We left Hanoi in a dizzying flurry as I scrambled to get my work done before we had to leave for the airport. It was a mad scramble. We barely had time to hit the coffee shop. Vietnamese coffee, for those unfamiliar, is a small cup of very thick, almost extract-like stuff. It is sweetened with condensed milk. Most Vietnamese drink theirs over ice, but concerns about the quality of the tap water relegated us to warm coffee in the coffee shops. The backpacker places are okay, but we greatly preferred the vibe at the locals’ shops. But we mostly went to the local corner coffee. Sitting on the corner by the giant viney tree that has a mouse living in it, listening to the sounds of the songbirds and watching the world ride by on motorcycles is what it’s all about. We became regulars at the corner shop, such that we did not need to place an order, just merely sit down and they knew what we wanted.
We rode out to Hanoi airport, a little sad that the place didn’t work out. We found ways to make it more relaxed and enjoyable, but it was certainly not going to fit the bill for a two-month stand. A more complicated autumn awaits us, on the road, traveling the length of Vietnam.
We arrived in Hue after a short flight on a prop plane. I hate props. I don’t trust them very much.
We sensed the more laid back vibe immediately, much to our relief. Our hotel was friendly upon arrival and soon we were off to dinner. It was across the street, at a fairly uninteresting touristy place with the live ethnic band and things like that. We loved the beer-steamed crab though. So sweet and succulent, one of the best crabs I’ve ever had.
We then paid a visit to the DMZ. No, not the demilitarized zone, DMZ is a bar. A dive bar for expats and tourists, basically. Loud, crappy music downstairs so we sat upstairs. It was a very laid back scene. We investigated the town’s three indigenous beers – Hue Beer, Huda and Festival, the latter being the clear winner.
It started, slowly, to rain. On the way back to the hotel, it opened up for real, soaking us. Well, me, since Sun had brought her umbrella. It was the beginning of Typhoon Mirinae, which actually hit much further south, but spend two days lashing us with its tail. The next day, the rain was near legendary. We got a break long enough to get dinner and get back to DMZ. We sat on the upper balcony under the tin roof and the skies opened once again, pummeling down on the defenseless city. Winds were gusting and the power went out, but the show went on. Stay and drink in a dark bar or go outside in the middle of a tropical storm? Not a tough choice, really.
After two days of storm, a minor lull allowed us to take in the Citadel under drizzly skies. Hue was once an imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, which lasted for 150 years or so, albeit half of them as a vassal to the French and later the Japanese. The Nguyen “Kaisers”, as we keep overhearing from German-speaking tour guides, left a handful of monuments, none more impressive than the sprawling citadel with its own forbidden city, modeled after the one in Beijing.
When the emperors died, they were interred at special tombs, which are park-like complexes devoted to their well-being in the afterlife. Each of these is an attraction unto itself. They’re a bit outside town, so we rented a scooter and went to visit.
We picked the wrong day. You see, even without a typhoon Hue in November is a wet place to be. The city gets 3.6 times the amount of rain in November as Vancouver does. And 2.7 times the amount that Miami gets in June, that city’s wettest month. Basically Hue combines the tropical storm downpours of Miami in June with the constant grey and showers of Vancouver in November. Rock on.
So we were armed for the rain. We had ponchos, like everyone else in Hue. We had one bag under the seat with plastic bags around our valuables. Sun kept her purse under the poncho. She had an umbrella as well and a hoodie too. I had my jacket, a spare shirt and a hat. We did our best, but it wasn’t enough. WE GOT SOAKED. The rain poured all day.
We saw the Minh Mang tomb – very peaceful and impressive grounds – but could not get the scooter through the mud road to the Kai Dinh tomb. We tried. I crashed through puddles and powered my way out of mud pits. But a dip in the road provided a mud pit too much for a mere scooter to handle. I gave it a go but realized it just wasn’t going to work. So we turned back. In town, we caught some sites, including a pagoda.
The Thien Mu Pagoda is on a pleasant grounds with Buddhist gardens. Monks and nuns chanted in one of the main buildings. On the grounds was also the car that took monk Quang Duc to Saigon, where he burned himself to death in protest against the government – an event best remembered by its iconic photograph.
Hue is a peaceful place, an easy place to spend time. There’s a day or two’s worth of tourist stuff to do, but for the most part we worked and relaxed, happy to get a taste of the Southeast Asia we love. We’ve eaten a lot of Buddhist food, which is strictly vegetarian. One place has a pretty good menu and we’ve gone back. We found a lunch place with simple, excellent food including the most complex example of bun bo Hue I’ve found – the city’s iconic noodle soup. It’s got beef, pork ball, congealed pig’s blood and the whole thing.
The clouds parted as we left for Hoi An…d’oh!