Whew… It’s been a busy few days. I apologize in advance if this is a crazy-long post, but we just have so much to tell you!
As Pia mentioned, after Hanoi and Ha Long Bay we headed to the center of the country to the small-ish city of Hue (pronounced hway), which is just South of the DMZ (demilitarized zone that once separated North and South Vietnam). After the frenetic busy streets of Hanoi, Hue was a breath of fresh air, as was the hot, sunny weather after a lot of grey, misty days in the North.
The biggest sight in downtown Hue is the old citadel, inside which is the Imperial Enclosure (as Lonely Planet says, sort of a citadel within a citadel), and inside that is the Forbidden Purple City (for the emperor’s personal use – a citadel within a citadel within a citadel). We explored the three, stopping for shade, ice cream, and to buy cheap, touristy folding fans to try to keep ourselves from melting in the sweltering heat. We may have looked like stereotypical tourists with those fans, but amidst the armies of white people in souvenir conical hats, we were the height of fashion.
Since many of Hue’s sights are in outlying areas, we decide to book a motorcycle day-tour with Hue Riders, the people we’d already booked to take us to Hoi An (more about that below). We had two guide/drivers, Ty and Linh, who picked us up at our hotel and we hopped on the back of their motorcycles and took off into the countryside.
It was fantastic. I can absolutely see why there is a whole culture of people who travel the world by motorbike. In fact, by half-way through the first day Pia (OK, me too) had already decided that we should buy a motorcycle when we get home.
First stop was out in the middle of nowhere, where we visited some military bunkers that had once been occupied by French, American, and South Vietnamese troops, but seem to now have very different tenants.
We also visited a pagoda where we watched monks chanting, an imperial tomb, a village that makes incense and conical hats, and a second pagoda.
We finished the day off by heading out to a little farming village surrounded by rice paddies. There was a little rice museum where a very sweet lady showed us how they cultivate the rice and what their daily life is like in the village. She didn’t speak English, though, so she gave the presentation using an entertaining combination of pantomime and sound effects.
That last photo is her cutting up a betel nut to show us how they chew them. She offered us some and being either adventurous or stupid we accepted. It was disgusting, made my tongue tingle, and turned my mouth this colour:
She found our reaction to the taste very amusing.
The next day we left Hue for Hoi An by way of a two-day, one-night motorcycle tour which would take us up into the mountains and along part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was used as a supply line by the Vietcong (or National Liberation Front – depending which side of the conflict you ask) during the war.
The trip was fantastic. It took us through a wide variety of landscapes including jungle-covered mountains and valleys, little villages, rice paddies, and farms. Pia even proved that her napping abilities rival that of the Japanese (see this post) by falling asleep on the back of the bike on the first day. The guides ribbed her about that for the rest of the trip.
We stopped in a little village the first morning to get some coffee (have we mentioned that Vietnamese coffee is the best?) and the place also sold some traditional medicines. Here is rice wine with a dead bird and lizard in it:
and a rice wine with a poisonous snake in it, which is apparently good for the bones and the back (we never found out what the other is used for):
One of our guides says he drinks the snake-wine all the time and it really works, the other said he would never touch the stuff.
Traveling this way also let us visit some places we would never have seen otherwise and it was lovely to get to some areas where tourists are not as common. People were so friendly and kids would enthusiastically wave at us with huge grins on their faces.
One of the places we stopped was a little village of one the mountain tribes of Vietnam where we made some little friends who tried to follow us home.
Here’s a little video (if you’re reading this by email you’ll have to visit the site to watch the video):
We spent the night in a tiny town called P’rao, which actually reminded us a little bit of Leavenwoth, Washington (the little bavarian-themed town we visited in June). Obviously it was culturally completely different (we didn’t hear a single accordion in P’rao), but the size of the town and the mountains surrounding it were reminiscent.
The night we spent there was also the night of a “lady-boy” concert which, as near as we can tell, is basically a drag show except that they actually sing. Our guide convinced us to go check it out. It was a small outdoor stage with a sort of carnival midway attached. The lady-boys had not yet started performing when we arrived. We watched some of the carnival games while have the people there watched us, but it didn’t take long before Ty determined that it would be a while before the show started and we just went back to the hotel.
The second day we visited a pineapple farm, where we proved our ignorance by admitting that we thought pineapples grew on trees. It turns out they don’t; they grow low to the ground kind of like cauliflower or broccoli.
The last place we stopped was at My Son, a complex of temple ruins that were built built from the 4th to 13th centuries. Nobody really knows how they got the bricks to stay together because they didn’t use mortar.
The motorcycle trip was such a great experience and will probably be one of our favourite parts of the trip, but by the end of three days on bikes our bums were pretty sore and we were happy to arrive in Hoi An.