Saturday, May 2, 2009
North Vietnam - down the coast
So after my crazy afternoon the only listener to the story was a Texan waiting for his bus ... thank god. After exchanging "travel-war stories" I felt better and ended up with a fantastic night of sleep on my train (night trains in Vietnam are very luxurious - two thumps up)
Arriving in Hue, I shared a cap with three French girls. They knew were they were going, so I just got in the cap :) Once we arrive downtown I found myself another dorm for $3 (which are usually filled with young, male Asians, that don't really feel like speaking English with you). To my surprise I ran into a girl I had briefly met in Hanoi - Marie - while searching for breakfast. We would travel together trough the rest of Vietnam ... I also need to mention that Hue had the cheapest and best food in my opinion - it spoiled me a bit for the rest of my trip :/
Hue has some great temples/mausoleum around the city to see, so we decided to check those out on the back of motorbikes - a great alternative to the bus tours. Our drivers were a bit crazy, talking dirt roads only, passing the local villages and through closed roads at top speeds :) Very cool.
We checked out the Mausoleum of Muhn Mang - a authoritarian monarch who was passionate about architecture, and designed his own mausoleum along traditional Chinese lines, with fifteen hectares of superb landscape gardens and plentiful lakes ... really relaxed place, especially because Marie and I were the only once there at the time.
The next stop was Tu Duc mausoleum - very similar landscape, with lots of trees, butterflies and lakes. I can understand why Tu Duc liked to just hang out here and supposedly wrote 4000 poems at this location.
Also worth mentioning is the Thien My Pagoda - we arrived at the perfect time, to see the "evening mes" with many of the young monks singing and praying. After being mesmerized for a good 20 minutes, I actually saw what I came here for - the powder-blue Austin, the car of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who burned himself to death in Saigon, in protest at the excesses of President Diem's regime in 63. Behind the car is a picture of the disturbing image of him on fire in the middle of an intersection in Saigon - wow - what goes through a persons mind before doing something like this? Crazy and bold ...
The sunset over the perfume river were much more calming, and after some great vegetarian food and local beer, sleep among all the Asian guys came easily.
The next morning we walked to the citadel, reflecting Hue's days of glory. Build in the early nineteenth century, this vast citadel is comprised of three concentric enclosures. One can only imaging how awe-inspiring this must have been.
Unfortunately this place was also the location of some of the harshest close fights between the US and the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war, which destroyed much of its beauty ( ... I can only imagining what it must have been like for the soldiers to use the many walls as shelter from the storms of bullets that lasted for days - again wow).
Hue is very close to/in the DMZ - the Demilitarized Zone - in 1954 this area along the 17th parallel separated the country, until pending elections, where communist troops were supposed to regroup north, leaving the south to non-communist. The election never happened ... this area became the de-facto boarder until 1975. Funny enough the DMZ was anything but demilitarized after 1965, and the boarder was easily circumvented, by the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the west and the sea to the east. The provinces either side of the DMZ were the most heavily bombed and saw the highest casualties, civilian and military, American and Vietnamese, during the American War. So much firepower was unleashed over this area, including napalm and herbicides, that for years nothing would grow in the chemical-laden soil, but the region's low rolling hills are now mostly reforested and green ...
Separately traveling, Marie and I met up in Hoi An. Since I arrived earlier, I enjoyed watching the life in old town of Hoi An. Besides the tailors (Hue An is known for their great silk) many of the locals people still life from agriculture and fishing like in so many developing counties. While waiting I helped the women next to me roll up the fishing lines for the next day ... and was greeted with many smiles and a glass of water :) Its always nice to actually get in tough with the locals (even after my black jack craziness in Hanoi).
Our room was straight out of a fairy tale book for only $11 - pink walls, long curtains, bathtub, AC,HBO and a swimming pool. We explored the endless streets lined with tailors - making everything from pans, over suits to shoes for a perfect fit! The market is simply charming and if you make it out of bed by 5am you catch the vivid trading of seafood at the central market with all the local women at work. We ended up renting bikes and tried to get to the beach (which was about 30 minutes ride out of town). Before we took off, we actually ran into some friends from Ha Long Bay - and set up our dinner date :) The beach in Hoi An was wonderful ... mountains in the background, vivid blue, warm water, yellow sand and some excellent sun umbrellas (very much needed in the sun of Vietnam). By this time I was already addicted to the baguettes you can get at every corner, with some kind of cream cheese that doesn't need to be refrigerated (?) and lots of veggies for only 10,000 VD (about $0.60). Around 4 pm the locals move in(to the beach) and are not afraid to get close ... apparently they really enjoy dinner + sunset at the beach and are not THAT found of foreigners in their bathing suits hanging around ... we got it guys, thanks!
The three course dinner with friends was delicious as well(fresh spring rolls, veggie soup, egg plant in clay pot plus egg pudding with caramel sauce for dessert)for only 30,000 Vd - not even $2! Tiger beer is another favorite of mine from Vietnam ... and in fact on should mentioned that Vietnam has many local brews that are surprisingly good (Hues local brew is excellent). The next day we all made it to the beach to simply relax, before Marie and I headed further south ...