- Travel Topics
After Hanoi, Vicky and I traveled halfway down Vietnam to Hue, which we did by overnight train. The overnight trains in Vietnam are pretty similar to those in China except…worse. Yes, I can’t put my finger on it, just everything is a little bit smaller; smaller beds, smaller aisles, smaller everything. Not ideal for someone who’s nearly 6 ’3.
Hue is one of those towns that we knew next to nothing about except that everyone seems to love it. I can’t for the life of me understand why. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with it – but nothing particularly right with it either. It was just…a town.
The weather was oppressively hot. The type of heat that almost beats you down and forces you back inside after an hour. I couldn’t believe it. Just a few weeks ago we had been in China where it was freezing cold. We had about two weeks of “acceptable” weather, and now it was too hot, and we were heading South. Why couldn’t Vietnam extend East to West as opposed to North to South?
If there was one appealing thing about Hue it was that it had some decent attractions, all of which could be seen over the course of one tour. Vietnam is developed enough that many of the hotels offer tours for next to nothing. For example, for a mere $9 you received transportation on an AC bus to a half-dozen attractions (not including entrance fee), lunch, a tour guide, and a boat ride on the return trip. Economically it almost doesn’t seem possible.
Still, one must always remember the adage that “you get what you pay for”. In this case, you have to be prepared for the tour to begin late, be terribly organized, and to run you around to various shops with the intention of you buying souvenirs. When all is said and done though, the only way to beat $9 is to rent a motorbike yourself for $5 and drive around (if you know the way). Vicky wasn’t prepared to do that, so on the tour we went.
In the morning we headed to the Imperial Citadel. Hue is an old capital of Vietnam and this is the former headquarters of the government of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802 – 1945), which was the last of Vietnam’s Royal families. It’s kind of like the Forbidden City in Beijing; temples, pavilions, moats, walls, gates, shops, museums and galleries. Unfortunately over the years the citadel has taken its fair share of bombings, first by the French in 1947 and again by the Americans in the Vietnam war, and is not in pristine shape.
Thien Mu Pagoda
Standing tall amidst the Perfume River like a lighthouse, Thien Mu Pagoda is the official symbol of the city of Hue and means “elderly celestial woman”, (referring to an old legend about the founding of the pagoda)
Following this we went to three tombs of the emperors. All and all there are seven (despite there being 13 emperors in the dynasty – don’t ask me why). We visited the three that are the most impressive. The tombs mostly date from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, a time when the Emperors were mere figureheads under French colonial rule and did what I think we’d all do that in that situation; build ridiculously elaborate tombs.
Tomb of Minh Mang
I didn’t know what to expect but this certainly wasn’t it. I guess I was expecting more of a coffin, whereas this was an entire complex. The grounds were massive, and surprisingly empty. With large gardens and lakes, Minh Mang spared no expense to build himself an elaborate tomb. There’s an amazing amount of symbolism that goes into these tombs, including particular building position to create the best feng shui. As we approached the tomb the tour guide explained to us how each section was mean to represent a different body part of the king; with the lakes representing his arms, the buildings his chest, and the circular cemetery yard, his head. Even to this day they still do not know exactly where his body is buried in the circular yard (which they only open to tourists once a year).
Tomb of Khai Dinh
This is a great example of a modern tomb, dating from 1925, and differs completely from the previous one. The grounds themselves are not nearly as large as Minh Mang but the building, outside and inside, is spectacular. It might be the most ornate building I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve seen a lot of temples and palaces on this trip alone. Naturally, the king was not particularly liked (I think there’s some sort of rule that says the less you’re liked the most extravagant your tomb has to be to convince people in the future that you were really well liked).
Tomb of Tu Duc
Frankly, I almost skipped this one to save on the price of admission but we had heard that they saved the best for last. Unfortunately I don’t agree. It’s similar to Minh Mang’s tomb but worse. Constructed from 1864 to 1867, it’s another example of the classic tomb style; large, expansive gardens, lakes, many buildings, etc.
When we weren’t busy on the tour we were out exploring the city and its culinary delights. We met with Nu, a young girl from Couchsurfing, who showed us to a local soup stall in an alley where we enjoyed fish soup followed by coffee at a café overlooking the river. Afterwards, she took us to indulge in 35 cent baguette sandwiches from a local lady selling them at a foot of a bridge (sounds pretty safe right?).
Later, as we were walking in search of this one particular smoothie place, a young guy on a cycle peddled past us
When you’ve had this happen to you a hundred times, you tend to brush off the first word out of a man on a cyclo. However, instead of riding away he replied,
“I’m just trying to be friendly. I’m not selling anything.”
Immediately I felt bad that I had just brushed off this friendly, young guy. We started to chat with him and he helped us find the smoothie place, for which I invited him to join us for a drink. Shortly thereafter he revealed his “side” business; Easy Rider Tours. These are essentially tours across Vietnam where locals take you on the back of their motorcycle and bring you to off the beaten destinations. There are many of them, and Vicky and I were aware of them because we already had one booked in Vietnam for a few days later.
This man’s genius became clear to me. The cyclo business is just a front, a way to speak with foreigners. The real business, the family business, is motorbike tours from Hue to Hoi An, for which he charges a crisp $60 per person (including lunch, mountain hiking, lake swimming and transportation). Naturally, he carries around a journal with him with hand written reviews from other customers. Page long reviews with photos showing the happy faces of said customers.
Frankly, I don’t doubt that he has many satisfied customers as he was quite charming.
There was so much more to this young guy then we first thought. He’s got a great system in play here and I have no doubt he will make a fine businessman. Unfortunately, we had to decline his offer for the tour (as we had already booked a 4 day motorbike tour to start in a few days) but we really enjoyed our afternoon chat with him over fruit smoothies.