13 December 2001
My final day in Cat Ba was notable for two things: torrential rain and, secondly, an encounter with a drunken and frankly rather seedy man who accosted me on a bench by the beach. He put one arm round my shoulder, while with his other hand trying to get hold of my water bottle to take a drink, then offered me the services of three grubby teenage girls for an hour “bangy bangy” for 15,000 dong (around US$1).
Now I’m in Hué, in Mandarin Café, watching the tail end of torrential rain that Sod’s Law dictates I was caught in – on a bicycle. Even though I have a stinking cold I thought it would be a good idea to cycle round the Citadel, the fortified, moated oldest part of the city, which, of course, it would have been, if it hadn’t started pouring down.
The main lesson I learned on the train from Hanoi is that “Hard Sleeper” really means just that. I had promised myself that I would stay in a fancy gaff in Hué, but as I walked out of the train station in my knackered state the sizeable le Loi Hué Hotel was pretty much right in front of me, and it looked ok and was only $4 a night.
Hué is a lot quieter than Hanoi, although I haven’t really had chance to explore properly yet. First impressions are lots of French Colonial architecture (like Hanoi), and huge holes in the road, which aren’t marked in any way.
Sight of today: probably the cyclo carrying a moto driver – and his damaged moto. (A cyclo – and the clue is probably in the name – is a sort-of bicycle taxi. It’s got a back like an ordinary bike, including a seat for the driver, but at the front are two wheels, side-by-side, with a bin-like seat between them, in which the passenger sits. Or two passengers. Or three. Or one passenger and the entire contents of their market stall, or, in this case, one passenger and his damaged moto.)
Result! Saigon FC football team is staying at my hotel! They may have a habit of kicking footballs down the corridors, but they do rather brighten the place up a bit (ahem). And speaking of brightening things up, massive kudos to the hotel laundry; I gave them the grey socks I’ve been handwashing since I started my trip and within hours they’ve made them brilliant white again.
Today I did a motorbike tour of sights on the outskirts of Hué. The tours are run by a family of one sister and 10 – that’s 10! – brothers. The sister, Thu, organises and books the tours from the café she runs, while her brothers actually do the tours, taking tourists out on the backs of their bikes. The café is called “Café on Thu Wheels”.
My guide was Thu’s brother Minh. Our first stop was the Thien Mu pagoda, a graceful pagoda that is seven storeys tall and therefore the tallest religious building in Vietnam. Thien Mu is famous (or notorious) for another reason – it’s the place from which, in 1963, the monk Thich Quang Duc started a journey to Saigon, where he burned himself to death to protest against the South Vietnamese government’s ‘discrimination’ against Buddhists. The car he used is on display at the pagoda.
Next was Tu Hieu pagoda, which was more conventional looking (as Vietnamese pagodas go), then the tombs of two Vietnamese emperors Tu Duc (ruled 1848-1883) and Khai Dinh (ruled 1916-1925). These emperors were members of the Nguyen dynasty, which ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1945 and was based in Hué. The tombs were grand but a bit beaten up, which was actually good, as it added to the atmosphere. I think Tu Duc’s was my favourite; the grounds include a really pretty moat or lake with lilies floating on it.
The highlight, though, was probably at the Thanh Toan bridge, a covered bridge over a canal. It dates from around the middle of the 18th Century and it’s also known as the Japanese Bridge because it (apparently) looks a bit Japanese. What made it fun, though, was that one of the other people on the tour was this really dainty Canadian girl, who was probably less than 4ft 10in tall, and a local (Vietnamese ) girl got really excited because she was actually taller than a Westerner!
We ended by going up a hill that had offered a stunning view of the Perfume River, which runs through Hué. The sights had been nice enough, but the best thing of all was the excited yells of the local children as we sped past.
Yesterday was a loooong day: a tour of the DMZ, the De-Militarised Zone, the area that separated North and South Vietnam between 1954 and 1975. I’m ashamed to admit I don’t really understand the significance of everything we saw, but I guess the most memorable bit was going into the Vinh Moc tunnels. They were created by local people as shelter from US bombing, but ‘tunnels’ is probably a misnomer, as they’re more like a series of caves joined by tunnels. The complex was big and extensive enough to allow an entire village to live underground for extended periods.
The day before yesterday I finally got to see the Citadel properly. Only this time I went on foot rather than by bike, because it was still chucking down (it’s easier to hide from the elements in waterproofs on foot than it is on a bike!).
The Citadel itself is an island surrounded by a moat. The perimeter is something like seven miles long, so it’s not small. Within the Citadel is the Imperial Enclosure, the administrative centre of the Nguyen Empire, and within that, the Forbidden Purple City, the Emperor’s private quarters.
The whole thing felt rather like the Forbidden City in Beijing, only smaller and less famous – and therefore less visited and far more peaceful; in some parts I was the only person around, and I reckon there wouldn’t have been that many more people even if the weather had been better. There’s also a lot more open space than there is in Beijing – the Citadel has been comprehensively bombed twice in the last half-century, in 1947 (during fighting between the French and Viet Minh) and in 1968 (the Tet Offensive). Even buildings that survived and have been restored bear witness to the fighting: the Hall of Mandarins, for example, looks damn-near perfect, but the tiles on the floor around it are pock-marked with golfball-sized holes that I’m thinking have to have been created in 1947 or 1968.
However, it’s not just war that has created havoc – the weather has done a lot of damage, too. For example, there was one building that was little more than a shell. If you were in a tragic frame of mind you’d be sure it had been bombed to bits in 1968. In actual fact it was wrecked in a typhoon in the 1980s.
Even when it’s not going to extremes, the climate here has to make caring for buildings a never-ending task. Another building was so covered in mould you’d assume it had been abandoned years ago, while, according to the sign outside, it had been fully restored in 1985. It’s actually really unnerving; in Hanoi, for example, I’d walk past some Colonial-style building that looked so neglected I’d think it must have been abandoned by the French when they left several decades ago, but then I’d see the date stone and it would be 1995! Like, just six years ago!
I had a crafty chuckle while I was wandering around the North Bank of the Citadel. The souvenir shops there are all selling wire models of cyclos! To appreciate how amusing that is you have to have spent a day in Vietnam being pestered from dawn to dusk by cyclo drivers touting for trade. I know they’re only trying to make a living and everything, but how many times can you say no in one day? And so why on earth would you want to take home a model of a cyclo as a souvenir?
Other memorable sights of the past couple of days? The day before yesterday when I went for a walk around Hué and stumbled upon a man who obviously thought he had found a private spot for his morning constitutional, so was squatting with his trousers round his ankles, over the edge of a jetty of the (perhaps unfortunately-named) Perfume River. And a bloke wee-ing out of a window of a bus that sped past us as we made our way back from the DMZ.
Having been in Vietnam for a couple of weeks now I’ve had a few random thoughts:
Dogs: How comfortable would you be having a dog as a pet if someone opened a thit cho [dog] restaurant next door but one? Do thit cho restaurateurs keep dogs as pets?
Price difference: Yes, that again (as in the Kremlin). The entry fee to the Citadel is 5,000 dong for a Vietnamese person but 55,000 dong for a foreigner. Yes, that’s a policy and price set by the Government, and they’re quite open about it, but you know that at markets and so on, where the price isn’t marked, ‘local price’ is a lot, lot lower than ‘foreigner price’. Like I said over the difference at the Kremlin, it’s difficult to get upset when (almost) everything here is still a lot cheaper than it is at home and I know I am so much richer than so many of the local people. But the price difference does stop you realising and understanding just how low wages are in Vietnam. If, say, a coffee costs a foreigner around 4,000VND, the foreigner might assume that ‘local price’ is maybe 3,000 or 2,000VND, but in reality it’s a fraction of that because that’s all the locals can afford to pay. For example, in Thu’s the other day I met this Australian expat who told me that a Vietnamese person who has a ‘good’ job in a hotel may earn just over a dollar a day (ie 15,000VND).
Paradox: One of the things that has struck me (already) about Vietnam is what a paradox people are, especially the younger people. They are so young but yet so old. This is still a rather conservative country so, as one local person was telling me the other day, there isn’t much “intimacy” before people get married, but people are working too hard to court and get married. So in one way, people of my generation and below are actually rather ‘young’, inexperienced and naïve. Not just because they haven’t been “intimate” with someone, but because they haven’t got the ‘adult’ responsibilities that go with that – like setting up and running your own home, and making sure your children are fed, housed and kept safe. But at the same time they are exceptionally mature; they may not have their own homes or children but they do have a tremendous sense of responsibility to their families as a whole, and their parents in particular, especially as there’s no welfare state to provide for them. Few seem to have the luxury of choosing a career – you have to take whatever work you can get otherwise you’ll starve. And, of course, people of this generation started their lives in a country at war, with the horror and hardship that would have brought with it. All Vietnamese people, what, 25 and over will have some experience of war, while anyone from Hué who is 30 or more will have lived through the mayhem of the Tet Offensive.