Wednesday, February 2, 2011

That's just the Hue it is..

Continuing North through Vietnam, the next designated stop on the Touristic HCM Trail is the ancient capital of the Nguyen dynasty, the history-filled city of Hue (pronounced hu-ay). I was chatting with my seat-mate on a Hue-bound bus when I began boasting about/ lamenting my condition as an over-planner. On the one hand, whenever I arrive into a city, I know exactly where I am going, have a good idea what I am getting (via reviews and travel boards) and sometimes even have arranged pick-ups so I can skip all the tout-related harassment. On the other hand, I know I missing out on some of that spontaneity and 'live in the moment' spirit of travel that non-planners crow about. Given the number of backpackers I have seen late at night, lugging their stuff from place to place, trying to find a bed in any place that will have them, I am generally ok with the trade-off.

But just when you think you have it all under control, the travel gods come along and sneak a whoopie cushion under our ass. Such was the case in Hue. I arrived at the highly recommended Nino hotel, with my printed months-old reservation form, and was warmly greeted into a lovely antique-filled lobby. After two cups of tea and a few furtive phone calls taking place behind the desk, it dawned on me that something was wrong. I soon learned that something was the fact that I had arrived on Dec. 17th but thanks to a drop-down menu glitch had made my reservation for Nov. 17th. The conversation I'd just had came roaring back to me. Here I was, with all my bags and nowhere to stay... precisely in the situation I work so diligently to avoid. I was so busy fuming at my mistake that I did not notice that the well-documented hospitality of the hotel staff had already kicked in. The manager had made some calls and gotten me discounted rates at some nearby hotels and then put his brother to the task of touring me around downtown Hue, showing me all my options, all the while apologizing for what was unquestionably my screw-up. It only took two stops to find a winner, the modern, airy Ideal hotel right in the center of the bar/ restaurant action. The Nino's manager had arranged a spacious $60 room with a balcony and my own private garden for way less. It was somewhere I never would have booked, based on the listed price, but now that I was there, I loved it.

I settled in, quickly decided that the two night I'd allotted for Hue were not enough if I was to have a burbling fountain on my very own balcony and added a third night. This out-of-the-blue spontaneous decision (made after carefully pricing flight tickets onto Hanoi and making the proper hotel arrangements) suddenly freed me up to take a more casual approach to seeing the city. I grabbed a map and strolled across the bridge in the direction of the citadel. My plan was to grab lunch from one of the many street-side cafes, the ones with the plastic tables and little kid's seats and walk around at least the first layer of the city within a city.

The walled city has three distinct sections. The outer ring, still home to a large number of people and full of parks and open spaces.   Going a little deeper, after purchasing an entrance ticket, there is another set of gates, leading to the Royal Citadel, where the imperial court worked and resided. And finally, there is the Forbidden City, once home to the Royal family, now sadly a piles of post-war rubble. My walk fell short of reaching even level #1. The reason is a combination of the persistant army of cyclo-taxis circling around and my own uncertainty about just how big this citadel is. How persistent were they? The sidewalk restaurant I ate at was run by a deaf/ mute gentleman.  When he saw me chatting with a cyclo guy, he came outside with a cardboard sign detailing his own tour.  How big was it? Big.

Following my new surge of spontaneity, I hired a guy I'd met earlier, who seemed affable enough and whose name I never managed to get right (I eventually resorted to mumbling something that I thought came close).

We spent the next hour or so cruising around residential areas I know I would not have made it to on foot, taking photos, visiting temples and getting a lesson in some basic Vietnamese phrases.

Eventually, he dropped me off at the Flag Tower, across from the Ngo Mon gate, the main entrance to the Royal Citadel. This also happens to be the capital of cyclo-land. No sooner had I gotten off of one, than a cyclo-dude approached me offering a tour of the area. Me: "Thanks but I just got off a cyclo. I just did a tour". Him: "Oh, ok. (pause) So, maybe later?" Me: "No, no. I was just on a cyclo. I did a tour. Just now. That's my guy peddling away right there"(now with exaggerated hand gestures thrown in). Him: "Ok, ok, yes, yes. (pause) So, maybe later?" Me: "Yes. Maybe later."

Funnily enough, I was back there later. The next day, to be precise, but this time as part of a city tour. Our first stop was the Citadel, where we were led into the Royal Citadel and given a surprisingly thorough explanation of the Nguyen Dynasty and their importance to the region. We also entered into the Forbidden or Purple City, but saw primarily reconstruction work funded by both the government and UNESCO making efforts to rebuild palaces that were bombed into oblivion during the war.

We continued to a former princess' home, noted primarily for its garden. Apparently princesses and green thumbs went (pun alert) hand-in-hand since there are a number princess owned garden homes in the area. Following our botanical lesson, we headed towards the river's edge to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda. The legend behind the nine story pagoda involves an old wise woman foretelling a Lord building a Buddhist pagoda and a resulting prosperity for the nation. In 1601, Lord Nguyen Hoang complied and build this temple complex, whose name translates to "heaven fairy lady".

The grounds are guarded by fierce looking warriors who belie the calm sense of well-being that permeates the temple itself. I can't really explain it, but I left there feeling a renewed sense of contentment. Perhaps I was just having one of those "Wow. I'm really here" moments that hit me sometimes.

After a quick lunch stop, we left the city and headed into the outskirts of town, much as the Nguyen emperors did once their number came up. This is the area where the elaborate tombs commemorating their lives and achievements can be found, but oddly enough, not their actual bodies..those are hidden where no one can find them. The first one we visited was the very pretty Ming Mang's tomb. The work was begun while the emperor was still alive, but was not completed until after his death. As with all the tombs, a water feature was incorporated in order to create proper feng shui.

The second was my favorite, Khai Dinh's tomb. This emperor was thought to be a puppet for the French, had a crippling gambling and drug addition and was completely out of touch with his people. He was also really short and in the tradition of wee men everywhere, did his utmost to compensate. His tomb is a extravagant blend of Asian and European elements.


In planning the project, he sent his men to China to  bring back the most beautiful porcelains they could find, all so his artists could smash them into bits and use them for the mosaic work. There is also enough gold gilting to make Liberace shriek with envy.

One consistent element about all the cheapie tours I did throughout Vietnam was the emphasis on time management. The guides are given very little to no leeway in the schedule, so if one person is late, the whole thing gets thrown off. When they announce a 10 minute stop, you are guaranteed that it will not be 11 minutes. This is why I was so thrilled when our one shopping stop, at a conical hat and incense making store, was listed as an 8 minute stop. We were in, we were out, we smelled nice.

We still had one more tomb to visit, that of Emperor Tu Doc. Whether through better planning, a more reliable contractor or just good genes (unlikely since he was a royal), this tomb was actually completed within the lifetime of its intended honoree. He was even able to use a portion of the grounds as his summer palace.

We concluded our day with a cruise down the Perfume River.

And I concluded my night by going to the DMZ bar to watch the Vietnam v. Malaysian Asian Cup game. Not being much of a sports fan, I went for the ambiance and because I'd been promised a free headband (it doesn't take much, I know). I got both and more. During the game, a waiter had handed out raffle tickets. I had no clue what they were raffling, but like the headband, the ticket was free, so I took it. When the game was over, there were some announcements in Vietnamese and then a number was called in number. Not really knowing what was going on, I did the only thing I could think of. I jumped up and ran to the stage waving my ticket around like a crazy person and hoping dearly that I had not just agreed to pay the entire bar's tab. I soon learned I had won the grand prize, a veritable bounty of gifts. I got a DMZ t-shirt, a $10 gift certificate and a San Miguel beer that I think was intended for me (if not, then that waitresses had no business coming so close to me in the middle of my grabbing frenzy). First, the cool hotel room, now this...Hue was one turning out to be one seriously lucky city for me.

Of course, I was not feeling quite so lucky the following morning when I had to wake up at 5:30am for a tour of the De-militarized Zone, or the real DMZ. This area divided North and South Vietnam and was one of the areas to see the most intense fighting during the war, therefore this was primarily a "battle tour". Not being much a war buff, I'd gone back and forth, deciding if this was something I wanted to do, but a third day at the Citadel seemed like too much, so here I was. I napped for most of the drive to Dong Ha, but whenever I opened my eyes, I was pleasantly surprised by the lushness of my surroundings.

A good indication of what to expect was our first stop. We pulled over on the side of the road, looking at something that had been listed on the tour flier as a "pile of rocks". It was an area that had once been used as a helicopter landing area and lookout point by the US military, but now looked like an ordinary mountainside or, well, a pile of rocks. In my eyes, it made for a nice nature stop, nothing more, nothing less.

Ditto with the second stop, a bridge that marks the beginning of one of the many Ho Chi Minh trails, routes used by the North Vietnamese to get supplies through and communicate with their Southern counterparts.

Our next stop, the Khe Sanh US base, site of some of the fiercest battles and now a small museum, had more obvious war significance, but again, I was more struck by the beauty of the surrounding areas. Nature and life had reclaimed their rightful place among the green rolling hills. It made me wonder whether forty years from now, people from all over the world will be visiting and appreciating the history and the beauty of Iraq and Afghanistan.

For a totally non-war related stop, we were to visit a minority village. I'd already done this a number of times and thought I knew the routine. You meet a family, walk around some homes and play with some kids. Not so, this time. The bus pulled over on the side of the road, leaving the tourists and the villagers to stare at each other across a wide gulf. We did not approach them, nor they us. It was surreal and exploitative, in a safari game park sort of way. The part I expected to enjoy the most about the tour became the part I enjoyed the least.

The final stop of the tour was the Vinh Moc tunnels, an underground city built out of necessity. The people of the area were subjected to near constant bombings, still evident by the myriad of bomb craters dotting the landscape. In order to survive, they built a series of tunnels they could use for shelter. Unlike the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon, these are large enough for someone my height (5'6") to stand erect in and are much wider, without the need of tourist-friendly expansions, the difference being that the Cu Chi tunnels were built for fighting, while these were built more for living.

 To that effect, there were kitchens, meeting areas and even a maternity room where 17 children were born. We met one of those children, who is clearly physically and mentally handicapped, but considering the use of agent orange, the near certain malnutrition, the years he spent below ground, it is amazing that he is still around and cheerfully greeting visitors.

It was a two hour drive back to Hue, all through more of the gorgeous scenery I had slept through earlier. By the time I got back, I was starving, a fortunate fact since I still had a $10 or 20,000 dong gift certificate to use up. It may not sound like much, but it was enough to get me the following: a caprese salad, 2 glasses of the most expensive wine on the menu, a medium sized veggie pizza and two scoops of ice cream...and I still came out with a buck to spare.

Stuffed beyond words, I took one last walk around town and returned to my hotel to enjoy a final night with my hot shower and whimsical balcony. After all, you can't just plan on getting that lucky the next time.