There is a creepy, dilapidated park on Hanoi St. in Hue, just off the main street next to the river, where sad, old children’s rides sit unused, rusting in dementia of faded glory. Perhaps this park used to hold lots of happy times for the local children. They would ride the carousel with parents’ hands gently resting on their backs. They would wait impatiently in line for the silly little dragon roller-coaster with a 2 meter drop. They would eat soggy popcorn and sugary cotton candy and get that bouncy little step of childhood excitement.
Those days are passed, as in my two hours in as many days spent exercising here in this park saw only old men pissing on old trees, groups of old people talking about old topics, and a few young kids with parents passing through on their evening stroll. But, I did meet one family. His name was Xiyen (Zune). He started to talk to me about this and that and ask why I was exercising. He said, “You strong! Let’s arm-wrestle.” He said it in a way that I knew he was stronger than his frame suggested. We did and he didn’t win and he didn’t let me win either. We just locked arms and he’d push me to the edge and then relax. He had the rough hands and burly forearms of a lifetime laborer. My calloused right middle finger where my red pen rests as I correct faulty grammar and white board writing forearms can’t compete with that kind of natural power.
He said, “You like chili peppers?” I affirmed I liked them but not too much because then food is too spicy. “NoNoNo, like Chili Peppers…Give It Away, Give It Away, Give It Away Now!! Can’t Stop!” Another classic misunderstanding of communication. He liked American music, and a good band as well. We laughed and sang some verses together. He left with a wave and a flourish as his three nieces crammed onto his motorbike creeping into the ceaseless wave of motorbikes.
The citadel rests safely inside the moated walls of this old city. What must have been an impressively beautiful sight once, is, as most ancient things become, worn down by tourist’s feet, decades of wars and overgrown by misplaced trash. You can see the inherent beauty and try to imagine the courtyard swimming with the color of royal festivities. Entrance is about 5 US$. It is a great place for pictures and slow walking. There are some photographic displays of the old Confucian scholars taking the dreaded test for placement, modern Vietnamese women dressed in traditional clothing and the endlessly entertaining landscape of Vietnam.
There are also several tombs dedicated to old Vietnamese kings about 2-16 km away from the south bank of the Perfume River. I rode a bicycle to visit three of them. It was an exhilarating ride. I smelled the hearty smell of muddy rice paddies blended with tiny jasmine petals. I smelled the ubiquitous roadside fires. I saw a baby cow resting with her family on the roadside. I saw a big bull elephant putzing around with some trees. I rode through a nice part of town full of interesting and interested faces. The tombs were also good photo opportunities, but not quite as grand as I was expecting. I left town at 11:00, visited three tombs and was back for dinner around 17:00. In all, it’s about 35 km round trip, and I felt it in my knees and thighs.
The famous food here is Bun Bo Hue, a redder broth version of beef Pho. I got it at a little place called Cafe You and Me (38 Tran Cao Van St.) It was very similar, but still good. I find Pho is fully dependent on good, clean broth and non-gristly meat, which this place had. I talked with the owner Mr. Trung. He leads tours to the old DMZ and various other places nearby. He told me he opened this restaurant and tour company in 1999. He fought in the war on the south side, and served two years in prison after it ended. “It was hard on body and mind,” he said unsurprisingly. I imagine his tour would be interesting if you like first hand accounts of history.
I stayed at the Hue Backpackers Hostel (10 Pham Ngo Lao). They have great staff, wifi, decent breakfast, good beds (doubles or singles), big, functioning lockers, and a nice atmosphere in the communal bar area. They can help you get anything you need: bikes, tours, food, bars, laundry or supplies.
On a mix of outdoor and covered patio is a comfy little place inside the walls of the imperial city of Hue. I stopped in after a long day of cycling visiting the tombs of former Vietnamese kings. I ordered a mango juice, crispy noodles with pork and vegetables, sesame beef and the Hue “speciality”–loc. It’s impossible to ruin mango juice (unless you add sugar). The crispy noodles were like slightly saucy, lightly boiled ramen noodles among bok choy, onion, garlic and pork. I liked this one. The beef was tasty but dry. Loc turned out to be thin, gelatinous rice cake wrapped around mini prawns. They were individually wrapped in a large inedible leaf and when dipped into the chili water, they absorbed a nice spiciness. The food was normally priced. I spent 170,000 dong (about 8 US$). The waitress was friendly. The old men playing cards nearby sang along to songs from such artists as Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston and Kool and the Gang; you can probably guess which songs were playing (except Kool and the Gang, it was “Cherish”).
I don’t have a picture of the noodles because I was too hungry to remember.
Address: 26 Thanh Ton
Each of these kids’ mothers were very happy to take pictures and made them wave at me. I said Hello and Goodbye in English and Vietnamese. I just don’t know what they’re thinking. I know I look different, but it really does seem to be a mix of revulsion, confusion and curiosity. It’s not the same with adults. They’re mostly quick to return my smile with the same.
He reminds me of the classic image of Ho Chi Minh mixed with the Kill Bill master, Pai Mei. He was counting a decent amount of money in front of a large store that looked to be selling herbal and organic medicines.
I walked into the first tour company outside my hotel. I didn’t know what I wanted. I had plenty of money. I had only been in the country for a few days. I didn’t do my research yet. I was leaving in two days. I was just the customer they desire–no objections, slight sense of urgency, gullible and willing. My agent was a young man who had a nice face and he told me about the open plan bus schedule. I would get several stops along the way from Hanoi to HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City), and stay in each place as long as I wanted. It cost 50 US$. It sounded great. Then I got to Internet searching and found terrible reviews all over about this tour company and any tour company for that matter. I got real nervous, thought about eating the ticket and just waiting for tomorrow to take the train. I walked around aimlessly, ate pho, drank a few mango juices, bought a beautiful sandwich from Joma (don’t miss this place if you’re craving a decent sandwich, evidently they are all over the big cities of Vietnam), got some chocolate, stretched and waited for the bus with severe apprehension about both making it in one piece and possible leg cramps. The transit bus packed 17 people and luggage into a minivan built for 12. It was crazy; and then another guy hopped in the front seat. We were dropped off at a street corner and waited. Nobody else seemed nervous. Two German speaking girls assured me it would be fine.
The giant bus arrived lit up in day-glo colors, clean and new. I got a great first impression. I jumped in front of the nice Israeli guy I was chatting to because, I wanted first choice of seats. I protested with the driver’s request to go to the back and picked the first row, window, upper bunk. There were three rows, each with two bunks. There was also a functioning toilet, but with shoes not allowed and an increasingly wet floor (as men and bumpy buses don’t equal good aim), this was an unfavorable combination. It wasn’t as comfortable as a bed, but I was prepared with kindle, Ipod, clothing layers, sandwich and small pillow. The bus hit minor bumps along the way, made cargo pit stops, honked occasionally, but we arrived on time and safe. There were three drivers who took turns driving (and sometimes while moving). They were reasonably polite and careful with baggage. They talked and texted endlessly. I slept a few restless hours, similar to airplane travel, where you wake up from a crazy nap dream to see that only seven minutes have elapsed. I finished a book, delighted in my choice of road snacks and arrived fairly happy and relaxed.
I have two more night trains left, so we will see if they measure up to this one.
Camel Travel Tours–Hanoi to Hue to Hoi An to Nha Trang to Da Lat or Mui Ne and finally to HCMC.