A whirl wind tour
We travelled to Hue by bus and arrived in time for a quick walk around Hue, it is very quiet here. The pace is very slow.
Tonight we frequented the locals and backpackers haunt of Brown Eyes Bar. This bar in the sleepy town of Hue, is a great place to dance the night away. It has a large cocktail menu and offers a free drink and snack on arrival. They also encourage people to play Jenga and pool, both big crazes in Vietnam - the staff even join in to! [KB - I got very drunk in the buckets of Mojito I was supposed to be sharing with the wife. It transpires she wasn't taking anywhere near her share. It's ok, though we got on famously with an Aussie couple our age and they reciprocated. I get the feeling the women were scheming]
This morning we were going on a Dragon boat ride, I'm quiet excited. However, when I see the boat, it's not the wooden Dragon boat I was expecting but rather a motored houseboat with two metal dragons stuck on the front [KB - I didn't really care, my drinking buddy and I sat at the front feeling sorry for ourselves!]. Off we go down the Perfume River toward the Thien Mu Pagoda. Built in 1601 between the Perfume River and a pine forest, the Thien Mu Pagoda is one of the oldest and prettiest buildings in Vietnam. Among the many interesting artefacts housed at the complex is the car that took the monk Thich Quang Duc to his self-immolation (burning) in 1963 Saigon. Inside the Pagoda are lots of people with offerings to the spirits and lots of monks, who are visiting. Monks with shaved heads including women have devoted everything to the religion.
Next stop the UNSECO site of the Hue Imperial Citadel, the citadel is surrounded by 2km of walls and moats for protection. A giant Vietnam flag guards the area. Inside the citadel is the Imperial City, with a perimeter of almost 2.5 km. Inside the Imperial City was the imperial enclosure called the Purple Forbidden City in Vietnamese. The enclosure was reserved for the Nguyễn imperial family. The complex is big but you have to use your imagination as some of the buildings are ruins - a product of old age, looting and the Vietnam War.
For a late lunch we had a local dish of hotpot. It is a beef and vegetable soup served with noodles. It is great considering lots if people went in search of Pho 24 (a fast food Pho restaurant) and ended up with something not very good. Then the rain starts, Hue is a wet city in Vietnam. It is like a monsoon but it is not rainy season at the minute - I think our curse has struck again. Everyone stays inside as huge muddy puddles have formed outside. Good job we have visited a lot of the city already.
We fly to Hanoi otherwise it would be another mammoth train journey. It is not raining in Hanoi but the slow pace of life has definitely been left behind. This city is buzzing, alive with people and motorbikes crammed into any space not occupied by tube houses or shops. The only place to relax is Hoem Kiem Lake - lucky as this is where the world famous water puppet troupe perform. We managed to get tickets to see the afternoon water puppet show, it is Vietnamese Punch and Judy in water. The scenes are played out with a band and singers depicting life in Vietnam, catching fish and dancing. The puppets are beautifully carved from teak and the puppeteers have mastered moving them in life like manner whilst standing waist deep in water behind a screen. The colourful fish puppets were my favourite and the squirted water out their mouths. [KB - I fell asleep, read into that what you want!].
The water puppet show is next to the Old Quarter. Originally the street names in the Old Quarter reflected what was sold on that street like cloth or fish. We encounter hair accessories, decorations and clothing streets. The Old Quarter has beautiful tube houses, they are thin structures made from wood but rising many levels. Heading back we find a bar overlooking a manic road intersection and watch the magically orchestrated traffic flow. There are no rules but the traffic flows pretty well. At this intersection there are also helium ballon sellers, they have vast quantities of character helium balloons. Every so often someone turns up of a scooter, buys and balloon and races away with it tied to the back of the scooter. If someone the other side of the road wants a balloon no problem the ballon sellers race through the manic traffic to reach them first. It is like the ultimate version of the game Chicken. [KB - Stacey went off to look round the market, whilst I sat with our new Aussie friends in a bar overlooking potential road carnage. We only saw one crash in about an hour!]. The road system seems to have no rules or regulation. The majority of users are on scooters, with a couple cars dotted around. Allegedly there is a test one must complete - ride your bike around a small figure of '8' without falling off! Crashes are a regular occurrence. As a pedestrian, all is needed is luck and bravery. The recognised method to crossing the road is not the safety of waiting for a gap - no, the method consists of you striding bravely across with out stopping! The flow of bikes seems to part around you. If you do loose your nerve and stop, this causes carnage as bikes swerve to avoid you - be brave, don't look and definitely don't stop! One way streets and pavements mean nothing to the motorists. Any route to get from A-B is fair game here!
The Dinner tonight is a very local restaurant - Cha Ca La Vong, it actually looks like the family's front room. The menu is interesting - they only do one dish: fish with greens cooked on a gas stove on the table and served with noodles. The food is great, it is full of locals and has this authentic Vietnam feel. Only down side is the portion size is for the tiny Vietnamese people and not 5 hungry westerners.
Last 2 days are spent at Ha Long bay, famous for its Limestone formations and Junk boats. There are thousands of Junk boats moving past giant Limestone formations, we will not be alone. The group has a private boat and we get a upper deck bedroom with a little balcony. It is great considering the rooms downstairs and it is like being in a hotel. We sail through the eerie Limestone formations to a cave complex. Basically you just follow the line of other tourists making their way through the caves. The guide points out several rocks formed by nature but looking like a turtle or buddha. Leaving the caves behind we head to the beach, they have banned tourists from swimming off the boats but have provided a beach area to swim in. The water is freezing but as a bonus there is a big hill to climb to warm up and watch the sunset. We trekked up the steps to the top to watch sunset over the Limestone formations.
Back on the Junk dinner is served and the food is very, very good. Then the crew turn the lights off and parade around with pineapple lights singing happy birthday. We are very confused but then it is explained that it is the Junk's 3rd birthday. After dinner we visited the crew in the kitchen to thank them for such wonderful food. They are having dinner sat down on a rug in the kitchen. I get to try some pork belly with spices, it is really tasty - although the captain tries to tease us, joking it is dog meat. During the night a boat which as become untied crashed into us and you can see into the other boats cabins. [KB - surprisingly, Stacey forgot to mention that on the flat calm water she succumbed to her sea sickness - we had one poorly bunny for about 16hrs!]
This morning we sail a different route back to harbour passed more Limestone formations and house boats. It is a beautiful place but eerie and full of tourists. The bus takes us back to Hanoi for a group farewell dinner at Koto. Koto is a project sponsored by Intrepid Travel, giving training and jobs in hospitality to young adults. We are having a set menu cooked and served by the trainees. It is an excellent experience and well worth visiting the restaurant if you happen to be in Hanoi.