Hue, Hanoi, and the News

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

As my clothes were finally finished in Hoi An, it was time to start thinking about my plans for Northern Vietnam. It was already June 30, and not only did I want to maximize my time in China (I’m allowed 30 days all of which I want to use), but my visa for Vietnam expired on the July 10. As I sat and plotted, I came to the stark realization that I didn’t have time to see everything I wanted to in northern Vietnam. So great had the south been that I was out of time and I hadn’t even crossed the DMZ border to the north. I can’t imagine how I would’ve traveled this country in 2 weeks. So it was that I took the morning bus to the nearby city of Hue, a city with emperors’ tombs, walled citadels, concubine housing, pagodas, and the Perfume River. Arriving just before lunch, my first order of business was getting an evening ticket out to Hanoi – as much as there was to see in the city, I was confident I could use my travel skills to get a taste in an afternoon. Overnight busses – booked. Trains – booked. So my options were spending a whole extra day here or a plane for $30 more than the train. With plane ticket in hand, I set out to unravel Hue’s secrets in time for dinner.

On so short a schedule, the best bet was a driver, and I found one for 40,000 ($2.75) to take me to the citadel, pagoda, and one of the tombs. The citadel: a massive enclave of temples, homes, gardens, and areas once forbidden to the public now have the gates thrown open (for 55,000) to explore. Where that money is going is anybody’s guess, it certainly isn’t being spent on maintenance. The place is crumbling all around, overgrown with weeds in many areas and restricted in others. Some of the key areas (Queen Mother’s House) are pristine, and to be fair, parts ARE under restoration, or at least there’s scaffolding to give that appearance. It is surrounded by two walls and two moats, too. It’s funny to think they went to so much effort to protect it and now can’t even be bothered to keep it up.

Next stop: The Pagoda. About 4km from the city sitting on a hill overlooking the Perfume River and looking like the Tower of Babel or perhaps the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was worth a quick stop, especially as it’s free, but nothing to write home about in more than two sentences. The final major destination, and one in which I had to argue to get included on the itinerary (he claimed we’d not agreed on the tomb), bringing total cost to 60,000 was the tomb of Tu Duc. En route, we passed a bunch of incense makers rolling sticks of aromatic elixir. The tomb itself was beautiful. It was littered with lakes, ponds, and streams, and had separate tombs for the Emperor, his wives, concubines, and other affiliates. It is essentially a large and elaborate hillside garden dedicated to the emperor. By himself. He died just over twenty years after it was finished.

And then the night flight to Hanoi, arriving in the city proper around 11:30. Arriving on a fairly dark street in front of a Sinh CafĂ© somewhere in the Old Quarter. It was tempting to simply take him up on his offer of $12/night and be settled, but I had until midnight to come back and I thought to shop around a bit even though most guesthouses, hotels, and even shops and restaurants were closed. And sure enough, $8 a couple blocks away. It was still June 30 and I needed three days each for a cruise of Halong Bay and a trek in Sapa, but before I could do either of those, I had to book a flight to Bangkok and nevermind exploring Hanoi. So I stayed in Hanoi the next day, explored the Old Quarter, and discovered that I couldn’t afford Hong Kong in any way. $300 for a flight there, nevermind over to Kunming after. This was something I’d been looking forward to since I decided to go to China, up there with the Great Wall, Three Gorges Dam, and Yangtze River.

But I took a little solace in the fact that this meant I definitely DID have time to do both Halong Bay and Sapa fully, and so I booked a trip to Halong Bay for the next morning, spending one night on the junk and one in a hotel and three days in total. I return to Hanoi at 4:30 on July 4th and catch an overnight train that night to Lao Cai where I begin my trek in Sapa, finishing on the 7th and catching an overnight bus into China and Kunming. I will be absolutely exhausted, I have little doubt, upon my arrival in China. But I wasn’t there yet, I still had to explore Hanoi some more, and I did just that after also booking a seat for the water puppet show that evening. Then I discovered the best Bun Cha in all of Vietnam, where Hang Mam becomes Hang Bac (C3 for LP readers). It’s right on the corner, and they barbecue what are basically meatballs (they taste like rissoles) and thin-sliced pork (like bacon) and throw them into a brown almost citrusy broth (lemongrass?) with vermicelli and some greens and mint. I’m not a soup lover, never have been, but I had two bowls of the filling stuff.

I had dinner sometime later in Cam Chi, the food street of Vietnam, and was the only white person there in the hour I looked and sat. I thought it amazing there weren’t more foreigners and was proud of myself until I got my meal and discovered that being a foreigner, at this particular restaurant anyway, meant getting the worst pieces of chicken, greens, and not getting one of the dishes you asked for. I didn’t even want to pay but what can you do? Indicate displeasure and then off on a cyclo for the water puppets. They were really good, mostly because of the traditional music which was in danger of stealing the show. The puppets themselves were cute and at times, despite a language barrier, had everyone laughing out loud. And then another short night in the hotel and I was off yet again for Halong Bay. It was already a tiring two days and the busy part hadn’t even started yet!

Hue-Hanoi Photos

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