We took another super comfortable(!) minibus to Hué in the morning. The drive wasn’t that long I mean, after an 8 hour journey from here to there, and a 12-14 hour train ride, the idea of spending 4-5 hours in an enclosed space was becoming the norm for us. We stopped off for a toilet break near to an oyster farm, so that was cool.
Lunch was at a decent little restaurant, not far from our new home for the night, which was called Ideal Hotel. We received a passion fruit juice served in a martini glass on arrival, and everyone kind of looked at each other and were like “I didn’t order this… and it has got ice in it… I hope it isn’t tap water ice”, but it was totally fine. In fact, most people buy ice in this part of the world, since no body drinks tap water in any case, not even the locals.
Hué is famous for its crispy noodles, but the idea of a dry dish with deep fried noodles didn’t really appeal to me, so that was one delicacy that I didn’t order. Basically the rest of the table had though, so I had plenty of new awesome friends who were more than willing to let me try. I was right. Nothing special, or at the very least, not my cup of tea. I had a really great lemongrass chicken, and once I picked out all of the streaks of fibrous lemongrass and a few of the angrier looking red chillies, the flavours were perfect.
That afternoon, we had the opportunity to go on a motorcycle tour of the city. Now, before I’d left the UK, I hadn’t been on a motorbike at all. I used to work with a couple of keen bikers and they were always trying to get me to go for a ride with one of them over lunch, and one of my really good friends has been biking since practically before he was born, but I’ve always vehemently said no. Not for the first time on this trip, the phrase “when in Rome…” ran through my mind and I figured I’d do it. I mean, if half the population of a country rides a motorbike, what are the chances that something bad was going to happen to me when I was on the back of a pro-rider? I was wearing short shorts, which no-one would ever do in the UK unless you didn’t mind feeling like an icy wind was actually chilling you to the bone, regardless of the season! Most people were in flip flops, but I did put my trainers on. At the beginning of the afternoon, we were all holding on to the back of our seats for dear life, knuckles white from gripping on so tight, but after a couple of hours I for one, was more than happy to casually rest one hand against the seat and the other with my phone out, taking pictures and videos and enjoying the scenery. I even managed to get one of the drivers to pose with his own little minion keyring, so you can see for yourself the great hi-vis jacket and level of professionalism we had with our tour group for the afternoon. It was super-safe, I promise!
The tour stopped in various places, and was really quite fascinating. We went to a rice museum where they explained the process of ploughing, planting, harvesting and then the method used to go from the raw plant to the white grain you and I see in the supermarket and on our plates. There was a really old lady (she must have been pushing 75 at least) doing a demonstration with the milling equipment, and then she tossed the grains to get rid of the husk. She then showed us the process of making rice flour, which is the main ingredient of noodles. All the while she was singing upbeat rhythmic songs in a particularly piercing tone and it was kind of making me feel a little uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it was the fact she was so old and was doing such a manual job when there were so many of us healthy younger people stood around watching her, or if it was because this poor woman would have never known any other life, or if it was just because she had a terrible wailing singing voice, but we all kind of tried not to make eye contact for fear of bursting out laughing! The final straw was when she showed us this basket/cradle that was chained to the ceiling, with a doll in it. She started rocking it quite vigorously and singing something that I think was supposed to be a lullaby but it didn’t sound very soothing to me! Then when she stopped singing and rocking, she started imitating a crying baby. We all chuckled humourlessly, thanked her and got out of that part of the museum pretty quick!
There was an old school irrigation system that you could have a go on with sort of like a bicycle/wheel mechanism to push the water and nutrients around. The thing that I found most fascinating though was this 4.5 metre tower just by the river bank. It was a flood measurement post, and if you look really carefully, you’ll spot the little minion man on the ground! The highest mark on the post was at 3.1metres and this flood occurred around three years ago. In that small village near Hué alone, 1000 people died from malnutrition and unsanitary water. And yet people still live there. They rebuilt their homes on a floodplain, knowing that the exact same thing could happen again.
The second stop on the tour was the Queen’s Mausoleum. We would have gone to the King’s but apparently it was closed for the day. Not entirely sure how an old stone tomb with zero maintenance required and no entrance fee could possibly be shut, but okay… This was where the personality of our tour guide for the afternoon really got going. He started telling us quirky little anecdotes and stories about the Vietnamese Royal Family from years gone by. There isn’t a current Royal Family, since the last king never had children and moved to France after abdicating before the Vietnam War. Interesting (if maybe a little chauvinistic) highlights from his tales?
- The king could have as many wives as he liked, but the first wife was the queen.
- All of the serving staff in the Royal Citadel were eunuch. This was specifically to prevent any man-servant being able to impregnate any of the king’s wives.
- In years gone by, one king had 200 wives. None of them fell pregnant. Was that the king’s fault? Of course not. There must have been something wrong with all 200 women that he was unable to produce an heir. So what did he do? He was desperate to carry on his legacy, so he had a pregnant woman from outside the citadel abducted and dismissed one of his actual wives to maintain his quota (I mean… that’s a bit mean. Surely in a family of 200 wives, one extra wasn’t really going to make much difference, but what the hell, the story is a little unbelievable from start to finish…). The child was born, but the Vietnamese people did not accept him as true Royal Blood when he was crowned years later. It is said that he could have been a tailor’s son. Which I guess is completely possible.
- In reference to the king with 200 wives, our tour guide proposed “He must have been shooting blanks. Else he batted for the other side”. His grasp of English was wonderful!
- At the Rice Museum, he claimed that the plastic doll with the old lady was his wife’s child, but “She cannot be mine. Her skin is fair and her hair is red, like the milk man. My wife must be naughty when I am away working. Because I am naughty when I am away too!”
The next stop on the tour was through a little forest of trees and off the beaten track. We got to the top of a hill and had a beautiful view of the Perfume River. Though there is no aroma during most of the year, when the orchid flowers fall in the autumn time, there is apparently a wonderful smell. This was a pleasant surprise because I was expecting a trickling of water with that damp musky stagnant water kind of smell, which may just be my British pessimism shining through. In any case, we got some panoramic shots and some pictures of us looking like we riding the motorbikes through the city, not sitting behind an expert biker with 30 odd years of experience! Not far from here, we stopped off to see Thien Mu Pagoda and its beautiful grounds.
The next location on the tour was the Tiger Arena, which was a little creepy, kind of awe-inspiring, big and small all at the same time. This arena with high stone walls and tiny cells all around the perimeter has a lush green grassy ground and provided us with an amazing backdrop to a jumping photo! It was light hearted in a location that had seen such suffering back in the 17 & 18th centuries. The arena used to be used for elephant vs tiger fights, where the results were always rigged in the elephant’s favour because tigers symbolise rebellion, and elephants were the royal symbol of prosperity and peace. The tigers used to be drugged so they were drowsy, their claws and jaws were removed to avoid causing any damage to the elephants. Yet in those little tiger cells, we saw claw marks along the walls, some maybe over 6ft up. Well, history always has a few contradictory stories, who knows what to believe anymore…?
We visited a little art gallery/workshop on the way back to the hotel where you could try your hand at making incense sticks out of bamboo and a muddy gloop of sandalwood and cinnamon and sawdust. I figured I’d be pants at it, so moved on to watch the lady making conical hats. The techniques used to make these hats are a dying art. This woman was painstakingly weaving together bleached and flattened palm leaves with fishing line. In one full day of work, this patient woman with nimble fingers can make three and a half hats. We all successfully managed to escape the collection of delicate arts without actually buying much more than a cup of coffee, an ice cream or a chocolate bar, we headed back to the hotel. The sun was just setting and so the roads got major busy. That’s one thing about this part of the world where fair skin is equal to beauty – as soon as the sun goes down, the people come out!
A quick shower later, a small bunch of us went out for a quick drink at a bar just outside the hotel before dinner. I decided to treat myself to a glass of red wine, as the temperature had dropped off a little and I didn’t fancy anything that was half ice. The glass arrived and there was condensation on the outside. This had come straight from the fridge! Bad times. It wasn’t even a bad glass of wine, I just had to reheat it with my hands before I felt happy to drink it! Very odd sensation!