Photo: Boat along the Perfume River
Out of the train and into the sauna of Hue. We traveled by train through the night into what is considered as South Vietnam. Hue is a small town of about 300,000 people (I’m not being sarcastic) and it holds a very prominent place in Vietnam history. The first and most important thing to know is that Hue is pronounced ‘way’. It was a hotbed of activity during various wars and rulers and it’s contrasted by the serene Perfume River that runs through it. This is the setting for when my luck ran out. I had been gambling with food choices all the way through Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia – but Hue, Vietnam was the end of the road.
Photo: Citadel wall
We went to visit the Citadel in Hue the first afternoon. I didn’t really know much about it so before we arrived I had visions of a prestigious military fortress. It was a fortress, but one for royalty. Centuries ago the Mandarin empire utilized this as a palace grounds – a little city of sorts protected by 9 cannons (gifts from the Portuguese), 2 large walls enclosing the grounds, and a moat. This place was kind of like ancient ADT. Unfortunately most of the grounds were destroyed from the Tet Offensive during the ‘American War’. The North seized the city of Hue for 3 weeks and many Southern Vietnamese people perished and the city was destroyed. The US came and bombed the city to get it back into Southern control 3 weeks later. Hue is in the process of trying to restore the Citadel – but it has a long way to go.
Photo: Pottery sold on the street
Huong guided us through the crumbling complex in the hot afternoon sun. The heat was a shock to all of us after being in cold Sapa where we bought mittens. Now I felt like I was going to melt or faint…not sure which one. That’s why I was so baffled as to why all of the women were covered from head to toe in clothing. You could normally only see their eyes. They had on sandals with socks, pants, a short sleeve blouse, gloves that went past their elbows, and a full face mask that even covered their ears. There were many variation of this – but the general look was like a mismatched burqa. Huong told us that this dress was not for spiritual reasons, nor were they trying to make a strange fashion statement – it was solely for sun protection. The sun protection wasn’t driven by health reasons, it was mainly because white skin was considered more beautiful. If your skin was dark then people would think you were from the country – a lower class and poor. The strange thing is that they must not believe in sunscreen lotion as you couldn’t find any in Hue! Of course I was in the least amount of clothes possible to still be ‘acceptable’, sweating profusely, drinking my water – and the women of Hue were covered head to toe, eating hot soup at the vendors! A good example of being world’s apart!
The next day I decided to get up and run early along the river as there was a nice path and I could get in 3 miles before the city started to boil. Much to my dismay, even at 7AM the city was already simmering – making it a run/walk for 3 miles. Various locals stopped me to take my picture. I wonder how many Vietnamese cell phones have me as their ‘wallpaper’. When I finally got back to my hotel I had to quick shower and eat breakfast as we signed up for a motorbike tour that morning. I had bought some yogurt and muesli from a little store the other day as I was longing for some dairy. There is virtually no dairy in the Vietnamese diet – no milk, no cheese, no yogurt – just rice, noodles, broth, and veggies. I thoroughly enjoyed my ‘American breakfast’ and ran out the door to meet the group for the motor bike tour.
Photo: Kids at schoolhouse I met my driver, Dong, and he gave me a little bike helmet to wear. I asked him where his helmet was and he pointed to his khaki colored hat and said “My hat is from the Vietnamese Army”. Ok – I’m not going to argue with the Vietnamese Army! I took my position on the back of his motorbike and off we went. The motorbike tour was my highlight of Hue! Our group of 6 each had a motorbike, and a driver. We zipped through narrow little alleys, villages, through the middle of markets, along river paths, over flimsy wood bridges, on dirt roads, on big highways, through ride paddies, and even through a seldom traveled path in a cemetery! I sat on the back of the bike, wind blowing in my hair, holding onto Dong with one hand and my camera in the other – I was on top of the world! It was definitely one of those ‘I must be the luckiest person in the world’ moments. We stopped at various places and would get off and go look around. Our first stop was a little one room school in the countryside amidst rice fields. The kids were so happy to see us that all they could do was scream and try to fight their way in front for a photograph. They LOVED the camera – so much so that I couldn’t even organize them to take a picture…it was like being rushed by munchkins! I tried to take a few pictures – but they were all pushing each other to get in front and I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. The few pictures I did take I would show them on the screen and they would all crowd around and scream in utter delight. I took a look in the school room to see it filled with A, B, C’s and 1,2,3′s. For a moment they all sat orderly in their little chairs as I took off my shoes and entered the classroom – however the moment I took out my small camera to take a picture of how cute they all looked – they got up and rushed me again! I never knew I could be so popular with kids!