2007- Entry 6: Hue to Hanoi, Vietnam

OMG! I got back from dinner and turned on the TV….. “Vietnam Idol” was on! Is there NO escape? It was pretty bad no matter what language you sing in!

The bus from Savanakhet, Laos left (surprisingly) on time. It was a nice small, air-conditioned thing and only about three-quarters full! Well, it wasn’t long before we were packed as our nice little bus soon became the local airconditioned bus to Vietnam! At one point two more women got on and I could not for the life of me see where they would sit. Not to worry, small plastic chairs came out of the back of the bus and were set up down the aisle. The countryside was rather bland with very neat villages and lots of goat herds. It wasn’t long before we were heading for the highlands and mountains that separate the two countries.

We knew we were approaching the border when two ladies got on with handfuls of “dong,” the Vietnamese currency. I had checked the exchange rate before I left, so I got a pretty good exchange from them. But only after bartering back and forth! The closer we got to the border, the better the rate they offered. We were quickly processed through the Lao border and got back on the bus for the short hop to the Vietnamese offices in Lao Bao. Here the officers went through the passports and visa with a fine-toothed comb. I managed to get through quickly, but a Dutch guy was delayed because his picture does look a bit different from the way he looks in person. We stopped for lunch and then headed to Dong Ha in Vietnam. When the bus arrived, it was a short walk to the bus station where we got a van for the one hour trip to Hue.

Met a Vietnamese guy heading for Hue on the van who spoke some English and he gave me a quick lesson in Vietnamese. He also made suggestions on places to go in Hue. The city of Hue is terrific! Divided by the Perfume River, the north side was the domain of the Nguyen emperors and the south was that of the French. Most of the hotels are located in the old French area, so they are very narrow and charming just like the streets. The streets are a mass of pedicabs, motorcycles, pedestrians and few cars and buses. The hotel I stayed in, The Orchid, was the friendliest and cleanest place I have stayed in for a long time. I would strongly recommend it. Got in rather late (7PM), so I grabbed a dinner of beef soup and noodles (about $1.25). The food here is magnificent. Lots of meats, noodles, vegetables and rice dishes.

On two of the days in Hue, I rented a bike for $1.00 per day and cycled everywhere despite the heat. Had a problem with my ongoing plans. As it turns out, this is the high travel season for Vietnamese (schools are closed for break), trains are virtually always full with travelers! I had to stay an extra night in Hue as I couldn’t get a train out on the weekend. (That was fine with me!) The only real problem was that I had difficulty getting a train to Sapa! As it ended up, I can only go there for two days and one night, but that will give me a chance to see if I like it enough to stay longer the next time. I can also get to Halong Bay for a day, too. It is supposed to be spectacular. Whatever, says I. I’m just going with the flow at this point.

Visited a lot of interesting places in and around Hue. Too many to mention here. This is where the Nguyen emperors ruled in the 18th to 20th centuries. They were buried in somewhat elaborate tombs. Also cycled to 5 kilometers out to Thian Mu (Heavenly Goddess) temple located on a bluff of the Perfume River. There is a wonderful meditation garden there that if you hit it right between large tour groups, you can hear the breeze whistling through the pines.  The traffic in Vietnam is horrendous! When the light changes, if there is a light at an intersection, everyone honks their horn and just goes in every direction. There are no courtesy rules on right of way! You take your life in your hands just crossing the street forget about traveling on bicycle! The same is true of people movement in general. There are no rules for lining up and “first come, first served.” You just move your way in! You can’t be pushy about it, but you have to be somewhat aggressive.

In spite of this the people are unbelievably friendly. They are not afraid to speak to you, and you will often find someone looking over your shoulder if you are writing or reading something. They are very curious. People will also come up to you and want to practice speaking English. You just have to get a little saavy on figuring out if this is genuine (usually) or the opening gambit for someone trying to take advantage of you! You learn pretty quickly!

Was in the Hue market the other day and taking pictures from the second level of the market. Suddenly, my lens cap for my camera dropped and landed in the worst possible spot behind a huge display of stuffed animals on the floor below! I was considering forgetting about it, but decided to give it a try. When I sign languaged what happened, the market people were very helpful. They led me to a spot under the stairwell full of boxes and junk. I fully expected to see rats jump out at any moment as I plodded my way through the pile! Fortunately, that did not happen. By this time, I had a large number of Vietnamese watching the progress of this adventure! I finally was able to get behind the display without upturning anything and get the lens cap. As I held it up proudly, the people there “ahhed” in approval and smiled. Guess it doesn’t take much to entertain!

I hated to leave Hue. The wonderful river and park. The Citadel and the terrific little restaurant near the West Gate that served delicious banana smoothies and banana pancakes! The people were out of this world.

The trip up here by train was often breath-takingly beautiful, and the chance to meet Vietnamese in yet another venue! What a wonderful experience, but not for those who savor their privacy! The SE6 day train is a must! But that will have to wait for another entry! All I can say is— DO IT!

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