I swallowed a bug: two nights in Hue (pt. 1)

Our arrival in Hue was inauspicious, to say the least. After three hours on the bus, we pulled in on a random street in Hue’s backpackers’ district, and were summarily discharged with our bags, to be set upon by ravening hordes of hotel touts. At least three of them were shoving their cards in our faces within the first 30 seconds after we’d disembarked, and one of them was so persistant that he followed us down the street trying to get our attention, even though we’d already said “we have a reservation” about a zillion times, and even his friends were trying to get him to desist. After the drinks scam in Hoi An and the postcard hawkers along the Hai Van Pass, it was a bit much, and Miranda and I were both getting unusually short with them very quickly.

After about a block of dragging our stuff and resisting the urge to stiff-arm the touts, a lone meter cab showed up. We could have kissed him. A few seconds later, we were on our way to our hotel, Tranh Noi (“Royal Garden” I think), a sprawling place in the old quarter. We checked in with no incident, to a room that was substantially nicer-looking than we were expecting for $15/night.

After dropping all my bags on the second bed, I poked my head into the bathroom to rinse off my face, turned on the light and exhaust fan, and made the terrible mistake of looking up: through the whirring blades of the fan, I had a clear and unobstructed view on up to the roofbeams. (Shades of the converted nunnery we stayed at in China!) It’s a weird quirk of my brain that unexpected views into a building’s non-habitable structures are something I find deeply creepy, and I resolved to keep my eyes at horizon level in that bathroom thereafter.

Poking through Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide, we found that most of the town’s restaurants were back in the backpackers’ quarter where we’d just been, and had no urge to return to. There were only two listed as anywhere near our hotel, and feeling deeply unambitious and a little tired after the long bus trip, we set out after the nearest one.

While the old quarters of Saigon and Hanoi tend to be the densest, most urban parts of the city, Hue is quite different: the old quarter is actually the old Imperial City, modelled (quite consciously, by the Nguyen emporers) after China’s Forbidden City. The old quarter lies on the far side of the Perfume River from the rest of the city, seperated further by 12’ tall and 8’ thick brick walls, with occasional breaks in them that, once sized for a single elephant, now serve as a chokepoint for the nightly traffic of scooters and cyclos. Inside the city walls, the streets are wide (by Vietnamese standards) and widely spaced, and many of the large blocks created are used entirely for parkland. The sidewalks are tree-lined (and often tree-in-the-middle-of-for-no-discernable-reason-ed), and traffic is light by local standards (there seems to be some restrictions on how many or what kind of cars can come into the old city): it makes for a lovely stroll in the evening.

…which was good, because after ten minutes of strolling, we determined that the numbering scheme on the streets made no sense whatsoever. I think that the problem was that the two sides of the streets were numbered independently, and numbering was reset at one of the avenues, but I wouldn’t swear to it. In any case, it took about 15 minutes longer than we’d expected to find our restaurant, and when we got there, disaster struck: it was no longer there! An apologetic gentleman at the house at the listed address handed us the restaurant’s business card, which listed a different address; apparently they had moved to a different location. A little disappointed (and a touch embarrassed at having barged into what appeared to now be just a private residence), we marched off toward the second-closest restaurant, a place called “Lac Thanh” by Lonely Planet, and “Lac Thien” by Rough Guide. Apparently a local institituion, it was purportedly run by a deaf-mute and his family, and one ordered by pointing and signing. Since this was pretty much how we’d had to order at every other restaurant in Viet Nam, this didn’t strike us as much of a hardship.

When we reached the listed address (which was just on the other side of the river, requiring the somewhat hair-raising process of walking through the one of the wall tunnels), the reason for the confusion between the two books became clear, and we got an illuminating example of how microcapitalism functions, Vietnamese-style: there were not one, but three “Lac Thanh/Thien/Thian” restuarants on this one streetcorner. All of them purport to be run by deaf-mutes, each one of them claimed on their signs to be the “real Lac (whatever)” endorsed by Lonely Planet, and of course all three of them were being hawked by a group of energetic touts. (To make matters even more confusing, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide disagree on which one of the three was the original one.) Normally by this point we would have turned right around and tried to find a likely street vendor somewhere, but it was late and we were famished, so we picked the one nearest to us (Lac Thanh, I think) and let the tout drag us to a table. Figuring that we’d be safer from the street hawkers, we took a table on the upstairs balcony…

…we figured wrong. Before anyone even tried to take our order, two hawkers who’d seen us enter the restaurant had followed us up to our table, and tried to sell us on, first, a set of watercolor paintings of local scenery, and then our choice of old chinese-style coins. The coins were demonstrated to us by ceremoniously dumping them all over the table in front of us, and by this time I could have happily committed murder for a spring roll.

Finally, after I’d very pointedly gathered up the coins myself and dumped them back into the hawker’s bag, we were given menus. We both order variations on the same thing: a dish comprised of roasted chicken, assorted greens and green banana slices, which we rolled up in ricepaper and ate as rolls with various dipping sauces. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either, and I was hungry enough that I didn’t care. I ordered a bottle of the local lager, Huda, which turned out to not only be cheaper than Tiger and 333 (Vietnam’s national brands), but also substantially better. The combination of full stomachs, beer, and a merciful lack thereafter of hawkers improved our moods enough that we decided to stay for dessert, and we both ordered the coconut ice cream with chocolate sauce.

When brought to us (by a waiter who made an elaborate show of signing to us when we ordered, and who then immediately returned to the next room to watch the Vietnamese national soccer team on the TV…with the sound on?), this turned out to be a pair of cafeteria-style single-serving sealed cardboard ice cream bowls, accompanied by a tin of chocolate syrup that had been perforated with a swiss army knife. Oh well, ice cream is ice cream, right? We both pulled the tops off the bowls, drizzled on a little syrup and dug in. Sure enough, it was coconut ice cream with chocolate sauce, and if it wasn’t homemade, it was still acceptably sweet.

After my first two bites, I noticed that there was a small green blob just below the surface of the ice cream where I was about to dig in. Figuring that it was probably green coconut jelly, or pandan, or something equally innocuous, I spooned it out and put it into my mouth…

…only to have my mouth, nose and sinuses suffused with the smell and taste of rotting corpses!

Trust me, there is no mistaking that taste for anything else in the world. While relatively dilute compared to my last encounter with the stuff, it was still monstrously noxious. I reluctantly swallowed, and informed Miranda that we were, in fact, eating Coconut Durian Surprise. But weirdly, her ice-cream appeared to be entirely durian-free! We huddled together and compared cups. Same logo. Same name. Same picture on the front. Idential ingredient lists. And yet: one cup durian-enabled, and one not. The best I can figure was some sort of horrible factory mix-up, although Miranda suggested that perhaps the durians of the world were trying to express their affection for me, a thought too horrible to bear much further contemplation. Luckily, the solution was obvious: we swapped cups, and Miranda happily enjoyed her rotting-corpse-coconut ice cream, while I returned to my happily durian-free existence.

And thus, basically, ended our first night in Hue.

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