I arrived back in Hanoi after a thoroughly enjoyable few days in Ha Long Bay only to have some dinner and make my way to Hanoi train station, about to depart on a 13 hour long overnight train to the ancient royal city of Huế, in the central provinces of Vietnam. I had planned on taking a soft sleeper carriage all the way (basically a berth of four with nice beds and air con) but unfortunately these had all been booked so I was forced to take a hard sleeper (less comfortable beds, 6 berth ie two bunks of three but, crucially, you still have air con). The train accommodation turned out to be perfect for my needs (I can sleep anywhere anyway!) although my top bunk was a little claustrophobic. As it turns out, though, these hard sleeper carriages are an ideal way to meet some Vietnamese locals and was something in which I revelled. One of the guys on the train was a civil engineer and spoke fairly good English. It was through him that I was able to have a few, admittedly shallow, conversations with the other people in my berth. All-in-all, a very rewarding experience.
After a pretty decent night’s sleep, I arrived in Huế at about 8am. From here, I made my way to a hotel at which I had arranged to meet some guys that I had met in Hanoi…no such luck! The hotel was being reconstructed so I regrouped and took a motorbike taxi to one of the hotels plucked from the ubiquitous Rough Guide.
The most expensive hotel in Vietnam so far at $15 a night but it was worth the money and ended up having a fairly swish place to stay for the next couple of days.
Having made myself comfortable in the hotel, I decided to take a tour of the city by motorbike from a place called “Cafe on Thu Wheels”. Attracted by the cool name and the glowing recommendations (again, from my Rough Guide) I went for the half day tour, starting at 1pm. I didn’t regret it. What I loved the most was that it avoided some of the – as Thu, the owner, put it: “Very busy but very boring” places and focused more on the bits that your average tourist wouldn’t get to see. We made our way through the surrounding countryside and we even drove along the narrow paths in between the rice fields, watching the ladies wearing those pointy hats at work. As we proceeded, the local kids would see us (ie tourists) coming and wave and offer their hands to ‘high five’ them as we went by. I, of course, was a willing participant in this tom-foolery!!
On our way, we would stop at points of interest and our flamboyant guide would helpfully describe what we were looking at and use some funny quips at times (read on to find one of my faves).
The tour took in a lot of the historic sights: the most noteworthy of which was the Thien Mu Pagoda, basically, a Buddhist Temple. This temple is most famous for the actions of one of its former monks, who hit the international headlines after burning himself to death in Saigon in 1963 to protest against the Buddhist repression by President Diem. Our guide made note of the fact that the monk took a good hour to burn completely but that his heart was unscathed. His actions were to spark (excuse the pun!) a large number of immolations by monks with the same cause in mind. In the pagoda, you could see the car he drove from Huế as well as a copy of the infamous picture of the monk on fire, sitting in the Lotus pose, meditating.
In the same pagoda, we were able to witness the monks and their young apprentices perform their worship, something which was alien to me but compelling all the same. After this, I was lucky enough to see the young learners playing football, something which they are only permitted to do once per day, for one hour. At all other times, they have very few liberties: TV, regular books, newspapers, alcohol (what?!?!…definitely not signing up now!) are not allowed.
A classic phrase from our guide when speaking about the monks’ music making was
Yah, monk music: like Bob Marley. Same, same but different.
What a legend.
After the tour, I went back, had a shower and returned to Thu’s cafe for dinner and a few beers. Unfortunately, the place was pretty quiet so I made my way to another bar in my vain attempt to stay up late and watch the world cup final, which was showing at 2am local time.
At 11.30pm, I disconsolately made my way to bed, beaten by the perils of international time zones and the fact that I had been awake since 6am and that I had slugged about 8 bottles of beer!
Ah well, I’ll catch it on the news!!!