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Hue, Vietnam

Jan 5 – 11, 15-16

The night bus to Hue lurched forward along potholed roads and made scary squealing noises as it wove around motorbikes. Despite the fact that the bus driver slammed on the horn every few minutes and sometimes I would wake up out of fear that we were going to tip over (I was asleep on the top bunk, so it felt strange when we hit holes in the road), I slept quite nicely. And as I said in my previous post – they also had a large TV screen in the front playing Michael Jackson videos. In the morning we listened to Lady in Red and other cheesy love songs while the screen displayed clips from war movies.

It was disorienting to step off the bus in the morning to have about 20 motorbike drivers all fighting for my money and hotel operators throwing their business cards in my face. I didn’t know where I was staying yet, but I don’t like supporting pushy people. So I ignored everyone and figured I’d walk around and hotel shop until I found a good place.

I ended up staying at Ngoc Binh Hotel – $8 for a single room with my own bathroom, hot water, cable TV, and free wifi. The free wifi was what sold me on the room, and I don’t normally care about things like TV, but I have to admit it was nice to end my days crawling into a cozy bed and watching a movie. I kinda just felt like hibernating in my room for a few days and not being bothered. And I didn’t really have any plans for Hue in particular. I had planned to go to Hoi An, and maybe a few other places further south, but Hue was on the way so I figured I’d break up the journey a little bit and just stop and check it out. I ended up staying a week.

I tend to enjoy places more if I stick around longer, so it was nice to have the hotel as my home base for a while. And I got to know all the hotel employees (something I wouldn’t have gotten to do had I just popped in for a day or two and left).

But I really wasn’t a fan of their stuffed cat who hung out on the balcony. I’d like to think it’s fake, but unfortunately I don’t think so. Had I stuck around even longer, I might have felt comfortable enough to find out who thought this was a good idea and give them all the reasons why I don’t approve.

One night at the hotel, the owner threw a party for a Croatian guy who had visited a few years ago and was now returning with some friends. I was upstairs using my computer on the dining room balcony and one of the employees was setting up for the party around me. I kept asking him if he needed me to move, but he politely said no (even though I was clearly in the way). Eventually I moved. I had a bunch of oranges in my room because even if you just want a few, you end up having to buy an entire bag, so I started putting one near each place setting to decorate. They must have liked my decorations, because a few minutes later there was a knock on my door and the owner invited me to join the party. At first I kinda felt like I was intruding on their gathering, but it was a good time.

The owner kept filling our glasses with Hue beer over and over and over and we had to do a cheers (Chúc sức khoẻ) every single time we took a sip. It looks like the owner had a bit too much to drink himself. He was clearly very happy to see this guy again.

Beyond one full day of sightseeing, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Hue. I kinda liked that. After being in a crazy city like Hanoi and then a small, rural town in Ninh Binh, Hue was a nice in between. It’s still a decent sized city, but you can ride a bicycle without feeling like you’re gonna get squashed, the people are friendly, the countryside isn’t too far away, and there are nice parks with paved walkways along the waterfront.

Hue is a very different place than it was during the Vietnam/American War. At a guesthouse, I picked up a book called Tiger Balm. The book documents a journalists travels through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. All in all, I didn’t really love the book, as the woman who wrote it came across as very snobby and unadventurous in my opinion. But her personal travel memoirs are interspersed with meaningful historical facts. Here is what the author wrote about Hue: “During the Tet Offensive, many of the inhabitants of Hue had Vietcong soldiers actually living with them in their houses, trying to convert them, teaching them Communist songs. They resisted conversion but they and their city paid a terrible price. Of a population of 140,000, some 90,000 were turned into refugees. Possibly as many as 3,000 civilians were killed (the victims had been shot or clubbed to death, or buried alive) and 4,000 wounded. Much of the commercial centre of the city and of the Citadel were destroyed. The streets stank of decomposing corpses.”

Today Hue seems pretty peaceful. It has some pretty rivers splitting up the town.

And you can cruise on a boat along the Perfume River.

There’s also Dong Ba market, a huge market along the northern shore of the Perfume River, where you can buy just about anything. I liked the vegetable section the best….that and the T-shirt section.

Another reason I couldn’t seem to leave Hue is that it is a paradise for vegetarians (most likely because of the large monk population)! It’s crazy to think I almost gave this city a miss. I just wanted to wander around and eat all day. Sometimes (often a few hours after I just finished lunch) I’d catch myself looking at my watch to see if it was time to eat again. I wanted to stick around the city long enough to revisit some of my favorite restaurants and sample a bunch of things on their menus. I’ll write a more extensive review of my favorite vegetarian restaurants in Hue on my Vietnam vegan page later. But here is a brief mention of some of them:

Bo De

Lien Hoa

Their menu is really extensive and it’s hard to decipher some of the dishes. Even though they’re translated in English, the translations are often quite garbled or vague. Once I ordered a dish called “fried leaves and stems.” It doesn’t really matter though if you don’t know what you’re ordering exactly. I just ended up pointing to random dishes and it always turned out interesting. But this is definitely a place that’s more fun with a group so you can mix and match different dishes (as you wouldn’t want leaves and stems to be your main meal).

If you aren’t into surprises, luckily their picture book menu has photos of some of the dishes so you can have a better idea of what you’re ordering.

Tinh Tam

It turns out that the menu they give to foreigners is completely different than the one they use for locals. I also heard that they use MSG in a lot of their dishes, but I’m not sure. The foreigner menu consists almost entirely of mock meats (often weird ones that don’t sound appetizing at all) and it’s the type of place where you glance at the menu and almost leave because it doesn’t look like there’s anything vegetarian on it. Anyone interested in fried beef lip, fried small intestine, fried kidney, or maybe fried ear? I didn’t think so.

This place should be lower on your list than the 2 places listed above, but it’s still good.

I really liked their fried deer with lemongrass and chili. I tried the chicken option as well and it was also good.

Lac Thien is not all vegetarian, but it has some decent veggie selections. It has been open for several decades and many of the family members who run the restaurant are deaf. You can find it because it has a large sign in the front that says “As mentioned in the Lonely Planet.”

They had delicious spring rolls wrapped in vermicelli noodles.

I also ate at a restaurant somewhere off Hung Vuong, but I can’t remember the name of it. It’s mentioned in the Lonely Planet and I’ll try to grab one sometime and update this post. It’s not all veggie, but they have some mock meat dishes that come with a fair portion of green veggies and they’re pretty open to modifying your dishes for you (like adding extra garlic and chili).

One day at this restaurant, I met Tuu, a motorbike driver who does tours during the day and helps his sister at the restaurant in the evenings. He mentioned his motorbike tour and showed me a big book of positive references from people who toured with him. I liked him because unlike all the other motorbike drivers, he wasn’t pushy about getting me to sign up. That’s what made me decide to do it.

The weather was pretty bad for most of the day (and the entire week I was there), but the tour ended up being pretty fun. Hue gets the most amount of rain than any other city in Vietnam and I think it rains sporadically year round.

First we drove through the countryside.

and visited a small local market.

We watched some women making incense

and conical hats. Hue is famous for its conical hats with poetry written inside (called Non Ba Tho).

We also watched some women sorting tamarind.

And I bought some postcards from these ladies.

Next we visited an area that I was told used to be littered with landmines. Across the valley is Ap Bia Mountain, where US troops staged a direct assault during the Vietnam/American war. This mountain is often referred to as Hamburger Hill in light of the massive amounts of casualties on all sides.

There are 7 royal tombs of Vietnam’s emperors scattered around Hue. Tuu took me to visit Tu Duc’s tomb site.

But they wouldn’t let me pick flower or eak branches, so I was disappointed with my visit.

And while poaching is a big issue in Vietnam, I don’t think it’s a problem here. The only animals I saw were snails.

We also visited the Citadel, where Vietnamese royalty used to live.

This Imperial City must have been quite a sight in the good old days, but as it was the scene of major battles during the war, it looks quite dilapidated today. The walls are crumbling and the cracks and holes are overgrown with moss.

It looks like some restoration efforts are underway.

The stormy weather made the citadel feel all the more desolate and ominous.

I really liked the Thien Mu Pagoda.

We also visited a temple with some resident monks.

I really liked going there and found the monks to be kind of intriguing. I thought it would be interesting to meet some monks personally, but they seemed so distant and unapproachable. I also remembered reading that there are strict etiquette guidelines for interacting with monks in some cultures, so I wasn’t sure if it would even be appropriate to try to approach them for a conversation.

It turns out I was in luck! Just like I manifested the kookabura in Perth, I think I must have manifested these guys. That night, I was eating at one of my regular veggie restaurants when in walk a nun and 2 monks. The nun walked immediately up to my table and said “where are you from?” As it turned out, she’s also from Texas (living at a temple in Houston)! Her family lives in Hue and her father, who had recently passed away, was a master monk. She was in Hue to plan a month’s worth of weekly funeral ceremonies with her family.

I had just finished my dinner, but the monks invited me to join them at their table.

Within about 15 minutes of meeting them, I was invited to join the monks to have tea at a remote temple on the top of a mountain, visit all of Kim’s family members in Hue, attend her father’s funeral ceremony, and fly with her to Saigon to visit more relatives. And sticking to my theme of just going with the flow of things, I said yes to everything.

That night, we stopped by a shop to buy me a motorbike helmet (I chose a pink one that cost about $5) and we drove to her family’s house in Hue. Her cousin (on the right) was studying English in school, so I chatted with him for a while so he could practice. He also helped me learn a few things in Vietnamese. I met lots of other family members and am not exactly sure of their relation to Kim, but they were all very friendly. One woman had a perpetual bewildered experession on her face and no matter what I said, no matter how normal or boring it was, she looked at me and said “Reeeaaaaallllly?” as if I had said something very absurd.

After we visited her family, we took her cousin, met up with the monks again, and we drove to the top of a mountain. In the temple, I met more monks and they were all overwhelming me by teaching me lots of phrases in Vietnamese all at once. I had them write them down and told them I’d practice. One of the useful phrases they taught me was “hello master,” as in Master monk (although unfortunately I’ve forgotten this one as I’m out of practice). They also taught me another phrase, only they didn’t tell me what it meant. They’d just whisper in my ear to say it to whichever monk was nearest me and when I did, they would all giggle hysterically. I found out later that it meant “I love you.” When we left, one of the monks picked up a bouquet of flowers that was decorating the table and told me to keep it as a souvenir.

When I walked into my hotel that night with my pink motorbike helmet and my flowers, all the employees were laughing at me. They were positive I had met a Vietnamese boyfriend. I saw the confused look on their faces the next morning when a nun came to collect me from the hotel. Once this became a habit,one of the guys at the hotel said “oh I understand. You met people to pray with.” He was even more confused when I said “Nope. We eat lots of food and ride motorbikes.”

As became Kim’s habit, she would show up unannounced around 7 or 8am and knock on my door saying “Ok. You ready? 10 minutes and we have to go!” I would barely be awake yet and I’d have to rush to shower and collect my stuff for the day.

One morning we went back to her family’s house to prepare for her father’s funeral ceremony. I kept saying that I wanted to help cook, but they wouldn’t let me. I think they just thought I was being nice and didn’t understand that I really did want to learn. Eventually after much insisting, I was appointed the task of helping someone make sandwiches.

All the monks I had met the night before arrived. So when the sandwiches were done, I joined them in the living room.

And I met a sweet lady who said that if I was staying longer, I could teach English to her students at the temple. I’d really love to next time I make it to Hue.

When the funeral ceremony began, Kim and the monks dressed in gold robes and chanted beautifully in front of the altar for her father. While this was going on, I helped set the table for the feast we were going to have afterwards. Most of her family members aren’t vegetarian, but because her father was vegetarian, they were all avoiding meat for 1 month out of respect for him. There was lots of great veggie food at the table – some of it I had never had before.

I learned that I love mangosteens

and lotus seeds

The funeral attendees ate in waves. Monks first, guests second, and hosts third.

After the funeral ceremony, we visited Kim’s mom in a village. She had the largest house on the block and seemed to be pretty well off in contrast to her neighbors. She also seemed to take good care of everyone around her.

Kim and I sat on the upstairs balcony and looked out onto the surrounding countryside.

All the neighbors were out and about.

Later, Kim gave me some bills that added up to 500,000 Dong (which is about $30). She said we were going to walk around and donate money to poor families, but she didn’t elaborate further. First we visited their neighbor, a woman living in a small house with a bunch of children. We barged into her house and Kim spoke openly and loudly about how the woman’s husband died, how her house is falling apart, and how she’s struggling to feed all her children. I don’t think the woman understood what we were talking about because she was just standing there smiling. It felt very intrusive and awkward. It felt even more awkward when Kim said “ok. give her money now and we will go.” I didn’t know what to do, so I just handed the woman all the bills. Then I saw her shocked expression and realized I had given her way too much. Kim explained that she only intended me to give the lady 50,000 Dong because we were going to spread the money out between many different families. I obviously wasn’t going to take the money back once I gave it to her, so that woman lucked out. After many thanks and invitations from the woman to stay at their house while I’m in town, we left.

I figured I could match Kim’s amount and donate 500,000 Dong to the families as well. So we went back to the house to exchange my money for smaller bills that I could give to many different families. It was nice to give them money…. and they did seem truly grateful to have it…but the whole process Kim had in mind felt very strange. I would have preferred to meet the neighborhood in a more normal way first and just given the money to Kim’s mom to distribute later. But instead we marched around the neighborhood, barged into people’s homes, Kim would explain the miserable conditions in which they live (this one has a missing limb, this one has lots of health problems, this one has too many children, this one shares one bed with eight family members, etc) then she’d say “ok. give them money now” and I would dispense the cash. After that, they would invite us for some water or tea, jokingly try to marry me to whichever family member was closest to my age, invite me to stay with them whenever I’m in town, I would take their picture, then we’d leave. Weird.

Kim’s sister in law walked with us and she linked arms with me as we shared an umbrella while trudging along a muddy path. Of course everyone else managed to return to Kim’s mom’s house spotless. I of course was filthy – with big splashes of mud on my shoes and the bottom of my pant legs. Kim’s sister in law helped me wash my feet (while the whole neighborhood watched in amusement).

The rest of my days in Hue were spent going on lunch and dinner dates with Kim and the monks. Eating in a group like this was much more fun, as I was able to experience Vietnamese meals as they are meant to be enjoyed. A few things are ordered (typically a vegetable dish, a fake meat dish, a few other side dishes, and some rice) and everyone shares everything. More dishes are ordered throughout the meal as needed.

Once day we met a Finnish guy and he joined our table. Then we all went out to a street stall to eat something that was like sweet little rice balls dipped in a sugary coconut syrup. I didn’t really like it, but I liked it better knowing that it wasn’t “squid balls” (like I initially thought Kim was saying).

None of the monks spoke English except for Kim, but we had fun together. One of the monks had a habit of leaning over to me and mumble some sort of gibberish that I think he thought was English. I would glance over to Kim and ask for a translation, but she’d just laugh and say she didn’t understand either. These monks were hilarious! And they seemed to be just as amused by me as I was with them.

And they turned out to be nothing how I expected monks to be. Rather than being contemplative and stoic, they kinda acted like giggly schoolchildren. They’re really into camera phones, text messaging, bubble gum, they ride motorbikes, and they enjoy trying on various motorbike helmet styles in the mirror. Some of them even smoke cigarettes! Once during dinner, I proudly displayed my Vietnamese phrasebook to show them that I was trying to learn. They immediately flipped to the sex chapter and started giggling hysterically.

Kim and I really liked their darth vadar looking helmet.

My last day in Hue before heading to Saigon, I woke up grumpy and with terrible cramps. I went to get some medicine from the pharmacy and had an interesting time explaining to the woman what type of medicine I needed. Eventually she understood when I said “women problem. 1 time every month.” Kim arrived at my hotel 30 minutes earlier than I planned for, so I had to quickly check out of my hotel and hop on her motorbike to head to her mom’s house. I felt like crap.

When we got to her mom’s the entire neighborhood was working together to redo her front yard made of pounded mud. It was fascinating to watch and I really wanted to ask if I could help….but I still hurt, so couldn’t manage to do much other than lie down upstairs.

Eventually they all took a break and Kim’s sisters cooked them an elaborate feast.

Even the cat got to eat.

Kim and I ate upstairs. And her family prepared us all kinds of stuff to choose from. Everything from Butterfingers and soy milk to noodles, rice, fried tofu, several different vegetable dishes, and fruit. It was a massive feast for 2 people.

Sadly, I couldn’t communicate with Kim’s sweet sister in law, but I could tell she liked me. She often sat next to me and patted my knee while we smiled at each other.

When it was time for us to leave, the porch was finished. Doesn’t it look pretty?

I said goodbye to everyone and we headed off in a cab to have a final dinner with the monks before going to the airport. Good people. I hope to be back someday – hopefully with a better knowledge of the Vietnamese language.

Notes:

  • AIDS is becoming an increasing problem in Vietnam and there are may programs in the country that focus on keeping the epidemic under control. Here is one program focusing on controlling AIDS in Vietnam.

  • When you visit Hue, you must try the jackfruit salad served with rice crackers. I’ve never had anything like it. It’s delicious and I still crave it.

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