Hué and Hoi An, May 26-30
Hanoi we flew to Hué (pronounced "way') in central Vietnam, the imperial
capital of the country until 1945. The main tourist attraction in the
city is the walled Citadel, which contains the
walled Imperial Enclosure, which in turn contains the walled Purple Forbidden City,
where the emperors actually hung out.
(Purple refers to "a persistent purple haze in the Hué air,"
which we never particularly noticed.) There was significant bomb damage
to the Citadel during the Vietnam war, and restoration of the
historical inner sanctums is only partially complete. The day we walked
around the Citadel (photos 1 & 2) was the first
time since almost a year ago in Greece that hot & humid
actually hindered our activities -- numerous rests in the shade and
cold drinks were required to get through the sight-seeing. If one unpleasantly hot day ends up being the most
significant effect of traveling in this region during the low season,
surely we can't complain.
The next day, feeling confident after our motorbike riding back in Luang Namtha, Laos, we decided to rent motorbikes to visit the many interesting sights in the countryside surrounding Hué. Maybe we were a little overconfident -- the motorbikes in Hué were a bit different, and the rental guy didn't speak enough English to provide much in the way of useful instructions. No sooner had we gotten to the gas station entrance than Jennifer made an error that resulted in a rather spectacular crash, bringing down several other motorbikes parked innocently at the pump. Luckily, nobody was actually riding any of the bikes when it happened (that's right, not even Jennifer, it's complicated), and nobody was hurt, although Jennifer has some nice bruises to show for it. The total payout for damages -- to the rental guy plus the owners of the downed bikes -- was $35. That's pretty high by Vietnamese standards (the rentals were only $6/each), but pretty low given what one could imagine. It's unlikely any of our payoffs will be used for actual repairs.
Although we were all a bit shaken after the crash, the episode did have a slapstick air. Soon enough we were able to laugh, and the rest of the day on motorbikes was great. We visited several different emperor's tombs (photos 3 & 4) -- the fad of the time was to build a huge complex in a beautiful rural setting. We also visited an important pagoda, ate lunch in a tiny village by the river (photo 5), and generally got better and better at melding in with the traffic (bicycles, rickshaws, motorbikes, occasional cars & trucks), which varied from almost nonexistent at our more distant points (photo 6; we're lost) to downright crazy in the city center (photo 7; but we avoided the worst areas like this one).
From Hué it was a four-hour bus ride south to our last stop in Vietnam, the town of Hoi An. Like Luang Prabang, Laos, Hoi An's central neighborhood has been designated a World Heritage site, as "an exceptionally well-preserved example of a traditional Asian trading port." Also like Luang Prabang, Hoi An is known not so much for specific tourist attractions as for general atmosphere. Unfortunately, the atmosphere is marred temporarily by a UNESCO-funded project to upgrade the underground services and install new extra-atmospheric cobblestones throughout the old city. Never have we seen an entire neighborhood so torn up, with large dirt piles and gaping holes lurking everywhere. It should be great when it's done though.
Aside from admiring the construction, we kept busy with a number of activities in Hoi An: We rented bicycles and explored both in and out of town (photo 8), the kids took a short cooking lesson offered by a place we had lunch, we visited the local market (photo 9) and food stalls, Tim found a pool hall of course, we tracked down a handful of historic buildings to look at, Emily designed a dress and had it tailored for next to nothing (Hoi An turns out to be tailor heaven, with 250+ tailor shops in the relatively small town), we escaped the blistering midday heat in the hotel swimming pool, and the kids blew the last of their souvenir allowance -- Emily on shoes to match her dress, Tim on a handmade model of a Chinese junk.
Now for the random-topics section:
War: Although Hanoi received some bombing during the war, central Vietnam was far more in the thick of things. There are many familiar names in this region for those who remember the war, or at least remember all the movies and TV shows that followed: China Beach, the Tet Offensive, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the My Lai massacre all were associated with this area of central Vietnam.
Tourist Harassment: The touts in Hué seemed even pushier than the ones in Hanoi, and some of them were blatantly crooked. One cyclo-cab driver insisted repeatedly that the Citadel was closed for a midday break -- utterly false -- and he would gladly take us for a tour of the city while we waited for it to re-open. A family chased after us on motorbikes promising that the only access to a tomb was through their restaurant -- false again. And so on. Luckily, we never succumbed to these minor scams. Our guidebook concurs with our experience: "It [Hué] would all be quite idyllic if it weren't for the constant dogging most tourists face as soon as they step off the bus." Also: "A typical scene is a foreigner walking down the street with two cyclo-cabs and a motorbike in hot pursuit -- the drivers yelling 'Hello cyclo' and 'Hello motorbike' and the foreigner yelling 'no thank you, no!'"
Our guidebook also claims that tourist "dogging" is considerably reduced in Hoi An, but we didn't really find that to be the case. True, we didn't notice any out-and-out attempts at trickery, but walking down the street or through the market provoked a continual barrage of "Hello Madam! You buy something from me? You have nice babies -- one boy one girl, so good! Where you from? Please, you buy from ME!!" After two weeks in Vietnam (by far the worst in terms of haggling) and 3½ months in Southeast Asia, it's possible we're finally experiencing haggle burnout. Mustering up a pleasant smile and no-thank-you for every seller we don't patronize is getting to be quite a strain on the face muscles, but it's even worse to brush the sellers off without a glance. There's a lesson in the whole thing, somewhere.
Originality: It took a while for us to put our finger on it, but we finally realized -- most Vietnamese appear to put no value on originality. Copy-catting is everywhere. For example, every Indian restaurant is named "Omar" something or other (despite the fact that Omar isn't even an Indian name). Kiosks along the street -- even rows of storefronts on a given block -- all sell exactly the same items displayed exactly the same way. Is nobody interested in a competitive edge? Maybe it's a holdover from real communism, but we don't think so -- with all the pushy sellers, Vietnam feels as capitalist as it gets.
Sometimes the imitation is less benign. In Hanoi, hotels open up bearing the name of an existing popular hotel, then pay airport taxi drivers to take unsuspecting customers to the copy-cat hotel (usually a considerable step down in quality at the same price) instead of the original. That trick in itself might have some originality, except it too is copied over and over.
Food update: We continue to uncover a number of truly delicious Vietnamese dishes, especially regional ones, but it remains a hit and miss proposition, at least as far as our food preferences go. One constant throughout Southeast Asia has been superb, inexpensive fruit shakes; they will be sorely missed when we leave. The kids indulge at least once a day, often more than once a day. (Emily prefers watermelon or banana; Tim coconut or mango.) Although it's a rare shake that isn't delicious, favorite vendors have emerged: Earning top honors is a nondescript woman-with-blender on a street corner in Luang Namtha, Laos; in second place, a small family restaurant not far from our hotel in Hué, Vietnam. Prices vary, but the bottom of the range seems to be tops in taste -- the favorites cost about 50 cents for a large shake blended from fresh fruit on the spot
Photos: With good internet in Hué we've caught up again on photo uploads.