Hoi An, Vietnam, June 25
Vietnam (Part 2)
Our train arrived into the Hanoi Railway Station at 4:30 am and, in a trance, we shuffled along with the rest of the crowd out of the station and into the street. Together with our new friends John and Olivia from Canada, we hired a taxi for the short ride back to the Old Quarter.We needed to go back to the travel agency to pick up bus tickets for the next stretch of our journey but, more importantly, to complain about not getting the promised (and paid for) air-conditioned car for our return to Hanoi. We were going to demand a partial refund. As it would be a couple of hours yet before the travel agency would open, I hoped to find at least a backpacker cafe open where we could get some breakfast and wait, but everything was still shut tight. John and Olivia headed down to Hoan Kiem Lake to watch the sunrise while Sue and I instead walked over to see if the Anh Dao Hotel was open. It was also locked up so we really had no choice but to wait out in the streets for the city to wake up.
We walked back to a street corner near the travel agency, propped our backpacks against the pole of a dimly illuminated streetlight, and sat down on a small wooden street vendor's table which had been left out on the sidewalk. Considering the chaotic bustle we had encountered on our first arrival to Hanoi, the early morning silence in the Old Quarter was soothing and surprising. Sitting there in the half-light we perceived some other signs of life including a few people here and there along the streets taking advantage of the nightly reprieve from the oppresive daytime heat and humidity by sleeping on cots pulled out onto the sidewalk in front of their respective stores and homes. We also heard the occasional rooster crowing and noticed a couple of very industrious women plying the streets with large baskets of (presumably) freshly baked bread balanced on top of their heads. They were obviously in search of early rising customers such as ourselves and as soon as we were spotted, one of them made a beeline straight for our humble street corner. I had read that ancient Vietnamese wisdom considers seeing a woman early in the morning as a bad omen. I was about to find out why.
As she approached, the woman lowered her basket and as she was chattering away in Vietnamese, I inspected the contents. There were the usual baguettes and also a few smaller round rolls. I pointed to a baguette and asked how much it cost. She answered one thousand Dong, which I knew to be the correct price (or at least the correct tourist price). I was about to buy one when out of curiousity I pointed at one of the smaller rolls.
"Two thousand," she said. "Shoc-o-lat!"
"Chocolate?" I repeated, again pointing at the rather plain looking roll and giving her a quizzical look.
"Shoc-o-lat! Shoc-o-lat!," she urged emphatically while making gestures indicating that the rolls were filled with chocolate.
Well, in my sleep-deprived, undernourished state, a chocolate-filled tasty treat sounded like exactly what I needed! I gladly handed over a twenty thousand Dong note and carefully looked over the rolls to select the largest one. The woman produced my change in the form of a small clump of tightly folded bills which she pressed into my hand and moved to hoist her bread basket back on top of her head. Although very excited to consume my purchase, I hesitated for a second to briefly glance over my change. And a good thing that I did - instead of giving me nine 2,000 Dong bills, she had given me nine 200 Dong bills! I quickly registered what I perceived to be her honest mistake (in hindsight an obvious scam) and as she turned to walk away, quickly brought it to her attention. She mumbled a few words and exchanged the tightly folded wad of 200 Dong notes with the proper amount of 2000 Dong notes. As she walked off, I resumed my seat next to Sue on the small table.
With great expectations, I shoved half the roll into my mouth and bit down with salivating gusto and came up with...a mouthful of nothing. The roll was not at all filled with chocolate, nor "shoc-o-lat", nor even bread. It was merely a trojan horse of a sweet roll, a thin-crusted shell surrounding a payload of stale Hanoi air! I was furious. The unscrupulous bread vending woman was halfway down the empty street and as my string of loud verbal displeasure reverberated past her, she turned her head to give a furtive look as she quickened her pace. I jumped up and started after her, causing her to hurry faster, but I broke into a run and caught up with her.
"No shoc-o-lat!!" I cried, holding up the two halves of the bread bubble. "No shoc-o-lat! You give back money!"
She shook her head violently, letting fly a stream of loud, shrill Vietnamese that would wake the dead and tried to move past me, but I blocked her way. I repeated my demands with the same ear-piercing results, so I grabbed a baguette out of her basket to hold ransom. She didn't like that at all and berated me accordingly, but I stood firm. By now, the sky was getting lighter and the street began to stir. The scene attracted the attention of a couple of middle-aged men who approached us. In a state of vexed animation apparently unheard of in Hanoi at that hour of the morning, I explained my plight to the two men, hoping they could be persuaded to aid my cause. They listened with blank stares and when I finished they said nothing, as if not comprehending a single exasperated word. The woman let fly another barrage and the two men walked off.
She then made a couple of attempts at grabbing her baguette back, but I held it over my head, far out of her reach. As a result, the cadence of her speech became, if possible, even faster and the tone certainly more irate. A teenaged boy rode up on a motorbike and I thought now I would get somewhere as he probably spoke at least a bit of English. I again explained the situation and urged him to help me get my money back. He seemed amused and said a few words to the woman in Vietnamese. She responded with a new torrent of piercing abuse. The boy shrugged and rode away.
At this point I had had enough and decided to cut my losses. I gave the baguette a good squeezing to stamp it with my (foot)hand print and tossed it back into her basket. She glared at me evilly for an instant and then hurried off, presumably to con other unsuspecting foreigners.
I rejoined Sue on the street corner, sat down on the table, and pretended to enjoy my chocolateless roll. To pour salt in my wounds, or maybe because he did not appreciate all of the early moring excitement, an older man, one of the cot-inhabiting denizens of the street, walked up and tersely motioned us off the small table. It was now apparently needed for other purposes and off-limits to baguette-squeezing backpackers. We reluctantly stood up and he carried the table a few feet away, leaned it up against a storefront wall, waved his arms at us in a universal "not for you" gesture, and walked away.
We resorted to sitting on the low curb for the next hour or so, fending off a couple more would-be bread scammers, until the swankyish Tamarind Cafe opened down the road. We settled into a table, ordered coffee and tea (we couldn't afford the full breakfast), and read Asian editions of Decor magazine until the travel agency finally opened at eight o'clock.
We dragged ourselves over to the travel agency to find one of the three women whom we had dealt with a few days earlier. (We at first thought this was actually the same woman with whom Suzanne had sort of bonded with while looking at wedding photos, thereby raising our prospects of success.) Putting on our best we-want-to-sweet-talk-you-into-giving-us-a-refund smiles, we sat down with her and explained our unsatisfactory experience on the return train ride from Sapa and how we did not receive the service we had paid for. We quickly realized that this was not, in fact, the same woman with whom we had previously dealt and spent the next hour arguing back and forth with her over the justification for our refund. Sue finally pulled out all the stops and began to shed some crocodile tears while passionately explaining how the weekend had been our first wedding anniversary, how we were really treating ourselves by shelling out the US$15 for an air-conditioned sleeper car, and how devastating it was to find out that the reservation for said car would not be honored. The woman finally (and surprisingly) relented. Sue replaced her tears with a job-well-done smile and I eagerly counted and recounted our whopping two dollar refund. A couple minutes later we walked out into the now swarming street, feeling slightly silly that we had just wasted a whole hour and heaps of energy for two measly bucks. Well, after all, it was not so much the money, it was the principle, right? Besides, we had nothing better to do.
After stashing our backpacks in the storage room at the Anh Dao Hotel, we hired a couple of motorcycle taxis to drive us across town to the Daewoo Hotel to attend the service of the Hanoi International Church. We purposefully arrived an hour early in order to take advantage of the shower facilities next to the outdoor pool. After the service we could not bear spending the day walking around in the humidity, so we instead obliged ourselves of the plush sofas in the hotelīs air-conditioned lobby. Suzanne pushed the envelope of unquestioning luxury hotel hospitality by having a nap on a lounge chair out by the pool.
Late in the afternoon we sought to appease our ever-present craving for Western food by dining at an Australian owned restaurant called Al Fresco's. The guidebook reported that the place had served over 37 tons of ribs since 1996, and we were not disappointed. We each ordered the "jumbo" rack of ribs, prompting the waitress to reconfirm our choice and then bring another waitress who spoke slightly better English to our table to reconfirm again. We thought that a bit odd until our order came out. "Jumbo" was an understatement. The ribs were enormous and the staff seemed slightly amused, maybe even embarrassed, to be serving us two orders of them. Then again, I wondered how often they have a slob like me in for a meal. On the road for six months, eating mostly puny rice dishes, and craving even just one good rib. I finished everything on my plate and a good portion of Sue's as well. We had them wrap the few remaining ribs to take with us. Roar.
After dinner we walked back to the Old Quarter to retrieve our packs and then headed back to the travel agency. We would soon be beginning our journey south through Vietnam using the infamous Sinh Cafe Open Tour bus route, and our first trip was an overnight ride to the town of Hue. Along with a few other travellers, we waited for the bus to arrive, which it did, and only slightly late. It also seemed to be in reasonable condition. From the warnings and stories we had read in guidebooks and on the Internet about bus travel scams (not to mention our hellish bus ride experience coming to Hanoi from Laos), I had no expectations and was fearing the worst. But, I am happy to report that the ride was mostly uneventful. The only item of note is that this particular bus was equipped with the loudest horn on earth, emitting a blare far exceeding any jet engine in decibel level. Coupled with the driver's propensity for using it, this was a dangerous weapon. The discomfort of spending the night in the slightly too small bus seats was nicely enhanced by vacillating between being fully asleep and fully awake every few seconds with the aid of the bone-jarring horn.
Hue is located along the Huong ('Perfume') River in central Vietnam, not far from the South China Sea. It is also close to the infamous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the Central Highlands where some of the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam War took place. Containing the remains of the Imperial City of the once-powerful Ngyuen Dynasty inside the stone walls of the Citadel, several royal tombs, and many Buddhist temples and pagodas, Hue is regarded as Vietnam's spiritual and cultural center.
We arrived into town around eight o'clock in the morning and found the city to be agreeably less frenetic than Hanoi. The weather was beautiful, sunny and hot, but nowhere near as humid as in the north. We didn't get harrassed getting off the bus, and found our way to our accomodation of choice, the smallish Mimosa Hotel located down a small alley, quite easily. The staff was pleasant, the room was decent, and after storing our leftover ribs in the owner's refrigerator, we slept for a few hours in hornless bliss.
We awoke in the afternoon feeling refreshed and Sue went downstairs to retrieve our ribs from the refrigerator for a quick lunch before setting off to explore the town. She returned a few minutes later with a small pot and a confused look on her face. For some reason, the owner had chopped our ribs up into little pieces (bones and all), added some spices, and put them in a pot. It dawned on us that perhaps there had been a miscommunication and she thought we were giving them the ribs to keep. Either that or maybe she thought she was doing us a favor by chopping them up. We considered giving them back for about one second, decided against it, and picked the pot clean.
We walked down to the river and crossed over Trang Tien Bridge and through one of the massive gates leading into the Citadel. Initially begun by the founder of the Nguyen Dynasty, Emperor Gia Long, the Citadel is an enormous fortified wall, about ten kilometers square, surrounded by a large moat. Besides a good chunk of present day Hue, the Citadel houses the ancient Imperial City (Dai Noi), once home to the royal family. During the Tet Offensive of 1968 the city of Hue, and the Citadel in particular, was the site of a major battle with both sides suffering heavy casualties.
Our plan was to walk down to the gate of the Imperial City and possibly have a look inside, depending on the cost of admission. On the way we happened upon a small outdoor museum of sorts displaying various pieces of US Army artillery captured during the "American" War. While we were there, a couple of middle-aged men approached us and proposed a tour of the Citadel by cyclo (bicycle rickshaw). My instinct was to refuse any such offers so I was not immediately interested, but Sue talked with them for a while. They were sons of veterans of the South Vietnam army and she found them friendly and sincere. Considering the afternoon heat, it did not take long to convince me this was worth the 40,000 Dong (about US$2.50) they were charging.
Sue climbed into one cyclo and I rode in another. My driver's name was Mr. Ha Thuc Nho. He spoke little English, but Sue's driver was nearly fluent and filled us in on the history of the area and life in Hue. He also told us a bit about growing up during the war years and how he had lost his father and older brother fighting in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge. He reassured us that despite the history between our countries, the Vietnamese are quick to forgive and forget and foreigners are welcomed fondly. (In Hue at least, we found that to be true.)
We made a few stops while riding around the Citadel including a visit to a model traditional Vietnamese house restoration sponsored by UNESCO, a Buddhist pagoda, and a bastion built on top of the Citadel wall. Now surrounded by calm fields where farmers were tending to their crops, our guide explained how the bastion had been used in an ambush on American soldiers occupying another fortification along the wall during the Tet Offensive. Shattered stone, bullet holes, and actual bullets embedded in the walls attested to his story.
After an hour or so, they dropped us off near the gate to the Imperial City. We made plans to have them give us another tour by motorbike of the royal tombs and area surrounding Hue the following morning. We checked the admission price for the Imperial City and found it to be a bit expensive for our budget. Besides, it was late in the afternoon and we were hungry. We found our way to a tiny restaurant called Lac Thanh and sampled a local specialty, nem lui or "Hue pancake". It's basically grilled pork served with some vegetables, peanut sauce, and big circular sheets of rice paper. The idea is to roll the ingredients up in the rice paper, kind of like a fajita. It was pretty good.
We met up with our guides after breakfast and headed into the countryside surrounding Hue, Sue on the back of one motorbike and I on the other. Our first stop was at the Temple of Heaven Buddhist shrine, which was badly damaged during the Tet Offensive. There didn't seem to be much to see there, just a large raised stone platform, now strewn with trash. More interesting however, was the large group of teenagers in school uniforms, boys and girls, toting rifles near the entrance. We were the only foreigners around and quickly drew their attention. They were obviously talking about us, and we felt a bit uncomfortable. I asked our guide about it and he told us that the kids were students from a nearby school and they were taking part in drills and learning to fire weapons just in case they were called into the local militia. I couldn't verify this, but he gave us the feeling that this was the normal course for students everywhere in Vietnam.
We next made stops at a couple of the royal tombs of emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty, Khai Dinh and Tu Doc, and then had a quick look at the Royal Arena which was at one time used for pitting elephants against tigers for sport. From there we stopped at a working Buddhist monastery out in the middle of some thick forest. Our guide said the translated name was something like 'Three Hill Pagoda'. We arrived while the saffron-robed monks were eating their midday meal in complete silence. We felt a bit awkward, but our guide urged us into the courtyard adjacent to the monks' dining area so we could observe them. The monks were mostly young men and they were obviously aware of our presence. Although their faces remained expressionless, they occasionally cast a quick glance in our direction. We walked through the monastery grounds for a while and as a chime started ringing a while later, our guide hurried us back to the main temple to see the monks performing a daily chanting ritual in front of the big main Buddha image.
Our last stop was at Thien Mu Pagoda, a seven story structure situated on top of Ha Khe Hill above the Perfume River. The pagoda, the oldest in Hue, was originally constructed in 1844, but was recognized as an important religious site much earlier. In 1601, governor Nguyen Hoang declared the area sacred in an effort to bring prosperity after an old woman had a vision revealing the hill's supernatural nature. In modern times, the Buddhist monastery associated with the pagoda is known for it's outspoken protest of war and government activites. In the late 1950s, monk Quang Duc became the first monk to publicly immolate himself in Saigon.
In the afternoon, we used the next ticket in our Sinh Cafe Open Tour itinerary and hopped on a bus to the town of Hoi An, just a couple of hours south. We arrived by late afternoon and after rejecting the first the expensive hotel which the bus driver tried to push on us, found our way to another hotel which turned out to have rude front desk staff. Hungry, frustrated, and encumbered with our packs and a good deal of perspiration we wandered around a bit and came across a friendly Australian couple who directed us to the Pho Hoi II Hotel located on Cam Nam island in the river just across a small bridge from the town center. For US$10 we got friendly service and a nice big clean room with air-conditioning. No worries, mate!
We showered and went out to find a restaurant that the Australian couple had also recommended. The place was called FAIFO (a name that Hoi An is known by to some Europeans) and served up a delicious menu of local specialties including lao cai (a super-tasty noodle dish), "white roses" (steamed shrimp in rice paper), hoanh thanh (fried wontons), and whole steamed fish.
After dinner, we took a stroll through the really neat (I think I may be a bit too young yet to use the word 'charming') riverfront area. The small streets are lined with historic buildings and lit in places by hanging lanterns. There are also a good deal of tiny family-owned tailor shops, making Hoi An a great place to get some really inexpensive custom made clothes. I considered having a silk suit made while we were there, but decided against it since I was so far off my normal weight. Plus, as I told Sue, when would I ever need to wear a suit again? Work? What's that? Sue didn't think it was very funny.
Dave enjoying the air-conditioned lobby of the Daewoo Hotel , Hanoi
Now that's a rack of ribs! (Alfresco's Cafe, Hanoi)
American artillery remnants (1), The Citadel, Hue
American artillery remnants (2), The Citadel, Hue
American artillery remnants (3), The Citadel, Hue
American artillery remnants (4), The Citadel, Hue
Sue touring the Citadel by cyclo, Hue
Dave and guide Mr. Ha Thuc Nho
Houses along a canal inside the Citadel, Hue
Four hundred year old orphange, The Citadel, Hue
Bastille atop the Citadel wall, Hue
Overlooking position of US troops from Viet Cong position used during the Tet Offensive, The Citadel, Hue
Evidence of Tet Offensive firefight, The Citadel, Hue
Bullet lodged in outer wall of Viet Cong position along the Citadel wall, Hue
Sue and our guide at the entrance to a Viet Cong fortification along the Citadel wall, Hue
Farmer at work, The Citadel, Hue
Gate tower in the Citadel wall, Hue
Flying kites in front of the Flagpole of Hue
Outside an emperor's tomb, Hue
Lake pavilion, Tomb of Tu Duc, Hue
Wall mosaic, Tomb of Tu Duc, Hue
Wall mosaic detail, Tomb of Tu Duc, Hue
Thuong Khiem Gate, Tomb of Tu Duc, Hue
Sue looking pretty tombed-out in front of Thuong Khiem Gate, Tomb of Tu Duc, Hue
Vegetated moat, Tomb of Tu Duc, Hue
Burial area elephant, Tomb of Tu Duc, Hue
Dave getting nowhere asking for directions, Tomb of Tu Duc, Hue
Joss sticks for sale, Hue
Buddhist monastery (1), Hue
Buddhist monastery (2), Hue
Buddhist monastery (3), Hue
Buddhist monastery (4), Hue
Buddhist monastery (5), Hue
Buddhist monastery (6), Hue
Buddhist monastery (7), Hue
Buddhist monastery (8), Hue
Buddhist monastery (9), Hue
Buddhist monastery (10), Hue
Buddhist monastery (11), Hue
Buddhist monastery (12), Hue
Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue
Mosaic detail, Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue
Hey Sue! Pull my finger!! (Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue)
"Who's da man? I'm da man!!" (Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue)
"HAHAHAHAHA!!!!!" (Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue)
Ringing the bell, Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue