A few days in Hue:
The rains had become more frequent and heavy during our stay in Hoi An. Typhoon Haiyan had been threatening for days, but we had decided to continue on with our trip to Hue, which lies some 80 miles away. We had never been through a typhoon, and assumed the hotel would keep us safe and that it would be an interesting experience. I explain this attitude to show that even experienced travelers can be naïve. The huge force of Haiyan never did hit the coast of Vietnam, but if it had, the Hue would have been devastated. Stay away from typhoons, unless you are in rescue mode.
At any rate, the route we were to take led back to Danang and then north parallel to, but not hugging, the coast. With great reluctance we checked out of the Betel Garden in Hoi An. A shuttle bus had arrived and, while not the large bus we had been told would be taking us to Hue, turned out to be very comfortable. We soon stopped at a bus garage in Hoi An and were told to disembark. By then the rains were drenching and the temperature was still rising. After waiting quite awhile in the stuffy humid interior, we were told to proceed to another location – on foot, dragging bags (including a huge plastic bag holding all our lanterns), in the rain. I was not a happy camper at this point. At this second location we waited again, and eventually another vehicle came. This time it was indeed a large bus, but not your average Greyhound. It was the dreaded sleeper-bus that we had actively attempted to avoid booking.
These buses are the size of our long distance buses here in the U.S., but instead of seats, they are equipped with reclining seats. This may sound really good, but trust me - this is a once in a lifetime way to travel. And I mean it – do it once with foreknowledge of how uncomfortable it might be, but never do it again. There are three sets of seats on the level where you enter the bus, roughly 2-2-1 on our bus. Then above that are another level of seats, a mix of two rows or three rows, 2-3 seats deep. One accesses these by climbing bunk bed style ladders, or just standing on the arms of the seats below and hoisting yourself up. Our bus was partly loaded when it arrived, so there wasn’t much choice. Turns out, there were loads of relatively well-situated seats, full of boxes, so obviously they use the buses for cargo runs, too. I thought I would find 2 seats together on the lower level, but no luck, so save a single lower seat for Mike and clambered to the final row on the upper which had an open seat. I really didn’t want to be on a lower interior seat, with no view and no air circulation, so I opted to be up top. One young American guy kindly shifted over for me, giving me an outer seat. I stashed all my stuff next to an elderly Vietnamese lady on the lower seat. So there we were, sprawled out with our feet encased in spaces surrounded by hard metal boxes, which were not designed to hold big western feet. You could rest your feet on top of the box if the person in front of you was sitting upright, but that would risk having them squished, should that person suddenly lower their seat back. My choice of upper seat meant I did have better air circulation, but that air was rank with the odors emanating from the nearby toilet. And there was still no view. I was getting grumpier by the moment. Mike, meanwhile, was completely unaware of my situation. He had a view, and no stench, but he was hardly in a blissful state, as with no foot room, he was forced to adjust his body, which led to hip discomfort. We stopped when we got to Danang, some people got off, and I moved to an upper bunk with a view and no unpleasant odors. Much happier, I could now settle in to enjoying the trip a little. Funny, how that works. It reminds me of the children’s book called Too Much Noise, where the inhabitant finds his home too noisy. When he follows the advice of the local sage, he ends up thinking it is all just fine. No more spoiler here, just get the book for your kids or grandkids. We had one more stop en route. Time for some fresh air, a stretch and a bowl of not-too-bad pho.
I have included a link to pictures, but all I can say, is “Why does everyone look so happy?”
By the time we arrived in Hue, it was mid-day, with no clouds, no rain and blisteringly hot. The hotel staff had told us that the shuttle bus stop was just a few steps away, and they were right. The problem was we hadn’t taken the “shuttle bus”. We had disembarked at the last stop for our bus, a true bus station. I had the hotel address written down, and we asked for directions, still not realizing that we were not “steps away”. After about 20 minutes of redirection and sweaty walking, we arrived at the New Star Hotel. It’s a fairly large business style hotel and quite sterile in every way. The room and breakfast are ok, but not great. The location is good, and it does have a rooftop pool but it took me a day to discover it, as the staff made no mention. Issues with charges led us to leave, so I do not recommend it. More on that later.
After checking in, we set out to find a cold drink and some food. It didn’t take long to discover the Little Italy/DMZ restaurant and bar. We had snacks and some ice- cold beer – extra-large glasses of Tiger draft. Mmmm…good. The family near by said they really liked their dinner and the place has good reviews online.
Then it was off to the Citadel/Imperial Palace. It was mid-afternoon and we expected to see it at a trot, but we didn’t know what the remaining days’ weather would hold, so we wanted to at least get a glimpse. It was a fair walk down the esplanade along the Perfume River and across the bridge. The compound is far larger than we had imagined. We spend about 2 hours constantly on the move, and I don’t think we saw everything. Some areas were closed, but in the heat-induced stupor, I think we still missed a good chunk of it. We did see horse-drawn and motorized carts but did not figure out how to book one. Even though the grounds were rather neglected, and much of the architecture is being rebuilt after the destruction of the war, it is still an impressive site to visit and highly recommended. Dripping though we were, we headed over to the Royal Antiquities Museum, as entrance was included in the Palace fee. It was quite a trick finding this building, as we thought it was inside the grounds of the Citadel. In fact it is east of the grounds. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing all the clothing, battle gear, jewelry and furniture. However, it had no AC and few fans, so it was a bit of a slog. Mike ended up sitting outside in the garden. It was rush hour as we headed back to the hotel, and the vehicle pollution was really getting to me, so we tried to keep inside the park boundaries between Le Loi and the river. We ended up walking that stretch several times during our stay, but always found a new sculpture to enjoy and it was always a welcome break from the streets. It was on this route, that we saw a group practicing for an outdoor cultural show. We had hoped to see it in the evening, but the rain ended up being too heavy. Not sure if it took place, however there is an office for these cultural shows near where you can rent boats to go out on the river. Continuing our walk, we saw another Indian restaurant very near to our hotel. We decided to return there for dinner.
You might be wondering why we are in Vietnam, and now in its culinary capital, and not eating indigenous food. The simple truth was that we got lazy. We had planned to check out “royal food”, but once in Hue, the reviews seemed less tempting, and the desire to get dressed up and take a taxi, totally unappealing. However, Shiva Shakti (27 Vo Thi Sau Street) was fantastic! The food was delicious, interesting and cheap. The service was excellent. And it was at most 5 minutes walk from our hotel.
We had only one more full day in Hue, so we decided to visit and art museum we had passed on one of our walks. The museum houses a wonderful exhibit of La Ba Dang. He was born in Quang Tra but lived in France from 1939. His exhibits have been shown around the world and he has international recognition. Have a look at the photos of this really wonderful art or visit the website – http://lebadang.org/
We had hoped to do a tour to the tombs in the afternoon, but the weather was turning nasty, and none of the boats were running on the river. Because a car and driver would be expensive, and the weather might make the trip impossible to finish, we decided to forgo the visit. It remains one of our regrets. Next time…. We did take a taxi to the local Ho Chi Minh museum – closed for lunch - and then on to the Thien Mu Pagoda. I loved the pagoda, with its lovely garden and vistas, and its massive entry guardians.
By the time we got back to the hotel, the storm was getting closer, and it became clear that our flight might not be leaving the next day. I asked if we could extend our checkout time and then if we needed to spend the night, book an extra full night. The staff checked with the manager, who was all too ready to take advantage of people in potentially dire straits. If we wanted to stay until next afternoon we would have to pay an extra full day, and at a higher rate than I had booked. No thank you. We went for a beer, and then I started searching for a hotel near by to book for the next night if necessary. I found a couple with reasonable pricing and reviews. We went off to the roof deck where Mike sat and read while I worked had an agro-releasing swim. We ended the day with a relaxed dinner knowing that we would not be homeless on the following day.
That night the rains were torrential. By the morning, our daytime flight had been cancelled, and another one added for 10 p.m., but no guarantee that it would actually happen. We decided to walk to the nearest place on my list and see if they still had space. The Holiday Diamond Hotel was the polar opposite of the New Star. It is a small hotel, with a tiny area for eating meals. It has a small lounge area, a tour booking desk and Internet terminals. It’s in an alley off the street, so you have to look for the overhead sign and then walk as there is no car access. We were absolutely drenched by the time we entered their doors. They immediately rushed to see us in and offer us hot drinks, all before we booked anything. We explained the situation and said we would like to book a room, but that we might leave and return again, if the flight didn’t depart. Would they keep our room after we checked out to leave for the airport? Of course! They insisted on sending a porter and taxi at their expense back the short distance to the New Star in order to pick up our bags. I was delighted to see that the New Star manager was at the desk when we checked out. We could show what truly good service was like and she was not very happy.
Fully ensconced in our new digs, I decided to have a shower and crawl under the covers for a bit. Mike skipped the shower part. When we awoke, I was getting dressed when I noticed that the large rip-stop bag holding much of our stuff was missing. Mike headed down to the desk, and they proceeded to call the taxi driver, assuming the bag must have been left inside. Mike decided to walk back to the street. There on the side of the street, tucked out of the rain, was our bag. Mike surmises that it was not stolen because it looked just like the bags they use for trash collection. I prefer to believe there are just kind and honest people in the world. We spent the rest of the day sipping tea, and getting to know the staff. Who’s dating whom, who came from where, who’s going where. Great fun actually.
With the storm in full force, not to mention the possibility of flooding, almost every restaurant near the hotel was closed. But not our lovely Shiva Shakti. We had another wonderful meal while watching the rain drench the streets and passersby.
Our flight did leave that night and almost on time. We had once again had to adjust our travel plans – no tombs and no Perfume River trip- but we it was still a good stay. And the Holiday Diamond Hotel will remain a fond memory for years to come. I hope we can stay there again one day.
Second Look at Hanoi
It was about ten o’clock and pouring rain as our plane from Hue taxied from the terminal. We, and the rest of central Vietnam, had escaped the full wrath of Typhoon Haiyan. We were headed back to Hanoi. I sent a text to our Airbnb host, Tung, to confirm that we were actually leaving and apologized that we would be keeping him up late when he had to get up for work in the morning. “No worries. Glad you’re safe.” He’d been worried about us for days because we refused to leave central VN in advance of the storm.
It was still pouring when we stepped outside at the Noi Bai airport. We still had relatively little luggage, so I bought tickets for the airport bus inside the building. When we got outside, there were large buses and shuttle buses. I asked which bus, and an attendant said it didn’t matter. After the last experience with a large bus, I motioned to Mike that we would take the shuttle bus. We sat as passengers sporadically boarded our bus. I saw the large bus leave, and still we sat, and sat and sat…. It must have been half an hour before our bus was filled to capacity – meaning every seat was filled, including the drop down ones that removed any aisle access. Had I made a mistake in choosing this bus?
It is rather a long drive from the airport to bus station in the north part of Hanoi, so we settled in for the ride. However, even before we saw signs of urbanity, the bus stopped to let off a passenger, who then rushed through the rain to a waiting car. This kept happening. Sometimes a taxi was waiting, sometimes not. Perhaps this was not your typical bus, but closer to the door-to-door shuttle we find at home? The driver had asked for our address, at least I thought that’s what he had asked. I showed him our destination. Tung had told us on a previous taxi ride that if the driver didn’t know how to find his place, to have him call his cell. Tung was already going to be waiting up for us, so I thought there was no harm in also giving him the cell number. However, the driver didn’t seem to have much English and we certainly had no VN, so we had no idea what was going on as the bus continued to empty. All I could tell is that we were still heading south through Hanoi, and with Tung’s place south of the center, that we were headed in the right general direction. As we got very close to home, the bus stopped but the driver didn’t open the doors and the driver didn’t say anything. Mike said to him that we could get out here because it was as far as a vehicle could go, but the driver motioned that we should wait. Then through the heavy downpour we could see Tung coming towards us carrying umbrellas. He walked us home, and after a few moments of hugs and greetings, we all went off to bed.
We hadn’t seen much of the tourist sites on our first stay in the city, so the goal over the next few days was to correct that. This included visiting what became our favorite museum in the entire country - the Ho Chi Minh Museum. The museum is one of several buildings in a complex dedicated to his memory. We had planned to visit them all, but managed to see only the museum, as the others were closed. We think that this was because his body was in transport (it is sent occasionally to Russia for “maintenance”). At any rate, guards were everywhere and unlike the HCMC police, not very friendly or helpful. However, the museum itself was worth the trip. It is extremely modern with beautifully artistic exhibits and relatively free of propagandist material. It is a large place, so if you go, allow several hours to do it justice.
Another favorite was the water puppet show. There is much written about this show, and I think many of the negative reviews are due to ignorance about the art. So two pieces of advice: get your tickets well in advance, so that you can be close to the stage (front row is preferable is you have long legs); and read up on the history of water puppetry. Its roots are in the countryside, and the artistry is closely guarded. We really enjoyed the show, but hope to see a performance in its rural setting one day. There is a small but excellent bookshop in Hanoi with offerings from The Gioi - Foreign Languages Publishing House. You will find many very inexpensive publications on history and culture as well as scholarly tomes that are quite dear.
A wonderfully gentle man whom we met in Hanoi alerted us to the existence of this bookshop. I received his contact information from a “friend of a friend” stateside. He is a Vietnam veteran who returned after the war with the intention of spending a couple of years doing something to counterbalance the physical harm done by the war. Decades later, he remains in VN. His work involves removing unexploded ordinances (aka bombs) and organizing micro loans to individuals, all done through Project Renew. Here is a somewhat dated but still valid article.
The Vietnam War remains a volatile subject today. I won’t offer further comment except to say that if you are interested in supporting his cause, Project Renew is a recognized charitable organization here in the U.S. The website offers a good summary of what they do and the list of sponsors and partners may surprise you.
As far as other common tourist destination, we found the Temple of Literature quite disappointing. We didn’t manage to get to the Women’s Museum in Hanoi, but I wonder if it is similar to the one in HCMC, which I will review later. We also didn’t make it to the highly regarded Ethnic Museum. We did walk a bit of the gigantic art wall running through the northern part of the city. It’s an amazing accomplishment. There is a good write-up on this link.
We again enjoyed various city parks as we did in HCMC. However, in Hanoi many required a small entry fee from tourists. Once again, we found that they offered a wonderful escape from the noise, pollution and chaos of the city. They are well used by residents, so they are great source for people watching. The botanic gardens are small but interesting. The lake area near Thuy’s (West Lake) is much more peaceful than Hoan Kiem. However, we did return to Hoan Kiem to visit the island. Ngoc Son Temple is tiny but interesting. It offers a place of quiet place for reverence of the turtle who restored the sword, not to mention the preserved corpse of a lake turtle. Here is a link to a VN news article about the legend/history and local attitudes.
This temple is also where I found the coils of incense that had so far eluded my search. However, the exchange of funds ended up being a donation to the temple, as the monk insisted I not pay for incense. As we were leaving, we noticed men in business suits excited at a fish one of them had just caught. It seems they had just left a business event at the restaurant on the island. How they came to be equipped with fishing gear remains a mystery.
We also returned to the lake near Tung’s apartment, Thien Quong Lake. Being in a non-tourist part of town, we were the only westerners. We enjoyed seeing the locals, mostly women at that time of day, doing their exercises, while some men fished. It is smaller lake than Hoan Kiem, and probably not worth a special trip, but if you are in the area, it’s a pleasant walk around the park.
People watching is frequently the best part of any trip. It was along the route to Tung’s park that we found a group playing ping-pong in an apartment courtyard. We stood and watched for a while, and were invited to join them. Mike demurred, and had tea as a reward. Never afraid to make a fool of myself, I enthusiastically accepted. I first played opposite a woman, who took mercy on me with her fairly gently volleys. I then played opposite a man. I am far from skillful, but that doesn’t inhibit my competitive sense. I was putting forth whatever effort I could to make good shots, and after I succeeded once in scoring a point, he quickly taught me the errors of my ways.
Another evening, we returned to the old part of the city for dinner too early to be seated, so we stopped at a small street-side bar for pre-dinner beers. Nearby was a man repairing bicycles outside a tiny garage space, with perhaps his granddaughter behind him quietly amusing herself. With a deftness that defies description, he patiently balanced the wheels of a drop-off repair job. No calibration machines – just his eye for the imperfect spin and then a loosening or tightening of the spoke. I asked if I could take his picture, and he responded with a look of puzzled agreement – weird western lady!
Dinner that night was at a wonderful small and rather up-market place called “Madame Hien” - 15 Chan Cam. It is housed in the ancestral home of François Charles Lagisquet, who arrived in Vietnam as a volunteer for the French army in 1885. He later moved to Hanoi, and eventually married a Vietnamese woman. He was the architect of the Hanoi Opera House and lived in Hanoi until his death in 1936. When his wife moved to HCMC, the villa was sold to a Hanoi doctor. After going through various iterations, including housing the Spanish Embassy, it became “Madame Hien” (after the owner’s grandmother and dedicated to all the women of Vietnam) in 2010. There are other restaurants under an umbrella organization called La Verticale. http://www.verticale-hanoi.com/ Assuming “Madame Hien” is a representative example, I would check out their other restaurants in Hanoi. The evening was clear and calm. The setting was beautiful. The food was outstanding. And Mike finally managed to have a taste of Vietnamese rice wine – in this case, brown rice wine– the best he’s ever had, and the only rice wine I have liked.
Our final night we were to have drinks and then dinner with our host Tung and his girlfriend. As usual, we were early, so we settled in at a nearby park to watch some Da Cau, Vietnam’s version of badminton played with the feet. The athleticism required to play this game is astonishing, and by the way, we were not invited to join in. Although the game is played with a large weighted shuttlecock, the players’ moves more resemble volleyball with its sets and spikes. Great stuff!
At this same park there were all ages zipping around on inline roller skates, skateboards, and a strange hybrid – like foot-sized skateboards, one per foot. Each foot rested on a tiny platform with two wheels and no straps. How anyone stayed upright is a mystery. And I finally managed to get a good photo of the crazy VN power lines.
Tung and M. met us for drinks and snacks near the night market. Tung arrived as usual by motorcycle, but without his helmet. In our assumed roles of surrogate mom and dad, he was dutifully lectured, and he dutifully promised to comply. After dinner at a seafood place, we said our goodbyes to Tung’s girlfriend we all went to bed as we had an early flight to HCMC. Tung ordered a taxi for the morning airport run.
The taxi arrived promptly despite the very early hour, and we said our goodbyes to Tung with promises on both sides to stay in touch. Another wonderful chapter had ended.
Hue and Hanoi Second Look
A few days in Hue:
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