Hue

Travelling by Buddha Bike A Vietnam Vet and Thieves in the Temple tonight

Mr Hue picks me up at a sprightly 8am for my motorbike trip from Hue to Hoian. I 've been deliberating whether or not to do it – it costs $63 which is well out of my budget and the local bus only costs $5 to get there in half an hour. Having said that this may be the last part of proper travel I do in Vietnam and as motorbikes seem like they outnumber people 2:1 in this country – what better way to see the country??? The scenic route will stop at blue lagoons, waterfalls, wind up a mountain path, beaches and tomorrow take in the Cham ruins at My Son. 

Plus - I'm happy to pay a little more for a driver I trust with a good bike as I have an exceptionally bony bottom! 

 

Mr Hue has a bright red Honda with a lady buddha sticker on the front of it – its the Buddha bike! I watch with trepidation as he manages to strap The Bastard (my backpack) to the back of it and then we get going. Our first stop is the Blue Lagoon where villagers live on boats. They rise at 1am in the morning to go out and cast their nets and they are just returning as we arrive around 10. 



Although people keep telling me its rainy season in Central Vietnam the clouds have parted and both the sky and the lagoons are a deep navy blue. The water is split into a little patchwork divided by grass paths as far as the eye can see. I ask a couple if i can take their photo and they precariously balance themselves in the boat and beam at me with great toothless grins. In the background paddy fields filled with water glimmer under the sun, strewn with lilly pads and the brown fingers of rice at the end of its season. The great grey shimmering flanks of buffalo slowly wade through them. 

We take off again and wind up a hill stopping for a view over the motorway that curls down the hill in a grey ribbon to the beach. Its a much needed break for my bottom. Mr Hue tells me about how much they hate the Chinese. I ask him if its the people or the history and he says “both!” 

Vietnamese find the Chinese rude and arrogant. But also China recently invaded after the war with America when Vietnam was its weakest. 

He talks again with gentle sadness about the war – how Vietnamese were killing each other (North and South) and how he doesn't receive any money from the government for his losses its only the people in the North that compensation. 



Our next stop are the Elephant Waterfalls. In the pictures he's shown me , taken in peak season, they look packed with locals and tourists alike but blissfully – I get the place to myself. They are set high up in the mountains amongst shady pines. A rock shaped like a large elephant sits at the water's mouth and more great smooth stones collect into a series of pools of crystal clear emerald water. I strip off surreptitously... and go for a swim. The water is cool and fresh and the current strong. A gorgeous and tranquil way to relax and refresh. 

When we get to the highest point of the mountain we stop to take in views over Langao Beach – a golden crescent moon of sand far below, and admire the deep blue of the south China sea. 

 

At the highest point are bunkers that were used in the civil and American war. The strange slitted towers are pocked with bullet holes. From one side we can lok down to Hue and the other side the town of Danang. 

We start to make our descent down the spriralling road until we get to South China Beach at Danang. 

"Wheeeeeeee!" i scream and then "um can i hold onto you?" 

"Why not?" he says affably. Far out to see is a white Buddha on a hill. I go for a dip. There are a group of teenage boys doing backflips – showing off for my benefit. I wade out into the surf which is warm and frothy then make my way back. 

Mr Hue is talking to an older man who has pulled up along side on his motorbike and stares out to sea with solemn eyes. He looks younger than his sixty something years - on the white streaking through a wiry goatee gives away his age. He tells me that he lives in Ho Chi Minh and that he fought in the American (what the Vietnamese refer to as the Vietnam war) as a 19 year old Marine. This is the first time he has been back since the war. He has come to remember his friends and family that he lost in the war. His eyes fill with tears as he tells me about the friends he lost in combat - some who took their own lives. 

“We were without food or drink, without ammunition. Some of my friends killed themselves with grenades, because they were without hope.” 

He apologies for getting upset. I thank him for sharing his story. Again - with such a bloody and savage recent history I shouldn't be suprised that I have met people still nursing the wounds. It is a sombre end to the afternoon. 

We finish the day visiting the Marble mountain. As the sun is setting I head up the hill past a windy village filled with marble statues. There are a tour group from Mauritious with me in sensible travel sandals and pleated shorts. I tag along with them to go in the various caves as the damp, the dripping and the darkening light is beginning to un -nerve me. The buddha cave is eery -the walls and ceiling drip with globules of unseen condensatin, its filled with bats and the smell of incense. Someone I think is a guide shows me where to go, helping me up a stone. I don't feel comfortable as the stones are wet and slippery and i'm in flip flops – he has also brushed his hand against my arse one too many times for it to be an accident. I back off and bark at him. He asks for a tip. Not likely mate. 



The rest of the mountain is also set with caves of differing sizes – some filled with Budhha statues. I go into another cavernous one and another “guide” also chats me up whilst handing me incense sticks to light and offer to the statues. I do but i'm feeling uncomfortable. The sun has almost set. Its dark and cold and i'm in a strange shadowy place with men that don't know how to keep their hands to themselves. 

I make my way back down the mountain and find Mr Hue and we head into Hoi -an. 

He takes me to the hotel where he stays and the staff greet me with a complimentary cup of green tea, macaroons and face wipes. It's needed to get the grime and dirt off the day. I'm given a room next to reception which they assure me will be quiet. 

The next day I go upstairs to the roof terrace and take my obligatory banana and chocolate pancake and coffee. When I come down 20 minutes later the cleaners are doing my room which I find suspicous but I pick up my purse and Mr Hue and I get going. 

We arrive about an hour later into My son. These ancient ruins are from the Cham civilisation that ruled Vietnam from 200 ad, its a World Unesco Heritage site and its been compared to Angkor Wat – but as i'm heading to the latter in Cambodia I kind of wish i'd saved my time. Entry fee is 60,000 (about 2 quid) and just as I arrive there is a show put on in the cultural centre. A mix of women in exotic sequiny straps make langorous dance moves slowly and listlessly lifting their legs and curling their arms to forms their many handed goddess shapes. Another man comes on – he is a big hit in the local village apparently and plays traditional Cham music on a kind of kazoo through which he manages circular breathing – enabling him to hold a particularly loud raspberryish note for an excruciatingly long time. I can feel the women in front of me clench their cheeks as they smile through gritted teeth. Sitll its only half and hour – which always makes a good show in my book. The rest of My Son is a series of temples that are categorised under letter headings. Some are undergoing restoration. Its a scorching day and the ruins are packed with tourists in their groups with tour guides explaining the history......i go into a cube shaped temple which was used as a tomb. Its pitch black inside and cool. Suddenly a guide outside starts screaming: 



“Get out of the temple, everyone out of the temple NOW!!!!” 

“Snaaakkkkkeeeees!!! there are snakes in the temple – everyone get out.” 

There is a mildly concerned push for the exit until we are outside and can see small green and black stripey snakes winding their way through the brickwork. 

Is it worrying that my very first thought is: This would be such a cool way to go... 

“Ooh its like Indiana Jones!” I say to the French middle aged women next to me as they elbow past 

At the end of the day I get back and go to pay Mr Hue. I realise that 2 million dong (about 60 quid) has been taken from my wallet. I immediately think back to the cleaners who were doing my room whilst I was at breakfast and wished i'd checked it then. I start to doubt myself – the hotel seems very good and the staff are all really nice. Maybe it wasn't 2 million dong maybe i'd spent some of it. Maybe I got short changed along the way . I go back to the hotel and confront them. I've thought to myself that morning “i shouldn't travel carrying all of this money” I just wish I'd checked my purse to see how much exactly I had. Then I could have had it out there and then. I speak to them and the cleaner when I get back and she denies it. There was another middleaged women with her that thinking about it was maybe only pretending to be with the hotel. I'm angry at myself for leaving my wallet out. But i'm still now doubting how much was taken and when. I'm pretty sure when I got my wallet out at My Son I could see the blue notes of the 500 bill in my purse. And i'm pretty sure nothing dropped out and was taken then. Ah well. Its gone. I can't do anything about it now – I just need to learn the lesson. I've become complacent in Asia because its so much safer than everywhere else i've been but the moment your guard goes down this is what happens. And it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

A river of perfume and "get a room" in Vietnamese

I transfer back to Hanoi and then its another nightbus to Hue. I arrive into a town soft and grey with drizzle at 6am in the morning - having been sardined into a slot the size of a baked bean can all night. Because of absolutely no preparation on my part i'm easy prey for a persistent man on a motorbike. Mr Thien gradually persuades me to part with 180,000 (just under a fiver) to take me around the sights of Hue for the day. As he also manages to find me a guesthouse for under 6 dollars a night I don't begrudge it him too much...but on checking in I suddenly realise that although I am now in Central Vietnam - my underwear is still holidaying in North Vietnam. I've managed to leave my laundry at the Little Hanoi Hostel. Bugger. 

I wanted to visit some of the DMZ (Demilitarised zone) to see a part of Vietnam's war history. As there is still UXO – Unexploded ordinance in this part of the country i'm a little relieved when Mr Thien and I get our wires crossed and he ends up taking me to Chin Ham or 9 Tunnels instead. 

This is a memorial and series of nine trenches around 6km oustide of Hue that used to play prison to Vietnamese under the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dien Dinmh and garnered the moniker “hell on earth.” The tunnels and cages are complete with grotesque mannequins again, one forced to lie face down to drink with a rat scrabbling its paws beside his head, another clutches the bars to his ceiling - his emaciated ribs poking through his rags. The surrouning countryside is eerily calm and provides a cool canopy of fragrant cedars in the heat of midday – belying the horror that its seen. 



The royal tombs of various Emperors and Empress line the Perfume River that runs through Hue. I visit two of them. The tomb of Khai Dinh is located away from the centre of town and up a steep hill in the Chau Chau mountains. Khia Dinh reigned in the early 20th century and was not by all accounts a particularly popular chap – as he kow towed to the French imperialist overlords and raised taxes by some 20% in order to pay for the kitting out of his lavish mausoleum! It does however have the largest stone dragons up its staircase in all of Vietnam. Minh Mang's tomb is in a shaded and calmer area away from the others. I don't think he was particularly well liked either but that didn't stop him from investing in his dying space.

There is a lake filled with large lilly pads decorating its perimeter in front of green and wooded hills. There are more Bodhi trees, their long and curling roots branching through the concrete paving of the square and set in little nooks and crannies amongst the branches are incense sticks.

 

These are holy trees – where Budhha himself found enlightment and provide a lovely tranquil shade where I can contemplate life whilst eating a strawberry cornetto. I finish my little tour by visiting its most famous, oldest and prettiest sight – the Thien Mu Pagoda. Built in the 16th century on the banks of the Perfume river, the pagoda is a creation of dusty pinks and golds. Fearsome temple guardians with mad staring eyes and pointy beards guard the gates. Inside the temple there are monks in grey robes tending to the gardens whilst tourists surrepitiously take their photo. There is also another more shocking sight– an old rusty car responsible for taking monk Thich Quang Duc to the site of his self immolation in the 1960s. 



I part ways with Mr Vien and pay 100,000 for a 45 minute boat ride on the Perfume river. In the heat of midday its nice to have an old blue wooden boat to myself. We pass villagers at the river banks and on the little islets in stream inadvertently creating picture postcard scenes of Traditional Vietnam - fishermen in long blue overalls and triangular straw hats casting their nets. The boat drops me off at the local market where women line the street selling bananas and other tropical fruit along with live crabs and frogs. Then i take a walk to the old town – the Citadel. A rickshaw driver calls out to me: 

“Where are you going????” 

“I really don't know!” I say. Its true, I have no map or any idea what the sights are. Luckily he comes to my rescue and offers to take me around the old town for 100,000 dong. 

My driver is called Mr Hue (easy to remember) and he, like Mr Thien, has a little notebook of recommendations from tourists of different nationalities. He has a very warm open smile, bright eyes, deep brown skin and a gentle air. 


We go to a couple of temples –in one a monk in saffron robes is giving a sermon to nuns who crowd on the steps in their grey shifts, to listen. I ask Mr Hue if he is Buddhist and he concurs - showing me the dharma wheel he has tattooed on his heart. We visit some pretty gardens where fat fish swim and song birds sing from the trees ad then a Unesco building on the outskirts of another temple. We cross a moat to get to the building and watch a woman who is thigh deep in the thick green water pulling at lotus flowers. 

“I no like do this!” exclaims Mr Hue... “Snakes!” 

There is a tree heavy with goldenn coloured blooms on the banks with an incredible creamy rich honey suckle scent. On the waters edge opposite is an old and crumbling deserted house. It was occupied by families until recently when Unesco decided to list it as a world heritage site and protect it. 

“They very lucky!” says Mr Hue

“They get new house for free from Unesco!” 

I finish my day having a look around the Forbidden City. Emperor Gia Long took control of Vietnam in 1802 and set about building himself a palace and citadel protected by a moat with water taken from the Perfume River. The main building was the palace and throne room but many more courtyards, gardens and rooms were added. In 1968 Hue underwent 26 days of bombing inflicted by the VietCong and North Vietnamese army against the US and South Vietnam. Much of the beautiful ancient architecture of the city was destroyed. Out of 160 buildings of historical importance only 10 remain. The brick work of the city walls that ring the old town are pocked with bullet marks. Much of it is has been restored only recently . 3000 people were killed in what is referred to now as The Battle of Hue. 

“ I don't know my father.” Mr Hue tells me. 

“He die in war when I am born. My mother die of heart when i'm 14. Then I live with grandmother.” 

His grandmother at 93 is still alive and can't see very far or hear very well so now he looks after her. 

His eyes are filled with sadness as he watches me make my way down the staircase to the old wall. I guess the Vietnam war is so recent in our history its not suprising that i've already met one of its living victims. 



That evening – i've found a great little thriller at a book exchange and decide to take it with me to dinner at the local restaurant and have “a quiet night in.” I order a beer, some “white rose” (the local speciality – little flowers of shrimp dumpling ) and a Ban Xeo – a deep fried pancake stuffed with prawn, pork, bean sprouts and served with a peanut dipping sauce. I'm just settling in when I catch someone in my peripherhal vision sit down near me. I turn to look – and then (subtle as always) do an ENORMOUS double take as I realise its an incredibly gorgeous guy. I've been so obvious (absolutely no poker face remember) I can't really do anything now except say hello. He asks what i'm eating and explains his friend is back at the hotel. 

Martin is a 24 year old Argentinian from Patagonia (the same city as Nico – my taste in men has definitely become a little niche recently...!) He flew out to follow the Rugby world cup in New Zealand before staying on the working visa and is now travelling around Asia with his friend Juan - before heading home for xmas. He has thick black hair, caramel coloured eyes fringed with very long lashes, 5 days of stubble, a husky Argentinian/ Spanishy sounding accent and the ugliest flip flops i've ever seen in my life. It later transpires he's nicked the free ones you get in guest houses all over Asia because he likes them. Juan can only shake his head in despair. Nonetheless - horrendous footwear aside he looks exactly like like Enrique Inglesias' prettier, less manicured younger brother. I take an executive decision and immediately put my book away again. 

We carry on chatting - he's very easy to talk too, funny and outgoing with a sunny disposition and eventually Juan joins us and we move onto another bar and play Jenga. Its a clubby tourist trap called Brown Eyes whose idea of a some good tunes is the Grease Megamix and La Bamba and its filled with my countrymen. A sight that normally fills me with dread. Nevertheless the absolutely terrible music can't stop Juan and Martin from kicking off their flip flops and beginning to dance. That is definitely the difference between Latin American men and their Northern hemisphere counterparts. Most British men i've met would be resolutely clinging to their beer and probably be just about building up to a non commital head nod in time to the music about now rather than taking to the dance floor. So its fun to be with boys that know how to party. 

Eventually Juan ducks out early and Martin and I go grab a beer at a little street food cafe that's open late. When we start to kiss the locals start screaming, making puckering up noises and pushing our heads together. Then they start to take photos! We've been pretty chaste but I explain that in Laos public displays of affection are frowned upon and they have signs up on the do's and don'ts for Westerners. Maybe its the same here... 



“mmmm I don't see any signs up do you bonita?” he shrugs... 

Well when you put it like that... 

So we carry on until the Vietnamese owner – a woman in flipflops and a butchers apron – screeches 

“HOOOOOOTEL!!!!” which I think could be interpreted as “ For Christ sake - Get a room you two.” Her husband is already asleep – sprawled prostrate on a mattress just inside their house. 

So Martin walks me back to my guest house and we swap details in case our paths happen to cross again. 

Tomorrow my adventure continues – via motorbike! Mr Hue is one of the so called “ Easy Riders” of Central Vietnam and has persuaded me to part with even more cash to take the scenic route on the back of his bike – from Hue to Hoi An. Its 3am and I need my beauty sleep as he'll be picking me up at 9am so i'm climbing the steep stone stairs to my room alone...! But hey ...I manage to drift off with a smile on my face