good metres to the side (Olympic athletes – take notes!).

Because she wasn’t in the habit of performing this sequence of actions on a regular basis, I figured that something was wrong. Oh yeah, I’m excellent at spotting subtle behavioural patterns. Upon a more thorough inspection, i.e. walking closer to the water and squinting my eyes against the dark, I discovered dozens of rats running sporadically back and forth along the shore.

Since then we have noticed this being the norm anywhere around lakes and rivers during dark hours. Once while sitting in an outside cafe in Hoi An and then later again in Dong Hoi. Here we were in a somewhat fancy restaurant, which had its own artificial lake around the perimeter. Rats were sneaking near this lake and paid occasional visits to our table. They were basically co-existing peacefully with the restaurant staff, Ratatouille style!

“Hmmm, is it just me or are these eggs a tad undercooked? Anyways, what brings YOU to Vietnam?”

Observation 5 – Propaganda Speakers

Mostly in the Northern part of Vietnam you still find propaganda speakers scattered around. Some of them don’t seem to serve any function at all, other than looking like outdated relics that they are. But in certain places the speakers are very much alive.

On several occasions we were woken up at around six in the morning by monotonous chatter of some anonymous dude. I assume he was talking about the latest achievement of the Vietnamese government and encouraging people to work harder for the common good. However, I know very little Vietnamese. Now that I think of it, “arigato” might actually be Japanese, which means I know zero Vietnamese. So the “propaganda man” may actually have been telling jokes, in which case he may want to work on his delivery.

These speakers were even present in a tiny village of Viet Hai tucked away on a remote part of Cat Ba Island, reachable only by boat or a super-human trek. We had rented a basic bungalow there, in the hope of having some peace and quiet for a few days, but the joke-telling speaker guy had other plans in store for us. Each morning he launched into almost one-hour tirades and every 15 minutes his comedy routine was interrupted by a song, usually involving a high pitched female voice singing something vaguely patriotic.

“All day, all night, all day, all night, all day, all night…..WHAT THE *BEEP*?!”

And speaking of singing stuff…

Observation 6 – Karaoke

No Asian stereotype is complete without an image of a man/woman singing on stage at the top of their lungs in a crowded Karaoke bar. It’s as typical as the image of a Russian/Ukrainian wearing a fur coat, fur hat, felt boots and zig-zagging through the streets drunk with a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka sticking out of the coat’s pocket. Now, this may be exactly how I look on some festive occasions, but that doesn’t mean it applies to all of us all of the time. What I’m saying is – beware of putting people into boxes or putting labels on them (Not literally of course. If you’re literally putting people into boxes and putting labels on them, I’m quite sure the police will catch you soon enough, you sick bastard).

However, it seems Vietnam is quite happily living up to this particular stereotype. We’ve seen a multitude of places with live Karaoke performances during our three-week long visit. Our hotel room in Hue was actually right next to a massive multi-floor Karaoke establishment. That specific night was “amateur night” of some sort (when is it not “amateur night” when it comes to Karaoke?) with many hours of performances from audience members. Performances ranged from “utterly tone-deaf” to “almost not horrible”, with the audience cheering for each and every one of them. I’m guessing the winner was whoever made others bleed from their ears the least.

Above: NOT a typical Vietnamese Karaoke singer

Although I must admit there’s something heartening about so many people coming together to celebrate out-of-tune singing (this also goes for Katy Perry’s live performances). I dare you to find a Karaoke bar with a depressing atmosphere and lack of energy in the air. It’s impossible! You have better chances of seeing a Justin Bieber concert that doesn’t end with bottles being thrown at his head.

In Dong Hoi, a city that is otherwise nondescript, there was a street with no less than five Karaoke bars right next to each other. I’m no expert, but it sure seems like overkill, even if you’re really into Karaoke. It would be like having a coffee shop on ever damn corner, it just doesn’t make…wait a minute…well played Starbucks, well played!

The final part of the general observations is now available here. Remember to check out Katka’s awesome pictures from this equally awesome trip! Also, remember to follow me on Facebook or Twitter or even subscribe via email, if you want to stay updated on all of the latest.