We met two girls from LA on our cruise in Halong Bay who joked about the variety of transport you take in Vietnam to get to your destination. We have now added overnight train and sleeper bus to our list. We arrived in Hoi An two days ago, which for the 4 hour journey took 4 need of transport: a van from our hotel to the ‘bus station’, by foot for 2 blocks from the ‘bus station’ to the bus, a bus with bunk seats that reclined in a bed like fashion but your feet in a cubby, where we had to remove our shoes before boarding, and a shuttle from our hotel’s sister to our hotel. It is all an experience.
To reach Hue (where we were before Hoi An), we took a 13 hour train. Trains here are nothing like trains I have experienced before. I took several trains in France in January, and I long for those. The comfort, cleanliness and peacefulness of TGV trains. Pure heaven in comparison to our recent 13 hours on the SE1 overnight train. 13 hours is plenty of time to sleep, right? The train departed at 7pm and arrived at 8am, so we thought we would be able to have a huge rest! We also figured out what our train ticket meant and what beds were ours. However we realized that you can’t safely assume anything here. Before we even left the station, we made an enemy in our cabin. Or rather, I made an enemy. When we got to our room, a woman was lying in one of our beds, motioning for us to take her upper berth bed. I specifically asked for two lower beds, so we could be close to our bags to protect them (as I’ve heard stories), and because of my knee. I am so glad we did. After arguing and pointing at my knee and our ticket, and then just putting my bag on that bed, she gave in. And clumsily climbed up to her bed, through no use of a ladder, rather one foot step on the wall. Not the easiest way to get up or down from a bunk. And she made it look so difficult (due to her weight, wanting to make a big deal out of it or it actually being difficult) to climb up.
However we were not murdered in our sleep and our bags were not stolen. We were kindly awoken at 5am when they got up, opened the curtains, the door, and pushed my legs over to sit on my bed. But we survived, limbs and possessions all accounted for, just rather tired. The train was so noisy, and it started and stopped and jerked like the Cambodian buses did. The beds are small and the cabins incredibly cold. Some men had a bottle of vodka in their cabin which I think is key – drink and pass out so the noise and movement of the train doesn’t bother you and constantly wake you.
We quickly recovered upon arriving at our hotel at 8:30am, because we were given a full breakfast! And coffee! Did I mention coffee!! I am slightly addicted to Vietnamese coffee…it is coffee with condensed milk, and I like it with ice. So good. I even bought sachets to make it in our hotel rooms that have electric kettles. We then checked in, showered, and set off to enjoy our mere 30 hours in Hue.
We explored the Citadel, the Hue forbidden city. It was impressive, but so much has been destroyed by natural disasters and the Vietnam War that it was rather disappointing. Many things were inaccessible, being renovated, or incomplete. Lots of the paint was fading and chipped, but the history was interesting. It was also incredibly quiet and peaceful, so was a change from all other tourist attractions we have visited so far. The best part, as many can probably guess, was lunch. The receptionist recommended a local restaurant, Hong Mai (110 Dinh Tien Hoang) near the citadel for authentic Hue food. Upon arriving, we sat down (again, in child size seats and tables) and asked for a menu. She pointed at photos on the wall and said there was no menu. We nodded and went ahead with it. Soon a variety of plates appeared on the table. A bowl of chili peppers and raw garlic, a plate of lettuce and herbs, and another with grated cabbage, carrot and cucumber. This bowl of brown grey slop came out, and a plate with sausages on skewers. After a moment, we asked what to do as we had no idea!! The woman quickly showed us, that you take the spring roll type papers, put the various fillings in, the sausage, roll it as pull the stick out, then put some slop in your bowl and dip. Simple! And so delicious!! For dinner that night we sampled some Hue specialities at “Confetti”. Our waiter had a cute light pink bow tie on asks the table cloths and napkins were all pink! My kind of place. We had this amazing rice shrimp and pork in banana leaf, and prawns in a clay pot.
Day 2 of Hue involved a motorbike ride to tombs and a pagoda. Riding motorbikes in Hue was such a different experience than our motorbike ride to Prambanan in Yogyakarta. For one, the roads were less hectic. Everyone still honks, but unlike Hanoi where you never had more than 3 seconds without a honk, I counted to over 30 in Hue! The ride was beautiful, with rice paddies and forests. So many trees, it was so surreal. We even drove on small dirt roads through rice paddies up and down hills through tiny areas people lives in. A real adventure. Our drivers, Tien and Kianc (can’t remember exact spelling!!) were friendly and talkative, making it more like a tour rather than paying for mere transport. Tien had just started up the motorbike tour company (go here for info!) and was really keen to make sure we enjoyed ourselves. We even exchanged email addresses! Kianc, Tien’s cousin, had a bit of a crush on El so will see if he tries to find her on fb as well.
The first tomb, of Khai Dinh was very large and overwhelming. It felt cold and moms monument like, almost ordering people to remember and mourn him. It took 11 years to complete, and he was apparently unpopular up until his death due to his heavy taxation on peasants to finance the construction of his tomb. I find it such a waste that so much wealth was spent on a tomb for a dead emperor. Think of the people at the time and how that money could benefit everything, rather than go towards a gold 1:1 statue of him.
The second tomb, of Tu Duc was much nicer. It was set in amongst nature, with several parts to it, and a beautiful pond full of water lillies. Tu Duc built it whilst still alive, and his family lived there – his 104 wives, yet no children. There was a housing area for his “minor wives” alongside a housing area for his concubines. And a temple dedicated to his mother. He was buried next to his first wife and adopted son, and his eulogy/biography stone was written by himself, in a self-critical way. It is the largest biography inscription in SE Asia apparently. I really enjoyed this tomb because it felt more like a park, in amongst the trees, with a nice path to walk, and a pavilion overlooking the pond where he used to go and write poetry. Less selfish than the first tomb. The funny thing though is he was selfish – the tombs have stone statues of 1 elephant, 1 horse and men to serve him in the afterlife. However Tu Duc was short, so he made all the statues short too! El and I were basically a head taller than them!
Our last visit was to the Thien Mu Pagoda, meaning heavenly lady. The literal translation according to Tien is near to the sky, with Thien meaning sky. Due to no entrance fee, Tien was able to take us around and tell us all about the pagoda. It was a beautiful and spiritual place, right next to a local graveyard. Tien also took lots of photos of us – after noticing my nice shiny camera, he stopped at an incense store on the way back to town from Tu Duc’s tomb, saying it was a great photo op. He then had us pose by the incense, and got us Vietnamese hats to pose in as well.
It was an absolutely hilarious yet wonderful experience. I actually received an email from him today wishing us well on our journeys. Just another reason why I love it here – the generosity and genuineness of the people. They have such kind hearts and really open up to you. Apart from the woman on our train of course! They want to show you Vietnam and all say 2 weeks is too short. We need two weeks in each town apparently!! Lucky for Hoi An, our original 3 day trip may become 5. We have only been here a day but love it already. Hue and Hoi An are both just so magical and quiet, especially in comparison to Hanoi, and the other big places we have been like Jakarta, Singapore and KL. I think I am already planning my next visit to Vietnam…just quietly!