- 01. To The Rescue
- 02. Last Minute Minutia
- 03. Spiritual Me
- 04. A New Approach
- 05. Cruising Cambodia
- 06. Ox Cart Aerobics and Buddhist Blessing Yoga
- 07. My Great Cambodian Depression
- 08. A Day on the River Limbo
- 09. Lies, Damned Statistics, and Tourism
- 10. Saigon Reunification
- 11. The Way to Huế
- 12. A Hot Time in the Old Town
- 13. An Hanoi-ing Experience
- 14. Southeast Asian Rescue
The very helpful staff of the Holiday Diamond Hotel plotted to send us up the river. After breakfast we fell for it, paying twenty-five bucks for a private tour to see the other great attractions dotting the Huong River near Huế, specifically, a famed pagodas and one of many emperors’ tombs.
By nine-thirty we boarded a junk, just the two of us joining an old woman who spoke no English but provided service of a sort, and a somewhat younger man at the helm. Only then did it dawn on me that we had just three days earlier completed more than a week on a river touring pagodas. But we were committed. Regardless, it was too damned hot to do much more than watch the world go by, and in Vietnam there is no better place to do that than on its superhighways, which are its rivers.
The voyage upstream was slow. What light breeze there was followed, leaving the air at a relative standstill. We cowered from the intensifying sun on the open bow where the cabin provided a blade of shade. As we wobbled atop the resin plastic chairs, stacked two high to support our weight, the simple and reliable but noisy single piston “one-lunger” engine pounded out its monosyllabic song, the cabin’s interior uninhabitable due to the heat and noise. It was all highly authentic.
The old woman paraded endless merchandise before us, mostly souvenir crap of low quality and no interest. The hotel staff had advised we “should not feel obligated to buy because they are very poor.” Right. I did my bit by buying her bottled water in huge quantities even though she charged twice the street price, an extra fifty cents a litre.
The helmsman was completely silent until we arrived at the Thien Mu Pagoda, where he demanded “Forty minutes!” as we left his craft. Frank and I nodded, smiling, responding in unison, “It won’t take that long!”
The Perfume Pagoda, as it is known to those who understand nothing, such as myself, was a red brick structure stirring the Boston Brahmin Bullfinch in me. Buddhist monks with expensive cameras swarmed about appreciatively, like priests in Ferraris at the Vatican.
True to our word, we were back on the boat in twenty minutes. The helmsman seemed disappointed that we interrupted his nap. Many of the locals piece together a living from several sources which, in combination, require them to be on call, if not awake, twenty-four hours a days. Moreover, the cooler, late evening hours is when the townsfolk come to life. Everybody, save mad dogs and tourists, tries to sneak in a nap when they can, preferably during the midday heat. If I had to work twenty hours a day, I too would learn to sleep on a motorcycle.
The next leg upstream was another hour of brutal heat, giving me more of a taste than I wanted of what it might have been like to serve on a river gun boat forty years earlier. Finally, we arrived at the Minh Mang Tomb where we got off the boat with inappropriate glee. The helmsman demanded an hour’s rest this time; we gave him a respectable, if not respectful, forty-five minutes. Honestly, it was a beautiful and well preserved site – but at that point, dizzy from the heat once again, I was wondering whether it was worth the trip.
That question didn’t take long to answer. Back on the junk, we flew downstream with the cooling sea breeze now in our faces. The dowager WalMart brought on the beers, literally cheaper than water. Her beaming face betrayed her ample profit margin. At a buck a piece, I was in tourist trap heaven – how could this be?
Having consumed a lifetime of warm flat beer at parties in my university days, I pretty much swore off the stuff thereafter. It had been a long time since I consumed as much beer as I had in recent days. But in Vietnam’s climate, beer is a natural fit, the right mix of H2O and alcohol to help one survive while creating the delusion of enjoyment. Most cooler OECD climates demand a much higher alcohol content to achieve such an outcome.
This day I had four – or was it six? – beers on an empty stomach before lunch. I waved enthusiastically to the tourists on junks who got a later start than we did as they headed upstream in more sun and heat than had nearly killed me earlier. “It’s much better this way!” I shouted, a mantra I’ve used many times to encourage those ascending a hill I was bicycling down.
Not much later I was delighted to find that junks have toilets! Well, more precisely they have an enclosure with a hole into which one can deposit one’s bodily excesses into a visibly rushing river named for its murky fragrance. Unladylike, but relief in any case.
Frank Lee is not one to feed beers before food. By the time we got back into Huế we had a full blown Joan Collins cat fight in the making, and I had been declawed long ago. Eager to placate our starved grumpiness, we grabbed a table at the first restaurant, a pub named the DMZ. They pulled a classic bait-and-switch manoeuvre on us regarding their “special”. Worse, in the men’s I peed beside a barefoot waiter who left without washing his hands before then serving us our lunch. Then he climbed up on an adjacent table to adjust a ceiling fan. It doesn’t bear further explanation other than to say 1) yes, bad food can be found in Vietnam, and 2) it can be found in a bar called the The Demilatarized Zone in Huế. Avoid.
That evening we had dinner at a place named Risotto. I saw no such thing on the menu, which was fine by me, as I think of risotto as an expensive version of something my mother called “tuna glop”. But it was just down the street from our hotel, and highly rated on TripAdvisor. I have found TripAdvisor’s rating of hotels quite helpful and reliable – indeed our Holiday Diamond Hotel was #1 on TripAdvisor the day we booked, and did not disappoint. Yet TripAdvisor restaurants ratings tend to reflect a lack of imagination. Maybe I am more conservative about with whom I sleep than with whom I eat. In any case there was nothing wrong with Risotto if you are hungry and don’t mind the smell of diesel fuel.
Suddenly it was Tuesday and we had a train to catch. First, though, we had reliable advice the Huế market was a good place to stock up on gifts and such, cheap. We trod across the Eiffel Bridge once again, this time to the market. Eschewing the market’s main street front, which we could see teeming with aggressive hawkers selling tourist crap, we entered from the rear. The problem was that we were after tourist crap and found little. An enterprising woman selling T-shirts corralled us into her shop, up a flight of stairs. I bargained hard, reducing her price on two T-shirts from ten dollars each to seven. That still struck me as expensive for a T-shirt, but mindful of the Cambodian guilt I had felt in “winning” such negotiations, I capitulated.
We exited the market via the main street front full of tourist crap where an aggressive hawker offered the exact same T-shirt — starting the negotiations – at two bucks. Unable to resist a bargain, we bought four more. I imagine I made the day of the lady upstairs. It was a lesson learnt, though. By allowing ourselves to be taken upstairs, we lost all negotiating leverage, putting ourselves in a situation where it was difficult, even confrontational, to walk away. Downstairs in the main hurly-burly, what we thought a tourist trap offered real competition and the best price, in contrast to western tourist trap where no bargaining means no real competition,
Lunch was served at the Missyroo Kangaroo Huế Restaurant, a joint that has established a booming business catering to Aussie backpackers. They had excellent onion rings, which can be difficult to find in Australia.
We watched two men in their 30’s rent scooters and hit the road with carefree abandon. Without a word spoken we toyed with the idea of doing the same, but Frank broke the silence with “We’re old enough to be their fathers.” Depressing but true. Worse, we knew our reflexes and ability to heal were no longer good enough to risk renting scooters, or bicycles, for that matter. Hell, I was wobbly just walking in this heat. Maybe again in Europe someday, or someplace with hospitals I trust, but here? No chance.
The most vexed decision of our advanced planning for this trip was determining how we’d get from Huế to Hanoi. Two first class sleeper berths cost $200, about what it cost to fly. We both really enjoy train travel, but unless we bought four berths ($400) we’d be sharing a cramped cabin with two strangers. That could be okay, even an advantage, but the utter lack of privacy spooked us. The Livitrains Express Train web site (www.livitrantrain.com) did much to convince us that the $400 would provide a romantic experience of pampered luxury. After much hand-wringing, we decided to buy the four berths, and enjoy the splurge of the trip.
It was, um, an experience. Would I have paid $400 for the experience, knowing what I now know? I will answer by saying that if you really want to enjoy the ride from Huế to Hanoi, I suggest you fly.
Let’s see. Our four tickets had no names on them, but I had been warned that the conductors might take them to resell them to others, so I wrote our names on the tickets in big black letters. This did not please the conductor, but he got the point: our cabin was OUR cabin.
The cabin was filthy – footprints on the linens, bugs in the bed, rubbish overflowing from the bin, sticky stuff covering the table, crud on the windows and doorhandles. We exhausted a lifetime’s accumulation of KFC moist towlettes on cleaning the table, windows and doorhandles, applied bug-be-gone lotion head-to-foot, carted the rubbish to the considerable pile blowing about the end of the car, and re-sheeted the beds with the same linens, clean(er)-side-up.
The cabin next door had a Vietnamese family of nine in it, five adults and four children. Apparently, children do not require berths, their discounted tickets permitting them to sleep in the luggage area above the door. I presume the fifth adult slept on the floor or with spouse. They were pretty well behaved. Oh, except our door lock didn’t work, so the small children repeatedly slid it open, wide-eyed and fascinated by the funny-looking westerners.
Less well-behaved was the rest of our carriage, entirely populated by French people on a cheap tour crammed four-to-a-cabin and not happy about it. They milled and chatted in the aisle, playing music, sometimes dancing, making passage to the toilet a twenty-minute episode. Their Vietnamese guide was a wonderful soul, however, without whom the importance of man selling tickets for the dinner service would have entirely missed our grasp. Certainly the conductor was not about to explain the system to us.
I had asked a few people, including the conductor, how I might obtain a beer or six. The answer was “wait”. An hour after dinner, though, my patience wore thin, so I struck out down through the train in search of a beer vendor. I did not get very far.
Ours was the only first class carriage. Immediately behind was the “hard sleeper” car, which was literally overflowing. The doorways between cars were valued spots where one could flaunt the rules and smoke. There, passengers brought their own folding beach chairs which they set up in groups. In fifteen minutes I managed to get through two cars, climbing over people every inch of the way. In the aisle cross-legged passengers played cards, dominoes — there was even a game of badminton going on, seated contestants batting the birdie over a couple who sat reading, simultaneously serving ably as the net. I considered what might await me the next class down, in the “hard seat” cars.
I retreated to our cabin. Frank looked at me hopefully. “No beer.” I reported. “And I don’t think there will be any beer. Gimme a sleeping pill.” That was the wisest decision of the trip. Fast asleep by eight in evening, we awoke well rested — for the first time in more than week — in Hanoi at four thirty in the morning. A good thing, too – Hanoi would require all the attention we could muster.