HUE ARE WE NOW?
We survived the journey on the overnight train and arrived in Hue around midday today. And what a night it was! We rocked and rolled, bumped and bounced, and jostled and jolted our way through the night, trying to cat-nap between the worst of the bumpy bits. Never have we been so aware of the fact that a train carriage is just a metal box on metal wheels, riding on a metal road! Still, the scenery we woke up to was pretty spectacular – as you can see.
We were woken up around 6:00am by the drinks guy, wheeling his trolley down the corridor and letting everyone know he had coffee and hot drinks on offer. The sun had just risen and there was still a blanket of mist hugging the mountains around us. It was almost enough to make us forget the discomfort of last night. Almost.
Like much of Vietnam, this central region is very rural with almost all the land given over to rice paddies. We passed through hundreds of kilometres of rice fields, many of them being readied for the year’s third planting*.
*In the North of Vietnam they get 2 crops of rice a year – it’s to cold in winter to grow rice. In the warmer central and southern parts of the country, however, they’re just preparing to plant the 3rd rice crop.
There is plenty of water and rich soil here, and since the end of the American War in 1975 Vietnam has gone from a poor country that had to import rice to feed its citizens, to one of the world’s premier rice producers and exporters. An admirable feat considering how devastated the land here was after the war – especially in this central region around the 17th parallel where the battle line between North and South was drawn.
Home to some grand historical sites, relaxed beachside towns, and epic mountain scenery, central Vietnam was once the territory of the Cham, who had their own kingdom separate to those of the Viet people* up to the 17th century when their lands were conquered and subsumed into Vietnam. It’s the history and natural beauty of the area that has brought us here – we’re in this region for a while, keen to see the region’s 2 must-see UNESCO World Heritage sites: imperial Hue and architecturally impressive Hoi An.
*Although Vietnam is a relatively small country it is home to 54 different ethnic groups. Of these the most significant group are the Kinh or Viet people for whom the country is named and who account for 86% of the total population. The second largest ethnic group are the Cham.
For the next couple of days we’re in Hue, which is a small city built along the banks of the Perfume River (so named for its supposedly pleasant aroma). Hue originally rose to prominence as the imperial capital of the Nguyen lords, a feudal dynasty that ruled Southern Vietnam from the 17th to the 19th centuries. In 1802, Emperor Nguyen Phuc Anh succeeded in conquering the whole of Vietnam, uniting North and South for the first time. He moved the national capital to Hue, which lies virtually at the centre of Vietnam, to appease opposing factions.
As the imperial capital, Hue was well protected by a 5m high fortified wall and a moat. The walls remain to this day, as do all the original gate. We got to see these up close during our afternoon cyclo tour of Hue.
A cyclo is a 3-wheeled bicycle taxi that used in Vietnam like rickshaws were once used in China. The small seat* is supported by the 2 front wheels, with the driver sitting behind. They’re used as a type of taxi around here, and are a pretty cheap form of transport.
*The seats are designed for 2 Vietnamese people, but since Westerners tend to be bigger and heavier than the locals, the cyclo drivers have learned to limit their loads to 1 when its one of us jumping on board!
Given how fine and sunny it was today we thought a cyclo tour would be a good way of seeing some of Hue, without having to walk ourselves into a lather of sweat. Turns out it was a great idea! We saw some of the “big sights” of the city, as well as a lot of the side streets and residential areas that we wouldn’t have ventured into otherwise. Plus it was great fun weaving in and out of the typically chaotic Vietnamese traffic, trying to dodge all the motorbikes!
One of our more interesting stops during the cyclo tour was the Dong Ba market, which is the largest market place in central Vietnam. Our cyclo drivers dropped us off at one end of the market and picked us up at the other, leaving us free to stroll the entire length of the market.
There were stalls selling everything from fresh vegetables, fruit, and spices, to meats, and all manner of household items on sale. It was as chaotic and busy as everything here in Vietnam has been so far, with motorbikes and scooters weaving in and around the stalls, as well as shoppers by the dozen buying their groceries for the day.
We stopped at a local coffee shop too and enjoyed a potent cup of the local brew, though not with the sweetened condensed milk that’s so popular here (it’s just too sweet for us). We’ve only been here a few days but we’ve already developed a liking for Vietnamese coffee, which is served In a single cup filter/brewer known as a phin. It’s served with the phin atop the cup, while the coffee’s still brewing, and is strong and chocolatey. It also packs quite a punch as far as caffeine content goes, which was exactly what we needed after our mediocre night’s sleep on the train!
Our cyclo tour around Hue went for a few hours; by the time we finished the sun was setting and the air had cooled to a much more pleasant temperature.
For dinner we went to the home of a local family, where the women of the household cooked up a feast for us to enjoy. We met Lam, the patriarch of the household and a local motor bike taxi* driver, and got to learn a little about what a local’s home life is like. We did something similar in Egypt with a local Nubian family, in rural Bulgaria, and in Morocco, and they were all very interesting experiences. Tonight was no different. Just finding the house was an adventure! It was tucked down a maze of alleys, in a clean but not wealthy part of town. The house was small by our standards, but incredibly 15 people live in the house, including Lam, his wife, their 3 children, and Lam’s 2 brothers and their families. There were no doors to speak of, with the bedroom areas separated from the central living/dining area by a curtain. Makes it seem quite ridiculous when you look at how much space we have to ourselves in countries like Australia.
*As you might guess motor bike taxis ferry people around for a fee. Given how busy and chaotic the traffic is throughout Vietnam, and how narrow the streets can be, motor bike taxis certainly make more sense than car taxis!
Lam’s wife and 2 sisters-in-law prepared some wonderful, traditional Vietnamese food for us, including a light seafood soup, some delicious spring rolls, stir fried morning glory with garlic, omelettes, and the most delectable braised pork dish we’ve ever had the pleasure of scoffing. Vietnamese food is just so fresh and tasty!
Thankfully the night finished fairly early – we’re still pretty tired after our grand overnight train journey. Tomorrow we’re off to do a bit more exploring around Hue, this time as passengers on the back of motorbikes. Should be an interesting way to see the sights! For now though, the bed beckons, so chúc ngủ ngon from Vietnam!