Stray New Zealander Keys continues to make us all jealous as she travels on Stray’s very first Vietnam trip…
The trip from Hoi An to Hue took no time at all, with a couple of noteworthy things en route.
After driving along the coast past numerous resorts and casinos (apparently these are popular with the Chinese), we came to a sudden halt when a woman in uniform pulled a barrier on wheels across the three lane road we were travelling on. She then raced across the train tracks and did the same on the other side of the street and shortly after the railways bells started to ring. Traffic piled up on both sides and soon a freight train came chugging through. The woman then ran back across and opened our barrier – I have never encountered such a system anywhere in my travels but it makes sense as I’m sure the two wheeled population would likely sneak under or around creating a serious risk, if a proper physical barrier was not in place.
We also went over the Hai-Van Pass, an incredibly scenic route, nowadays with less traffic as a tunnel has been built through the mountain range. As we ascended, the clouds came swirling down and in fact it was quite misty at the top. We jumped out for a photo session but on this day the clouds impeded our view, although I imagine it would be stunning on a good day. We continued down the mountainside and passed a herd of goats on the road. As a driver, I am fascinated with street signs and traffic in other countries. There are a couple of road signs that have caught my attention for calling it like it is!
We arrived in Hue just before 1pm, checked into our hostel and still had time to grab lunch before our epic motorbike tour. Hue lies on the Perfume River and is a UNESCO city as it has impressive architecture and history because it is the old seat of the Vietnamese dynasty. The Nguyễn Dynasty ended in August 1945, after the return of the French, when Emperor Bảo Ðại abdicated.
The afternoon’s tour through the back streets of Hue and surrounding villages will easily go down as one of my favourite activities of the tour, recommended by Stray Tour Leader Richard. The sky was overcast as we set off but our drivers/guides were prepared with rain ponchos for all. Experiencing the back streets of Hue, on a motorbike, and many of its hidden nooks and crannies, not to mention neighbourhoods and viewpoints, made for an unforgettable afternoon. We joined the thousands of other motorcyclists on the streets of Hue and headed out of town to a nearby village where concrete alleyways took us past numerous rice paddies and alongside canals. The local villagers were not phased by our motorcade and our drivers were experts at finding the smallest trails through narrow streets thriving with locals going about their daily work and carrying produce on their varied two wheeled vehicles. The local kids would wave out at us as we passed and as I looked around my fellow Stray crew, I could see I was not the only one filled with elation to be experiencing Vietnam, as the locals do on the seat of a motorbike.
Our first stop brought us to an ornate wooden structure known as the Thanh Toan Bridge, which spans a canal. We then visited a rice museum where an old lady demonstrated with great skill the different tools they use for harvesting and processing the ‘omnipresent grain’ including the mortar and pestle for grinding it, the baskets for winnowing, and some of the end products i.e. rice noodles. We jumped back on the bikes, left the village behind and returned to the bustling streets of Hue.
After a series of serpentine twists and turns through one of the neighbourhoods, we pulled up outside a house and found a lady inside making conical hats. We were invited in and after removing our footwear, which is customary in almost all Vietnamese buildings including guesthouses, we sat down on tiny stools. We gathered around her watching the demonstration of how to create Vietnam’s iconic hats. Although the lady only had one able arm, probably a victim of agent orange which can have effects for many generations, she was incredibly talented and worked quickly showing us the various stages to make the hat.
The guide told us that this activity is done throughout the country and normally in groups, as ladies sit around and chat while creating their masterpieces. This particular lady had an ingenious way of adding a newspaper cut-out within the two layers of bamboo and this meant that when the hat caught the light a ‘hidden’ pattern was revealed in addition to whatever external design had been put on the outside with coloured thread. These hats are used extensively throughout Vietnam by both men and women. I even noticed the road and construction crews using them as opposed to hard hats.
Our next stop was the tomb of Tu Duc, the fourth emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty of Vietnam who reigned from 1847–1883. He is often regarded as the last Emperor of Vietnam, because he was the last to rule independently. The extensive site is set amidst a pine forest and was apparently built as his summer gardens prior to becoming his final resting place. It includes many stone structures, a large pond, numerous stone walls and statues.
Our guide explained the intricacies of each spot including a man made island which Emperor Tu Duc had intended for hunting deer even though it was only about 50 square metres – talk about a captive audience! Royalty is well known for eccentric decisions so this was hardly surprising. In spite of having a harem of over 100 wives and concubines, Emperor Tu Duc remained childless due to a bout of smallpox which had left him impotent. According to legend, he died in 1883, cursing the French with his dying breath. After his death his adopted son Dục Đức was deposed by court officials after a reign of three days. You could easily spend a few hours exploring this site but as the rain came down a little heavier we decided to carry on with the tour.
To get to the next stop we went off road through pine forest trails to a viewpoint over the Perfume River. By now it was raining quite a lot but that didn’t stop us from having fun. We snapped a few shots and raced back to the bikes; our drivers provided us with ponchos so the weather was not a major issue, although little did we know this would be the first of 3 days of rain.
After this we went back into town and visited the citadel which is right in the heart of the city. Thousands of workers built this colossal structure at the start of the 19th century. The citadel lies within the city of Hue and has walls 2km by 2km surrounded by a moat. This was the home of the last Vietnamese Emperor who abdicated in 1945 and at that time the Purple Forbidden City had many buildings and hundreds of rooms. In spite of the beauty of the architecture and its religious and cultural status, the citadel was the site of a major battle during the Vietnam war, which means that many of the buildings were damaged and today you can still observe bullet holes in the stone walls. In 1993 UNESCO recognized it as a World Heritage site and since then restoration is slowly taking place.
The final stop was the Thien Mu Pagoda. As luck would have it a dumpling man happened to be driving in the same direction and he pulled up behind us at the entrance to the pagoda. We made each other’s day as we were all a bit damp now and some people hadn’t had much for lunch so a hot steamed dumpling sold out of the pot on the back of his motorbike was just the ticket.
The light was fading as we viewed the pagoda but for me the most impressive thing about this site was learning of a monk’s self-immolation in 1963 to bring attention to the religious repression the Buddhist monks were facing from the South Vietnamese government of that time. The car that drove Thich Quang Duc to the spot where he set himself on fire was on display and there is a photo of the famous incident in the background. Although this was well before my time, this photo and event is well known with JFK remarking that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one”.
On this mind blowing note, we made our way back to the hostel. By now it was rush hour in Hue but the multitude of motorbikes and other traffic expertly merged and weaved in spite of the fact that it was wet and the ensuing darkness meant visibility not good. Again I was impressed by Vietnamese driving, and didn’t feel at all at risk as a pillion passenger. We arrived at the hostel in time for happy hour and this proved to be another great night with Richard showing us his favourite haunts in Hue.
Keys travels on Stray’s Dong Pass, exploring Vietnam on and off the beaten track.