It’s funny how when you expect the worst, you always wind up surprising yourself and having a blast.
For me, that was what Hue was all about.
I arrived into Hue after sleeping late in Hoi An to TRY to shake this latest bout of bronchitis that has plagued me since Argentina. Coughing the entire way, I was tired and cranky, and when I got to town, the backpacker’s strip was congested and dirty and I just had no energy for it. Part of the crazyness of Vietnam is beating off the natives hawking their hotels, fruits, silks, motobike and cyclo rides, tour packages, etc..etc..etc... Within minutes of the bus pulling into the stop, there were AT LEAST 15 men yelling at me (on the bus, mind you – in MY personal space):
“Missus, where you stay?”
“You have hotel?”
"Excuse me, excuse me. I talk to you."
“See my hotel. Cheap.”
“Where you stay expensive? Me, not expensive.”
“Miss America, look here.”
“USA lady, I have good place.”
On top of the verbal harassment, they’re pushing their flyers, held by dirty, long-ass fingernails in my face and breathing their stenchy, nasty, smoky mouth’s smells onto me. I just lost it.
“NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!!! I have a hotel, get out of my way, stop touching me! NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!!” Pushing through them with my backpack, my wheelie, my sick little body. Just fuck the fuck off, people! OH MY GOD. I can’t deal…. I just wanted to be home in my apartment, under my yummy down covers, matzoh ball soup and toast and TROPICANA O.J. having been just consumed, half-watching Oprah on TiVo and half-dozing. Away from Vietnam, away from all the goddamn people.
After getting to my hotel, going for a QUICK dinner of noodle soup (here it’s called “pho”), and putting myself to bed, I awoke the next day, still not even close to 100%. So, I cancelled the DMZ tour (demilitarization zone tour – a visit to the 17th parallel and Vinh Moc tunnels) that would go from 6 AM to 8 PM and slept in. I just couldn’t handle another long, tourist bus day of war sites, tunnels, and depression after seeing all of it. What would I do today? Me, without a plan? Everyone comes to Hue to see the DMZ zone, which I’ve been told is less than exciting and similar to Cu Chi. What else do they do here? I’m unprepared. Shit. I’m not good at unprepared. So at 10 AM, I ventured out, not exactly sure what my day would entail.
As I walked along the Perfume River, which divides Hue into two sides, I saw a prettier side of the city. The riverbank was lined with modern art plazas, the sun was shining, the hawkers were less obvious. I figured I’d check out the Imperial City or Citadel (much like the Forbidden City in China), a fortress city that belonged to the emperors of the Nguyen dynasties of Hue through the ages. But because Hue saw the most attacks in both the French and American wars, much of the Imperial City was destroyed. I was curious. As I was about to find a taxi, I was approached by a really sweet cyclo driver (cyclos being little one-seat carriages with a bicycle on the back that a driver pedals to get you from place to place). He introduced himself, started talking to me like a person, not a vendor and won my ride. I jumped in and let Long (possibly spelled Luong or Loong – one can never know here) pedal me across the river to the Imperial City.
There I spent a few hours in awed wonder at this massive enclosed city, blasted in most places to smithereens by war. But the architecture that survived was amazing. The temples and living quarters, just divine. Long/Luong/Loong had promised to pick me up after my tour of the Imperial City, to take me onto the Thien Mu Pagoda, and then, the tombs of the past emperors of Hue. I was game.
Long/Luong/Loong came back a bit different. He traded in his cyclo for a motobike. His floppy fisherman’s hat for a baseball cap. Waving like a madman as I exited the Citadel, he wore a huge grin and said:
“Mawie, you ride motobike, yes?”
I didn’t even hesitate. My friend Chris and I rode one back from an outskirt bar in Hoi An a few nights back and, the thing to do here in Vietnam that I had resisted on a safety kick, it was a blast (and I’ve always been a sucker for a guy on a bike…not that Long/Luong/Loong was really doing it for me…).
So began my day motobiking around the villages surrounding Hue, as well as the tombs (or small towns with temples, lakes, residences, courtyards) built for past emperors. I asked Long/Luong/Loong to take me to see how the people really lived, off the tour bus circuit, as we traversed Hue and beyond to get to each tomb (they’re spread over a 30 km radius outside of the city limits). It was amazing. We rode through forest towns on dirt roads, through tiny villages preparing for Tet or Lunar New Year by hanging decorations on their makeshift doorways. I talked to little roadside water vendors who had family in the States and they had been saving for 15 years (!!) for a visa.
“Three more years and I go to San Jose,” said one.
“My brother send for me soon to come to California,” said another.
And everyone was so happy to shake my hand, to talk to me, to hear about America. It was absolutely wonderful to be communicating with these people, so easily and effortlessly. Then, to hop back on a bike, ride along the Perfume River (which is really beautiful) and just feel outside of the Vietnam that had me tearing my hair out yesterday, was so refreshing.
At the end of the day, I asked Long/Luong/Loong to take me for his favorite Vietnamese meal. He took me to some joint that would’ve had all of you balking and calling the Board of Health. But, it was absolutely the most delicious food and drink I’ve had here. For $1.35. And Long sat with me and told me about his family (my age, three children – oldest is 14!), and his life, the stall his wife tends to at the Central Market, how happy he is here in Vietnam. I hung on every mispronounced word. Then, he dropped me back at my hotel, 7 hours after we met, with a handshake, a “happy new year,” and a “you a cool girl, marie….luck in travels tomorrow.” Talk about feeling great after a long day….