(By Alistair Fabius)
We left Renee’s favourite Vietnamese city of Hoi An and arrived via another sleeper-bus to my favourite city, Hue, the old imperial capital. Sitting on the North side of the Perfume River is the old part of the city, also known as the citadel, surrounded by a huge moat and a massive city wall completely intact. Inside the city lies the Imperial Enclosure surrounded by yet another moat and wall, this one almost more foreboding than the last.
On the first day we explored the citadel by foot, checking out one of the many free Pagodas and stopping at the bustling Dong Ba Market to do some shopping, practicing our bargaining skills we’ve slowly been honing. (Hint) We learned that once you’ve determined the price you’re willing to pay, cut that price in half and don’t settle for anything more than what you were originally willing to pay. The old ladies can be very firm, and laugh or even scoff at your offers, but once they see you’re just gonna walk away they eventually shout at you the price you’re looking for. When you’re buying your 6th pair of knock-off Ray Bans cause they keep breaking, this advice can really come in handy ($2). Another tip, unless you’re serious about a purchase, don’t ask how much or look even remotely interested in what they’re selling.
On day two we explored the city by bicycle, much easier on our aching feet. First stop we wandered through the Imperial Enclosure where I must have taken close to a 1000 photos. We spent upwards of two hours under the hazy sunny weather there and still didn’t manage to explore every inch of that place. We visited palaces, pavilions, temples, ceremonial halls and gardens, all making up what is also known as the Forbidden Purple City. Many of the buildings inside the citadel had been destroyed by American bombing, and inside the Imperial Enclosure there were plaques in front of most of the buildings explaining how it had been restored. Some buildings were just left in ruins they were so badly destroyed. The enclosure just seems to have a magical feeling about it as you walk through each building, imagining what life would have been like here just 100 years ago.
As you can’t bike through the Imperial Enclosure, we made a quick visit to another museum on our way back to pick up our bicycles. It was free, and in the yard they were displaying artillery, helicopters, tanks and fighter jets captured by the Vietnamese during the battle for Hue, so of course I was unable to pass up the opportunity. We then made our way to Thien Mu Pagoda, home to the Thap Phuoc Duyen, a seven storey octagonal tower 21m in height, built in 1844 and is now one of Vietnam’s iconic structures. As we sat on the steps, a couple local students approached us asking if they could practice their english with us. We of course agreed and then took the opportunity to ask several of the questions that had been slowly brewing inside us as we witnessed locals doing strange things over the past two weeks in Vietnam. One of the most intriguing was why locals were burning pieces of paper, sometimes piles of it, right on the sidewalk in front of their homes and businesses. We learned that when someone in the family passes away, the family burns “money” along with other possessions that the deceased will need in the afterlife.
On our third and final day in Hue, we rode our bicycles out to Than Toan bridge, 7kms outside the city. It’s a simple yet beautiful roofed wooden bridge in the Thuy Thanh Commune. After a short walk around the hamlet we stopped for a water break before our bike ride back at one of the local drink stands in front of a family home. After selling us a large bottle of water, the mother gave us both complimentary bananas, so we sat down with her for a few minutes to enjoy them with our water. Shortly after the daughter and granddaughter came out to join us, bringing with them a small plate of cherry tomatoes and a seasoning dish of ground chilli powder mixed with salt and pepper to dip the tomatoes in. Once we ate most of the tomatoes and the granddaughter licked the rest, the daughter brought out a barely rippened mango which she began slicing up and served to us. We watched her eat the first one after dipping it into the chilli seasoning, skin and all, so naturally we followed (albeit with some hesitation). Although the skin was tough, it was manageable, and surprisingly quite tasty with the seasoning. As they say, when in Rome… And I must say we were quite surprised to find that a family who was likely poorer than most, with several generations living under one roof in a humble abode, was sharing with us much more than what we had paid for. The experience was just another example of how amazing the people of Vietnam can be.
With our hearts warmed, we made our way North, leaving behind the gentle people of central Vietnam in our memories. With the better part of the country now behind us, our journey through Vietnam is still far from over as we still have yet to explore Hanoi and its vast surrounding landscapes.