The last night in Savanakhet was amazing. I went to the Sayaphom Temple at night for “wien tian,” where the people led by the monks walk with incense, flowers and lighted candles around the temple. All to the slow beat of the temple drums and the chanting of the monks. It was dark, but thankfully there was a bright light at the entrance to the temple that gave enough illumination on the procession for me to get decent video. The people there were so friendly and glad that someone came to watch. There were a lot of youth which I thought surprising, but I think this is considered a social event as well! Not too many of the young ones really got into the religious aspects of the evening, but had a good time with their friends! No different from American kids, I guess!
We take off on the bus bound for Vietnam at 8:00. I am pleasantly surprised that, unlike two years ago when we were crammed on the bus like a can of sardines, we experience none of that the whole way this time around. There is an out-spoken Lao woman on board who is a delight. She will talk to anyone and has to know everyone’s business and where they are going! The whole bus is like that. Everyone talking to one another as if they have known each other all their lives. Laos may be one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is also one of the friendliest. We finally get to the Lao/ Viet border around 2:00. The area has undergone a great deal of growth over the past two years. Also unlike two years ago, the processing on both sides of the border goes a lot smoother this time. They have added a medical check where they basically feel your pulse and take your temperature. The threat of flu here is very real. We reached the sea at Dong Ha at 4:30. We are supposed to have a connection to Hue at the bus station, but as so often happens, it never materializes! So off on a crowded local bus for the 80 kilometer trip to Hue. We are dropped off at the first bridge in the center city, so I have a hike of about 2 kilometers before I reach the hotel. As I am crossing the bridge, I turn and behold a beautiful sunset with the Perfume River and the mountains as a backdrop. A fitting welcome back to Hue!
The Villa Hue, where I was staying, is a training hotel for young kids who are learning the trade. They couldn’t have been more helpful the whole time I was there. The rooms and facilities were top-drawer, and with its excellent location it really was a good find. As Savanakhet is noted for the constant squeal of poorly maintained bicycle breaks, Hue, as all of Vietnam, is one blaring honking horn— If it can honk, beep, tweet or jingle it is attached to a vehicle of some sort here! There is no method to the madness of traffic, but on my trusty rented bike I was off and ready to explore new venues in Hue.
My first task was to change money. Somehow $300 US became over 5 million dong. It’s nice to be a millionaire somewhere in this world. Stopped for a bowl of noodles and then off to the Citadel, the residence of the former emperors of Vietnam. I was there two years ago, but I’m glad I went back. They are totally reconstructing the buildings that were destroyed by fire and war. I ended up at the pool in the Forbidden City and enjoyed the quiet meditation. It was so hot and humid that not many people were venturing about. Then it was off to Cafe 51 for the phenomenal banana pancake– a crusty crepe with sliced banana, cinnamon, and butter….. well, I deserved it after all that cycling!
I returned to the hotel by way of the park along the river. This is the real center of the city. Lovers finding a quiet moment together, old men sitting and talking over cupfuls of tea, others taking a nap on the grass, young men playing games in the bocce court. Later that night the area is transformed into river boats taking locals and tourist out on the river for a one-hour cruise to escape the heat. Women have set up little impromptu stands selling everything from squid to popcorn. The popcorn vendors cart is the strangest of all playing “Jingle Bells”, ” Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” to attract the passersby. It seemed so out of place in that heat and humidity! I soon found myself near the bridge hoping for a sunset approaching the one from the night of my arrival. As I was waiting, a young girl came up to me and asked if she could have her picture taken with me! Well, that led to her friend, and then a Chinese couple…. before you know it I had photos with no fewer than 15 people! That’s what I love about these trips. Those little moments like that —- so real, so unexpected, and so undeniably Asia!
The next day I was off on my bike in search of the Tiger’s Arena, where the emperors pitted the virtuous elephants against tigers and panthers. Just to be sure that virtue won out, the tiger’s mouth was sewn shut and its claws filed down. I cycled in the steaming heat out past the train station and continued along till I reached the end of the road. I stopped at a Buddhist monastery to get directions. The monk gave his best shot at hand gestures, but I’m finding out that Vietnamese have a totally different set of movements to show directions! I ended up asking a guy at an open-air tailor shop. He jumped on his motorbike and motioned me to follow. He showed me this little, unmarked path to follow, and there it was. I’d have never found it on my own. The round stone structure is about 20 feet high and 35 or so feet in diameter. The emperor and his chosen would stand on the top to watch the event. You can easily imagine the lumbering elephant coming through that tall gate and the tiger bolting out of its gage on the other side of the arena! I met a charming little girl there who lives nearby. She was selling postcards of the area– 10 for less that $2.00. I bought 10 from her and she was so pleased with herself that she ran to her house to show her father. Smiles all around. I cycled back to the train station and then looked for Dien Bien Phu Road to follow to my next destination, the Nam Giao where the emperors would pray for the safety of the country and the dynasty. It is in three levels to represent man, earth and heaven. When you climb to the top you are on a large, round terrace where the emperor’s ceremony was performed. The area is surrounded by a grove of pine trees. I sat there a short time meditating until a young guy came up to sit next to me. He couldn’t speak a word of English, he just wanted to hang out. It wasn’t long before he started playing his MP3 player…… there went the meditation!
It was too late to go to Tien Mu Pagoda, so I went instead to The Hue Fine Arts Center, which is housed at the former emperor Khai Dinh’s palace. Not much is there yet as they are restoring the main building, but there are some fine bronzes and porcelains from the Qing Dynasty. They could build a new museum with what those are probably worth!
The last day, I cycled out the 30 minute trip to Tien Mu Pagoda with its wonderful panoramic view of the Perfume River. On my way out, I came across a Buddhist temple where they were in prayer. It was a very different service than in Thailand. It ended with many of the older women turning to the river (or east representing life?) to offer some prayers. A short time later, I was amidst the hawkers at the base of the pagoda. I quickly climbed the stairs and made my way to the main hall. Then off to the rear of the complex to the pine grove to just relax and take it all in. There was a slight breeze to give a faint whisper to the pines. You could hear the high-pitched sound of numerous insects, and the birds chirping in the trees near and distant. It was wondrous taking in deep breaths of the pines as I meditated. After two hours, I left and jumped on my bike heading for the city. As I went I saw three men standing by the side of the road. One had an incense burner and the other two, flowers in vases. I thought that odd until I realized that they were standing at the end of a path. One of the younger men motioned to me to come and take pictures of them, which I happily obliged! As much as I could determine it was a wake. The men had thin cotton clothing on with white headbands which symbolized that the deceased was a family member. They were waiting for the monks to arrive. I stepped to the side as two cars pulled up. Men carrying large yellow umbrellas rush to greet the monks as they got out of the cars. Then they all disappeared down the dusty lane that led to their house for the waking ceremony. I didn’t think it would be appropriate to follow, especially considering that I was dressed in shorts!
Not much was happening down by the river when I finally arrived back in Hue at dusk. The air was still and that means mosquitoes and lots of them! However, I did manage to to watch the sunset which is the perfect way to say goodbye to Hue………………….