2019, Personal, Travel

Riley Goes to Vietnam Day 12: Hue Wednesday October 2, 2019

Breakfast this morning was a cross between a buffet and a meal, as they prepared food for you but there was also a continental-style buffet. If I didn’t mention before, this was among the nicest hotels we stayed at, the only thing wrong with it being there was no pool. It certainly had the best shower so far, an important thing when you’re tall and sweaty all the time.

As I’ve mentioned already, travelling in Vietnam is quite cheap outside of planes and trains. The night before our hotel talked us into hiring a boat this morning and we headed down to the dock by a cab that was included in the boat rental price. I didn’t understand this so it led to confusion where I paid the cabbie who then had the boat driver pay me back. (The amount was approximately CAD$1.60 but he was adamant.)

We rented the boat for USD$20 or something like that, which was probably more than we would have paid had we just walked down to the dock ourselves, but at some point you sort of stop caring that you could have saved a few (US) dollars. The trip is so cheap that it really doesn’t matter. Also, I feel strongly that this money means more to those receiving it (provided it’s not the companies and is actually the individuals) than it does to me. What can I do with US$5 at home? Not much. (The sides of the boats implied it was slightly less than CAD$1 per person to ride a boat, but that would be for a boat full of people. I don’t know the capacity of the boat but you can roughly figure it out based upon how much they charged to rent the whole boat.)

The boat was even bigger than the boat we were on in the Mekong. We had it to ourselves. It took us down the Perfume River to the biggest pagoda in Hue. We opted for this trip because the famous Hue tombs are well outside the city and usually accessed by a day trip. We had a very limited time in Hue so we had to stick to stuff in the city.

It turns out, the pagoda is worth seeing:

Thien Mu

And the view wasn’t bad either.

View from Thien Mu

Afterwards, the boat took us the Imperial City. The 2-person crew weren’t entirely sure if we wanted to go so they waited to ask us until the last minute. Also, they tried to sell us stuff on the boat which made me wonder how much they got for the boat rental. This wasn’t the only time that someone providing a service tried to sell us overpriced souvenirs. We agreed that in a perfect world they would be paid better and not feel the need to sell souvenirs. (Though I suppose we could have tipped them…) Anyway, they dropped us off on the river bank outside the city walls, which was a pretty funny experience. (The dock may have been in use or maybe this is just what they do.)

The Imperial City was once immense. The city walls are pretty impressive and, to the best of my knowledge, nothing like this exists anywhere else in Vietnam.

Outer city walls

Inside these city walls is more of Hue as the historical buildings are all gone. There is a second, much shorter set of walls which protect the palace part of the city which is a historic site, which is where we were headed.

One of the palace gates

The Imperial City seems to have a bit of a mixed reputation. And when you first enter, it doesn’t seem all that impressive, in part because a majority of the buildings have been lost to history. But the more you walk through it, the more impressive it gets, even with about only 20 buildings left from its heyday. It’s so big that we didn’t see the entirety of it, running out of steam due to the heat. But, for me, it was one of the most impressive things we saw in Vietnam.

The throne building at the Imperial City
The courtyard between the throne building and the “Purple City” (forbidden imperial area)

The sheer of the place is what really did it for me. Even without so many buildings and maybe because most of them are gone, the scale of it is just awe-inspiring. (Though it’s obviously got nothing on Angkor Wat.)

Our favourite part was the gardens:

Imperial gardens

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and my completist streak would have made me see the whole thing if it wasn’t so damn hot.

Leaving the city through a different gate than we entered, we decided to finally try the ubiquitous Highlands Coffee, the Vietnamese Starbucks which is in virtually every place we went to in the country. Jenn had an iced coffee and I had a tea (if memory serves).

On our way back to downtown, a tour guide approached us to say hello. (And, presumably, to inquire if we wanted a tour, though he quickly realized we weren’t here long enough to try to pitch us.) He thought we were American and told us about American tourists who pretend they are Canadian. We insisted we were Canadian but he seemed skeptical, in part because we don’t speak French. (I found this amusing.)

It was a fairly long walk back to the hotel and, when we got there, our food tour guide was already there, maybe 15 minutes early. We asked her for some time to recover as we drank some water and tried to cool down a bit.

We headed out on the food tour shortly thereafter. It occurred to me that we could easily be headed to the restaurant we ate at the night before, because it’s menu was full of Hue specialties and because it (or its neighbour) has lots of reviews online. Hilariously, that’s not exactly what happened.

The restaurant we had eaten at the night before had one particularly pushy staff member (or maybe owner). She had pushed us in, basically, and her coworker had to tell her to back off so she could serve us. On our way back from the Imperial City we walked by again and she had been desperate for us to come eat again. Because of the language barrier, I couldn’t exactly tell her I don’t want to eat at the same restaurant ever while I’m travelling. But we waived and motioned that we weren’t eating right now.

So where did we go as the first stop on our food tour? The place across the street. The woman at the first restaurant was pretty unhappy. I felt a tinge of guilt – especially because this new place was far busier – but I also found it kind of hilarious. What were the odds?

We ate a few of the things we tried the night before and some new stuff and then we moved on to another restaurant where, once again, we ate some of the things we had the night before. This is what happens when you book a food tour after you try some local specialties. I hadn’t realized this was a “local food” tour, not a street food tour. And at first I was worried about it being entirely at restaurants.

Speaking to our guide we heard about our hard life. It was one of the few strong reminders that people in other countries have it far worse than we do. Sure, we saw plenty of people who were not well off – though no beggars, ever – but it’s easy to push that to the side, especially when the person is harassing you to buy something. But when the person is your guide, and you have a relationship with them, it hits home a lot more. This is, for me, where tipping becomes important in a country in which it is not normalized. I have mixed feelings about tipping as an institution – in a perfect world everyone would make a living wage – but when a small amount of money to me can make a big difference in someone else’s life, and they are providing me with a service, I feel like it’s a really simple choice whether or not to tip, even if it’s not customary.

Once we were across the river, we headed to the market where our guide looked for mangosteens. She couldn’t find a good price – perhaps because she was accompanied by foreigners – so we ended up trying “Vietnamese Apricots” (aka Java Apples) instead.

Once we left the market, our experience changed, as it became much more of a street food tour, and we ate the food of the regular people instead of the Imperial Court. Some of our most favourite food in Vietnam was in this part of the tour, as well as some really crazy drink desserts. The few dishes were a real highlight for us, and somehow we got free bottle openers out of it.

After the tour, we headed to a bizarre facsimile of an American ’50s diner for craft beer, as it was the only place we could find it. As usual, these beers were way more (6 times?) what regular Vietnamese beer usually costs. Then we headed back to the hotel to kill time, where I finished the book I was reading.

Jenn has traveled by train a lot. I have not. Our day-long train trip from Podgorica to Belgrade two years ago was the longest I had ever been on a train. Despite that disaster, when Jenn suggested we take the train from Hue up north I was all for it. However, while in Vietnam I had started reading about the Vietnamese train system and was starting to have second thoughts, now that there was nothing I could do about it. (I was reading about it on Jenn’s tablet, which just goes to show you that the best way to travel is without excessive devices connected to the internet!) I read about the terrible conditions especially in the washrooms, even in the first class coaches, and I got worried that this trip would be a disaster.

So I can’t say I was super thrilled that we would be spending the night on the train. We took a very short cab ride from our hotel a little earlier than we needed to, not realizing how close the train station actually was.

The station was mostly closed due to construction and everyone was crammed into two waiting rooms at one end of it. At least at the Hue station, nobody is allowed onto to the platforms until the train is due so basically you’re just stuck in the waiting room. (Though I did go for a walk outside for a few minutes.)

My fears of complete disorganization, based upon reading comments online, turned out to be completely unfounded. The staff spoke enough English to tell us which door we needed to use and, once we were finally on the platform, our coach’s position on the platform was listed. It was remarkably easy, especially given what some people have said online. (I will say we didn’t notice the signs at first and someone basically had to tell us.)

The train was late, as they often are. We were ushered into our cabin and, yes, it wasn’t quite as clean as we might have liked, especially given the amount of money we paid for it. But it was large enough and there was some free food. I am a camper and I’m not too fazed by sleeping in strange places.

As we sat in our cabin, passing the time before we investigated the state of the washroom and went to bed, one of the train staff came by and told us that we could pay him to prevent the top bunks from being full. Before I knew what was happening, Jenn and I had agreed to bribe the guy with what was a lot of money in Vietnam. (But not that much Canadian. Much less than a regular meal in Toronto, for example.) Upon immediate reflection I realized there was no way this made any sense – tickets are purchased in advance normally so he already knew whether or not there would be more people in our cabin. But there was no going back at this point, and it really wasn’t that much money. I think this was my first ever bribe.

Nearly immediately afterwards, another employee came by and tried to get us to purchase a “VIP” cabin instead. We declined. At this point we learned to close the door.

Going to sleep proved to be a little harder than I initially imagined, as the swaying of the train exacerbated my other health problem (not the cold) but I did eventually fall asleep.

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