Hue, the citadel, the tunnels


Standing in the middle of Trang Tien bridge over the Perfume River, I was suddenly almost overwhelmed by the realization I was in the midst of so much history.

Hue, the Imperial city, seat of the Nguyen dynasty, one of the seats of the Champa Kingdom, once an outport of "French" Indochina, and site of some of the most brutal fighting of the American War of the 1960s and 70s. The city the invaders had to destroy in order to "save" it. All to no avail, in the end.

I imagined, feebly no doubt, what it must have been like, this peaceful, but bustling city, with planes and helicopters overhead, blasting to bits the people below fleeing from the markets where they were trying to do the day's business, being "saved." Below me, in the river, drifted little hand-made floats, candles lit inside them, commemorating something, maybe nothing, no way to know. It was a magical scene, very moving. My imaginings themselves were obscene. What person in her/his right mind would bring fire down on this place?

I'd gone to Hue to try to salvage my time in northern Viet Nam. Subsequent to an ignominious, if comical, failure to drive south from Ha Noi on a motorcycle, wisely given up (see "My Week in Ha Noi"), I took the easier route, and let Vietnam Airlines do the navigation. Hue is at the centre of Viet Nam, at one of its narrowest points, so close to Laos you can almost see the border. I reasoned that if I hopped on a bike in Hue, it would be hard even for me to miss Highway 1.

Plus there were things I wanted to see.

I arrived relatively late in the day on Monday, March 17th. I'd waited 4.5 hours in the Ha Noi airport while my flight suffered delay after delay (due to "uncertain conditions," if I remember correctly), and the flights to Ho Chi Minh City got to go (not that I'm bitter). Finally it got underway, but instead of being in Hue with an afternoon to kick around, I arrived with the evening well underway. So I threw my bags in my room and headed down to the river, the results of which I led off with.

Back to the hotel area, to a chorus of "Boom-boom lady?" from the neighbourhood cyclos, a phrase I never heard in Ha Noi, and a wonderful fish dinner in the restaurant next to the hotel. The driver who'd transferred me from the Hue airport to the hotel had filled me in on the local brews—Bia Huda and Bia Festival—and I tried them both.

(TMI warning: the following paragraph is about poop.) Thus began a week-long adventure with digestive problems, sometimes called "the runs." I had a case, though it wasn't unmanageable, and was confused about how it could possibly have come to be, since I'd been eating in reasonably clean restaurants with reasonable menus. Experiment after experiment at removing things from my diet and substituting others brought no clear result, until I figured the only thing left was the local beer. Regrettably, I switched to Tiger Beer, an acceptable, but not outstanding Singaporian brew, which seems, at time of writing, to be working out. If not having a movement in 36 hours can be said to be "working out," which I hope is so.

Digestive problems or no, next morning I tramped around the Citadel for some hours, the highlight being when an older female street merchant appears to have managed to snatch a 500,000 dong ($25) note from my hands while I was trying to negotiate the price for being able to take her picture. "Never show your money," I repeated to myself as I walked home, kicking myself in the arse.

Then, dinner at Khong Gian Xua, on the recommendation of Linh D Phan, which was astonishing, especially the "sour taste catfish soup." Also astonishing was that I found the restaurant, first time, no getting lost, in the dark—a first for me in Viet Nam. (Earlier, tried to ride motorcycle to Thuan An beach, but had to turn back when it was further than I thought, and it might have been difficult to find my way back.)

My ulterior motive in picking Hue over the many other cities in Viet Nam with airports was that I wanted to go see the tunnels of Vinh Moc. During the American War, the citizens of Vinh Moc tired of the relentless bombing (their village was just north of the Demilitarized Zone, and the Americans suspected them of helping to supply a nearby base of the North Viet Nam Army), and so moved their village underground. It was one place I was willing to go out of my way to see.

So I hopped on a rented motorcycle, and drove 150km up the coast to Vinh Moc, surprising myself by actually finding it. Now that I've seen it, I can say it's just as inspiring as I'd thought it would be, a real tribute to the amazing resilience and resourcefulness of the Vietnamese people against the forces trying to make them bow down to the Great Powers. I was led through a portion of this very claustrophobic place by a mute resident of the area who probably topped around 4 feet—not for the first time in this country, I felt grotesquely large. Needless to say, he waltzed through the tunnels easily, while I struggled.

Some weirdness was introduced into the whole thing by the fact that the motorcycle I rented turned out to be the personal motorcycle of one of the hotel employees. Never really knew how that worked, and wasn't very happy that it did. Young Tu was very happy to see it come back undamaged. And somewhat mollified that I'd brought it back with more gas than had been in it when I'd taken it. And even moreso when I gave her the money to get it cleaned up (I'd driven over 300km).

Sad fact: on the way back from Vinh Moc, I passed a fatality on Highway 1. The body was covered, but the feet were showing, and it looked like a child, pre-teen to teen. No vehicle apparent, so I suspect s/he was walking on the shoulder, which counts as a reserve motorcycle lane here. It's an incredibly dangerous place, where you can see anything from speeding motorcycles to peasants carrying heavy loads on shoulder-poles to trucks trying to go around obstacles.

The Vietnamese drive the way they drive, and it seems to work on the whole, likely largely because no one drives very fast. However, I myself have seen five motorcycle accidents since I've been in Viet Nam, and have been in one myself, thankfully none with serious injuries.

An evening trip around the market by the Perfume River, and I was ready for my next challenge: Ho Chi Minh City.


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