I swallowed a bug: two nights in Hue (pt. 2)

Jeeze, these are long-winded. Time to start putting stuff behind cuts.

Our first full day in Hue dawned with us more or less waking up in time for our 6:30am alarm, which was a marked improvement in our jet-lagginess from the previous days, which had all involved waking up at 4:30 or so and then tossing fitfully until the alarm went off. Miranda had made reservations for a boat trip to the imperial tombs, departing at 8am from the hotel lobby, so we quickly tried to shower and get breakfast…

…only to find that (a) there was no hot water, and (b) the bathroom had a small ant problem. Well, actually a large problem of small ants. I took a rather abbreviated washcloth-bath, flicked the ants off my tooth and hairbrushes, and wandered over to the hotel restuarant (a charming semi-enclosed building inside a tiny chinese-style garden complete with footbridge) to quickly gulp down some coffee and rolls before setting out.

Or such, anyway, was the plan. The reality went a bit different: as I was working my way through my second cup of coffee, there was an enormous roll of thunder that shook the silverware on my table, and what had previously been a mild mist turned suddenly and irrevocably into a torrential downpour. Since we were allegedly slated to take motorcycle taxis from the hotel over to the boat dock, and I had not actually brought a rain poncho with me, this struck me as poorly timed, and I dashed back to the room to strategize with Miranda. We quickly came to the conclusion that getting onto the back of a moped in this kind of weather was not exactly the kind of excitement we’d had in mind for the day, and we were just wondering what the chances were of the hotel letting us re-book the trip for the next day when the room phone rang: it was the hotel travel desk, wondering if we’d like to re-book the tour for the next day? Problem solved.

That left this day free to poke around the old Imperial Citadel…if only the weather would cooperate. After about an hour of sipping coffee in the hotel restaurant, the rain finally slowed up to a steady drizzle, and we figured it was now or never. Luckily, the hotel was just a short walk and very pretty walk along the lily-filled moats to the citadel entrance, and we quickly got our tickets and entered just in front of a small horde of Japanese tourists.

Like the Forbidden City in China, Hue’s Imperial Citadel is a city-within-the-city, surrounded by its own wall (with seperate entrances at the front for mandarins, civilians, elephants and the imperial retinue), with assorted administrative (mandarin) and other (the imperial library, the empress’ quarters, etc) buildings surrounding a central core (the Forbidden Purple City) reserved for the emporer’s sole and personal use. Unlike the Forbidden City in China, the Citadel was bombed mercilessly for about 30 years: first by the French, and then by the Americans. Most of the Forbidden Purple City is just open fields and blasted wall fragments now, but enough of the outbuildings survive to give you an idea of how impressive it must have looked before the fall, and the ruined buildings have a definite “look upon my works ye mighty and despair” sort of majesty to them.

We spent most of the morning poking through the citadel, occasionally getting pinned down in one of the buildings when the rain started coming down harder again. The halls of the mandarins have been converted into museums and gift shops, and several large buildings in the eastern quadrant have become the Hue Academy of Music, so we were treated to the somewhat disconcerting (but highly amusing) sound of a trumpter and a pianist both practicing scales as we picked our way over the ruins. The rain and cloud cover both kept the temperature within relatively tolerable limits for once, and seemed to keep the number of other tourists in the area rather low, so it was actually a perfectly lovely time.

By 1-oclock, we’d managed to make a complete circuit of the citadel, and headed off into town to get some lunch, cash some travellers’ checks, make travel arrangements to Hanoi and do some shopping. We got as far as lunch: we’d just settled down for some odd but tasty meat-on-a-stick-wrapped-with-ricepaper things at a traveller’s cafe called “Stop and Go” when the rain got tired of fucking around and began to come down in earnest. For the next two hours, as we ate our food and sipped our tea, we watched as sheets and sheets of rain pounded Hue’s streets. Luckily for us, Hue’s rain sewers appeared to be made of sterner stuff than Saigon’s, so at least on the block we were on, there was no flooding.

About halfway through the storm, an older woman walked in off the streets, selling…rain ponchos! A few minutes of enthusiastic haggling later, I was the proud owner of a new, bright purple vinyl poncho, and the hawker was happily walking off with my money.

An interesting cultural observation of, as far as I can tell, absolutely no significance whatsoever: although Viet Nam and southern China are both prone to the same sort of violent downpours during the rainy season, umbrellas are virtually unknown in VN, while in China — or Shanghai at least — ponchos were almost universally abjured in favor of umbrellas. If I had to guess, I’d blame this on the Vietnamese enthusiasm for motor scooters (which they are quite happy to ride in the rain) as compared to increasingly car-centric China, but it may just be as simple as an unwillingness to pay for new umbrella after new umbrella after they are inevitably destroyed by the wind.

At long last, the rain finally slacked off enough to make walking possible again, and we toddled off in search of a travel agency to book our last leg of transit to Hanoi. Conveniently, there was one just about two blocks down, on a street that had had far less luck with its sewers and was now completely flooded out. After some perusal of schedules, we realized that another overnight train trip wasn’t in the cards: the next day’s boat trip was going to put us back in town no earlier than 4pm, and the next train that we had any chance of making wouldn’t put us in Hanoi until 2pm the next day. Luckily, Vietnam Air tickets to Hanoi weren’t actually much more expensive than the train, so we booked a pair, a process that involved going out into the rain and getting quite lost attempting to find the nearest branch of VietComBank in order to cash some travellers checks in order to actually afford the tickets. (A process that was almost, but not quite, amusing enough to warrant writing up.)

Tickets in hand, we spent the rest of the afternoon poking through Hue’s Dong Ba market, a block-square, indoor-outdoor market that sits on the shore of the Perfume River. Here, we were treated to an interesting scheme: a small boy came up to us while we were sitting down so Miranda could drink some sugarcane juice, and stuck out his hand for a donation. Not really feeling like encouraging begging for cash, I handed him one of the mangosteens I’d just bought. After a bit of back and forth, he gathered that I just wasn’t going to give him money, so he took the offered mangosteen…and turned around and sold it right back to the woman I’d bought it from, for 1,000 VND. Waste not, want not I guess.

A small comment here on Vietnam’s markets: One of the things I most love about travelling in Asia is the markets. They tend to be huge, sprawling, unbelieveably dense, and have literally everything from shoes to food to fabric to blacksmithing equipment for sale. I can happily wander through them for hours, just soaking up the kind of old-time direct commerce that you really don’t get in the States anymore. The meat and fish sections, however, can be a bit of an olfactory danger: there’s usually no refridgeration at all. The markets in Thailand and China tended to get a little gaseous after mid-morning, and the meat market in Siem Reap, Cambodia was hands-down the foulest place I have ever been in. The meat sections of Vietnam’s markets, however, were amazingly clean: even in the late afternoon, I never ran into more than a hint of rotting smell anywhere. I’m not entirely certain how they managed it, but it gave me a lot more confidence in the food I was eating, especially at the street stands.

On our way out from Dong Ba and back to the hotel, we stopped at a public phone in order to reserve a hotel for the single extra night we suddenly were going to have in Hanoi by virtue of taking the plane there. We picked a backpackers’ hotel more or less at random out of Lonely Planet, and when we spoke to them were sternly admonished to not let our taxi driver try to tell us that they were closed or full. This turned out to be sadly prescient, but that story gets told two chapters hence…

Back at the hotel, while Miranda spent some time checking her email and updating her journal, I sat at the bar nursing a tonic water, hoping to settle down a suddenly jumpy stomach. It was dusk by that point, and while I was sitting there, there was a sudden cacophany of shouting and drumming over by the restuarant. Wandering over, it appeared that the Mid-Autumn Festival was in full swing: a troupe of about seven boys, around 7 or 8 years old, had wandered in off the street and was performing a lion dance for the very amused staff and handful of customers at the hotel. I handed a few of my small bills to the boy playing the lion-tamer role, who dutifully put them on his fan and “fed” them to the lion. It was almost unbearably cute, and a great way to end the day.

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