After Hoi An, my next stop in Vietnam was Hue, the old imperial capital. I hadn’t planned to go there but I had been talked into it by a fellow traveler’s descriptions of the Nguyen (pronounced “Win”) emperors’ beautiful mausoleums.
My four-hour morning bus trip there turned out to be via sleeper bus. A sleeper bus, for those of you who are like me and had never heard of such a thing, is a bus with three rows of mini bunk beds. Your legs stretch out in front of you, and you can adjust the back so you are sitting or lying down. They give you a pillow and a blanket and I think they are awesome. Unfortunately, they are so awesome that I slept all the way from Hoi An to Hue and completely missed what is supposed to be the most beautiful scenery in Vietnam—except for once when I turned over, opened an eye and thought: “That’s quite pretty,” as I admired a bay with mountains in the distance before I promptly fell back to sleep.
In Hue I would be staying in my own room for the first time since Siem Reap—not because I was craving some alone time, but because for some reason Hue is almost completely devoid of hostels, and the one they do have is far from the action. Once I checked in to the Nhu Phu Hotel (recommended by the Katies, and impossible for me to pronounce correctly), I headed off to the city center to see the Citadel the Nguyen emperors had constructed and the imperial city, known by the delightful name “The Forbidden Purple City.”
Hue turned out to be much, much larger than I expected. I was imagining something on the scale of Hoi An, which is completely walkable. Hue was so large that by the time I had crossed the Perfume River (which is the best name for a river, ever—but it also suggests a small mountain stream, and not a vast river the size of the Hudson) and located the gate to the old city, I was getting exhausted.
So when I was approached by a friendly cyclo driver (passengers sit on a seat attached to the front of a bicycle) who spoke very good English, I was ready to jump at his offer. The price he named was outrageous ($15!) but since I liked him so much, and had no plans until my tour of the tombs the following day, I decided to go for it.
His name was Couteau (I’m sure that’s not how it’s spelled, but it sounded just like the French word for knife).
He brought me to one of the original gates to the imperial city, and showed me a narrow staircase that I certainly would have missed on my own which we climbed for a panoramic view. There was a lot of trash, but it was still picturesque.
Then we went to a convent (well, a pagoda for nuns). I had never seen Buddhist nuns before and I smiled my hardest at them, hoping for some interaction, but it was not to be. I asked Couteau to wish them a happy full moon festival for me but he was strangely unresponsive. He did point out the pagoda’s dog, a medium-sized, yellow mutt which he said was a Buddhist; it ate only rice and if you tried to give it meat it would not be interested. I was fascinated, since my dog will eat absolutely anything, but not having any beef in my pocket, I could not test this theory.
As we pedaled through the city Couteau pointed out other neat things, like a truck that was beautifully decorated in a rainbow of bright colors. “Guess what that’s for?”
“I don’t know… weddings?”
“Funerals.” He asked me if we had something similar. I had to say no.
He took me to another pagoda, surrounded by a beautiful moat covered with a sort of lily pad-like plant. Here’s video. This one was for monks. (Of course it was.) He took me around the back of the temple and pointed to a very large, old, empty building. He explained that it was a prison where the emperors kept people before they were executed.
We then went to a very pretty garden with a koi pond outside a very old-looking house. Inside Couteau showed me a recent photo of a large group of men and women. “That’s local people who fought in the Vietcong.” Another image was of an emperor who had over 100 wives—but no children! (I had fun making up explanations for that until the next day, when my guide said that he had had a childhood illness that left him infertile.)
I wasn’t sure if the Citadel was included on my tour the next day, so I asked Couteau to take me there. But when we got there it was about to close, so instead he brought me across the street to a sort of outdoor museum of equipment from the war. We wandered among the American tanks and planes until the sun got too low in the sky.
By this time Couteau had told me a lot about his life. He had been born right after the war. His father had fought with the Americans—but only because “if he didn’t, there was no money for food.” Late in the war another Vietnamese had attacked him for it, and shot him in both legs. He lost them both and hadn’t been able to work since. One of Couteau’s older brothers had also died in the war, killed as a child by bombs when the family was fleeing Hue for the south. (Hue was the center of a lot of fighting, particularly during the Tet Offensive.) For a while his mother had cut hair for a living, but now she didn’t work either, so Couteau had to support both his parents. The entire family lived together (including Couteau’s siblings and nieces and nephews) in a house which had been in the family for many generations. It was made of bamboo and so it was very uncomfortable when it rained. They had an outhouse in the back, and no real beds. At one point Couteau had had a television (purchased for him by a cyclo client from England) and a cell phone, but he’d had to sell both the last time his father was hospitalized, for much less than their value.
I felt terrible about everything his family had been through—especially since so much of it was caused by my country. I decided to give him a tip large enough to enable him to change something about his life.
But when he brought me back to my hotel at 5:00pm, he asked if I wanted to go driving again in the evening. Since I was already planning to give him more money, I said, “Why not?” He couldn’t believe his luck and asked if I would really be there at 7:00pm; he asked me to “Vietnamese promise”—and held out his pinkie for a pinkie swear.
At 7:00pm he waved at me from down the street. This time he drove me around the new city, on the same side of the river as my hotel. He kept pointing to buildings and saying, “A few years ago, that was forest.” He drove me around an enormous roundabout with a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh. I asked what the words said. He said they said that everyone should follow Ho Chi Minh. I asked what he thought of him. “I think he was a great man.” “So if you were alive during the war, you would have fought for him?” “Yes.”
He took me to the train station. Across the road were the ubiquitous tiny tables, where he ordered a pot of tea and some pumpkin seeds. He was aghast when I grabbed a handful and ate them whole. He tried to show me how to bite off the outer layer, spit it out, and eat the inside, but since I had grown up eating them whole on Halloween I did not see the need to do all the extra work.
He told me about the two times he had left Hue. Fifteen years ago, one of his passengers, a woman traveling alone, had gone on to Hanoi and been unhappy there alone, so she had bought him a ticket to join her. The same thing had later happened with Ho Chi Minh City. Otherwise, he had never been anywhere.
It made me so sad to think of all the opportunities I had and he didn’t. We sat and discussed ways he could grow his business. I got more and more excited when I thought about ways I could help, such as recommending him on TripAdvisor. But I pointed out that people would need a way of contacting him. I asked how much a cellphone would be, and he said 500,000 dong for the phone and 100,000 for a SIM card ($30 total). I told him I’d get one for him, but I thought that would only be useful for customers who were already in Vietnam, since almost no one would want to call him from another country to make a reservation. I offered to set up an email address for him, and asked if he could read English. He could not, so I pulled out my Kindle and read a couple of pages of my war book out loud to him, while following along with my finger. Occasionally I asked him if he could read a word (“the” or “and”)—but he never could, even after I pointed them out repeatedly. Eventually it became clear that he could only read a little bit of Vietnamese. School is not free in Vietnam, and he had never gone. And for some reason his parents, who could read, had never taught him. (He learned English from tourists.)
We finished our tea (he paid, because he said that if I paid the price would double) and we went to a hot pot place where they brought me a plate of whole shrimp, shiny black eyes and all. By this time I was singing the alphabet song and pointing along to a page of upper and lower case letters that I had written on a page I tore from my notebook. We got as far as the letter “g” when it became clear to me that he wasn’t prepared to learn the whole alphabet in one night. If he didn’t learn tonight, I didn’t know how he would be able to remember it, since it wasn’t as though I could give him a recording to listen to. I felt so disappointed that he repeatedly asked if I were feeling ok.
As he drove me home I felt quite dispirited. But I perked up when I realized that he did know a lot of words.
“You can read Ho Chi Minh, right?”
“H-O, Ho. H-O-T, hot. And Chi is the beginning of child. And Hanoi has the same beginning as hand.” That made me feel a bit better about his chances, but I knew that it would take consistent teaching for him to learn. And who would be willing to do that for free?
We agreed to meet up the next day at 4:30pm after my tour because he wanted to buy a notebook for testimonials from satisfied customers (lots of motorbike drivers carry them) and he wanted me to write in it. He also wanted to give me his address and new phone number. I had to leave by a 5:30 bus for Hanoi, but I thought we would have enough time.
The next day I got up bright and early for my tour, which ended up being of the large bus variety. My seatmate was Mansour, an Iranian who had fled after the revolution and ended up in San Francisco. He was one of those people who means well but somehow manages to antagonize people with almost everything he does. As soon as he met me, he began loudly talking about what bad English our guide spoke. (We were seating in the second row of the bus.)
We started with the Citadel, home of the royal palace and the Forbidden Purple City. When we were in the throne room of the palace, one of the few places no one is allowed to take photographs, Mansour said, “Is that because of something the Vietnamese believe? But what if we don’t believe in that?” Our guide (a rather humorless fellow himself), said drily, “When in Rome.”
The Citadel was not that impressive (probably because the Americans bombed it during the war). Here’s video. Next we went to another garden much like the place Couteau had taken me. I wasn’t that interested in the garden but I was fascinated by the water buffalo eating the grass across the street. I decided to watch them from a safe distance, and, well, you have to see the video:
So that was pretty scary! I also felt guilty about retreating while the guy who had distracted the buffalo and his wife were still trapped behind a tree, but they were soon rescued by a Vietnamese guy who came running after the buffalo. (Since then I have been around a lot of buffalo and I have never seen them behave in a way that was anything but docile. I guess I just inspire passion in them!)
The highlight of the day was definitely the three mausoleums we saw. The Nguyen Dynasty was comprised of 13 emperors, from something like 1805 to 1945. Seven of them built mausoleums, and the three we saw were magnificent. The gate of the first one opened onto a serene lake. You walk past that to a courtyard, then through a temple, then over a bridge over another lake, then to a hillside where the emperor is buried. Apparently from the hair the lakes and temples create the shape of his body. I could have spent hours walking around the lakes but since it was a group tour, we had to go off to the next one.
By this point I had made another friend, Carolina from Argentina. (I remained friendly with Mansour, even though he told me he was carrying $10,000 in cash(!) and “if the Vietnamese knew how much my watch is worth, they would cut off my hand!”) Carolina walked through the next mausoleum together, which was almost vertical on an impressively steep hillside.
The final mausoleum was also on a lake (or a series of lakes—hard to tell). The sun was getting lower in the sky and it was just beautiful.
After the mausoleums we took a cruise down the Perfume River. At this point I was becoming seriously concerned about the time. It was almost 5pm and we were still chugging down the river! (This despite my guide’s assurances that I would be back at my hotel by 5:00). When we finally landed I sprinted to a cyclo and directed him to my hotel. Couteau was waiting for me—but so was a motorbike sent by the bus company to pick me up.
If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I have vowed never to ride a motorbike because I know someone who has a terrible head injury from a motorcycle accident. But in this case, I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t think Couteau’s cyclo would be able to get me there in time if the station was across town. So I said goodbye to Couteau, took his address, quickly scrawled a few lines in his book, and put my helmet own, feeling very guilty and hoping my mother never finds out. (You’re not reading this, are you, Mom?)
Riding the motorbike was not scary at all—it was actually less scary that sitting in a cyclo while Couteau made slow turns across several lanes of motorbikes! We got to the bus quickly and I grabbed a top bunk since the Katies had warned me that the bottom bunks sometimes had cockroaches.
In the next bed was a Dutch woman named Karlijn. She was absolutely beautiful, with flawless skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. When I asked her what she did, I fully expected her to say, “I’m a model.” Instead she said, “I’m a commander in the police force.” Being me, I spent the next hour or so interrogating her about her work in the police. She loves it—apparently she had always known she wanted to be a police officer—and she ended up with a very high position right out of grad school. She has to make very difficult decisions all the time (which impresses me to no end because I am capable of agonizing about the smallest choice for hours on ed). I had dinner with her and her fiancé, who is in the Dutch army. He had spent time at Fort Hood and I asked him what surprised him most about the United States. He said two things: that all of us aren’t fat, and that our houses are made out of wood!
After we had driven for an hour or so we pulled over to pick up the passengers of a bus that had broken down. The passengers told us that it had broken down 24 hours before! So they had been stuck in rural Vietnam all night and had to sleep on the bus! They were amazingly cheerful considering their ordeal. Karlijn and I took many, many photos with all of their cameras of the whole group posing in front of the disabled bus.
In the end I slept incredibly well on the bus, and was almost sorry to arrive in Hanoi in the morning.