Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A pleasant Hue

After spending several days in Hoi An, getting clothes tailored and wandering its lantern-lit streets, we decided to move on up the coast. We're supposed to meet Alison again in Hanoi in several days, and we still have a long way to go.

But, instead of covering the distance in one long stretch, we decided to break it up by stopping in Hue for a day. So, rising bright and early, we hoped on a bus for the four hour ride from Hoi An to Hue. Quickly, we realized that the trip would probably only be an hour or two, except the bus spent half the time in HoiAn (and then later Danang) driving in circles and picking up tourists from guesthouses. In addition, the driver seemed to live in fear of third gear, so we slowly chugged up the road at a breakneck 40 kilometers an hour.

We eventually did arrive in Hue though, and quickly found a guesthouse. Weaving through a maze of touts, we made our way down a alley to the Mimosa Guesthouse, which was recommended by Lonely Planet. Standing outside it though, we realized it was a little shabbier looking than we'd hoped.But, before I could propose a pla of action, Sarah turned around, pointed across the alley to a clean, quiet, guesthouse surrounded by a lush garden. "How about there?"

So, soon we were checked into that guesthouse, and had even arranged a motorcycle tour for the next day.

So, with the (hottest part of the) afteroon still ahead of us, we decided to hike to Palace. Hue used to be the ancient capital of Vietnam. Today, the massive, sprawling palace serves as a museum, but has also taken on a run-daown and over-grown quality not unlike an Asian Grey Gardens.

The main gate to the Palace
Another gate.
A courtyard. Much of the place was actually in some stage of remodel or disrepair... we only took pictures of the nice stuff though.

Still, there was a ramshakle beauty to the place, and Sarah and I found ourselves wandering the grounds for sometime. Taking in the aging buildings and drinking our way through bottle after oversized bottle of water.

The next morning, we ate breakfast and met up withour moped drivers for our day tour of Hue. First up, a Buddhist Monestary on the outskirts of town to watch their morning chanting.

The monks preform their morning rituals. (And try to ignore the tourists in the background.)

Now, say what you will about people who listen to CDs like Chant, but regardless of the religious denomination or system, real chanting is almost always spellbinding. And the six Buddhist monks we watched perform their morning ritual were no exception. With no more than their voices and several bells, they wove a sonic tapestry ("Sonic tapestry?" Cliched, right?) that left you dazed when it was over. Amazing stuff.

Afterward, our guide talked to us a bit, clarifying the differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism as we wandered the monestary grounds.

Then, it was back on the bikes and down the road a bit to a roadside shop where they made incense. What's odd in Vietnam is that often the tours take us to places where they make uninteresting things (A brick factory. A rice noodle factory. A black pepper farm.) and it ended up being actually pretty interesting to see how they are made. And, like the other places we've visited, incense making is actually kind of cool. And colorful.

Sarah tries her hand at making incense.
Incense sticks drying in the sun. Colorful, no?

A short drive down the road some more, and we found ourselves on a bluff overlooking the Perfume River. Surrounding us were short green pine trees and cement structures that I first thought were the pedestals of long lost statues. Then, our guide point out to us what they really were: Bullet hole riddled bunkers. Leftover from the war. Apparently, the spot had been a key military location for the US forces because it provided a view of the surrounding area, and easy access to the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the East. Like the Killing Fields in Cambodia, both Sarah and I were struck by how peaceful the location was, if you were able to out aside the horrors and violence that had taken place there years ago.

An old US bunker standing on an otherwise idyllic bluff.

Our next stop was Emporer Tu Doc's Tomb. Since Hue had been the capital at one point, there are a number of royal tombs scatteredaround the area. But, since the majority charge 55,000 Dong (about $3.50 US... which is expensive here) a person to get in, we opted to only check outtheone our guide thought was the best.

Statues or the Emporer's Mandarin (Advisors), a horse (with a little kid on it) and an Elephant. The tombs were supposed to be recreations of the ruler's life.
The giant slab that Sarah's standing in front of is a "self-critical autobiography" written by the Emporer. One wonders what the Emporer criticized himself about?
The river that winds through the complex. The little white dot to the left is me.

Apparently, at that time, the Emporers would build their tombs why they were alive, and then sort of use them as a second palace. A place to get awayfor a bit, and write some poetry, or whatever it is Vietnamese Emporers do with their free time (beyond collecting concubines). So, in addition to his actual tomb, the tomb of his first wife, and the tomb of his adopted son, the grounds also contained a man-made lake (with an island, naturally) and stream system, a pavilion or two, a residence of the Emporer and his Concubines and a couple of temples. Like the Palace, the entire tomb complex had a sort of rundown charm, and the scale of it was impressive.

After that, our guide hiked us through some bushes to where another smaller tomb lay practically hidden. Apparently, this other tomb was for an Emporer who only ruled for a couple years and never got around to building his own complex. As a result it was smaller, and tourists rarely visited it. Which actually worked to our advantage, because it was still impressive and beautiful. But, aside from a couple of farmers resting in the shade, it empty except for us.

If you look closely, you can see the farmers in the shadows.

Then, it was back on the bike, for a longer drive, which included a very narrow bridge crossing, eventually ending at a Pagoda. Unfortunately, the main temple portion was being refurbished. But, we wre still able to see the Pagoda itself and several of the smaller structures around it.

The Pagoda. You know what the people who made this pagoda/Angkor Wat/pick-the-ruin-of-your-choice are overly fond of? Stairs.

Our final, long, moped ride took us to a covered bridge in the countryside outside of Hue. It had been built in 1776 by a wealthy old woman who had no heirs and decided to spend her money to build a bridge to allow the farmers an easier way to reach the city. In addition, it provides a place for them to restfrom the sun on a hot day, or take shelter froma storm. Over 200 years later, the bridge was still in amazing condition. And, I'm sure the old woman would be happy to see people stil taking a break in its shade... next to the small shrine in her honor.

The ride out to the bridge. The entire road was covered with drifts of hay, drying in the sun.
The bridge. Again, ifyou look close, you can see farmers resting in the shadows.

Sarah and I appreciated this story, over a glass of sugarcane juice and winter melon tea; watching giant, puffs of cotton-tree seeds roll by like gerbil-sized sheep. Then our guides took us back to our guesthouse. Not a bad way to spend half a day.


Adamanthaea said...

Hi! I came across your blog while doing research for my own 2.5 month backpacking trip. Your blog is amazing! I just wanted to wish you guys a happy trip!

The General said...

Thanks Adamanthea, Sarah and I are always happy when we find out our blog is an inspiration to other travellers. Best wishes on your own trip!

Anonymous said...

Tyler nd S.----It's Doug & Marne here---sooo glad you can do what you are doing and see things you will remember for the rest of your life---great stuff and your pictures are great. I couldn't get to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia in the early '80's---so live it up ther for me....
When you read this, go have a beer for me and think of us here for one minute. Then go have a cigar. Then go fishing. Then go...well, you get the idea....I truly wish I was there, having done my trip so many years ago, and want to do it again. It's not to late for both of you to become slacker hindu/buddhists (like me) and have a good excuse for just about anything you want, sorta...
Hey. what you two are doing now---it's the best time of your frikkin life---imprint it well.
---Doug & Marne, almost your uncle and auntie, but not quite.---

The General said...

Thanks Doug and Marne! Y'know, when your on a long trip like this, its easy to occasionally forget how good life is for us right now. Then, out of the blue we'll both sort of realize "whoa! We're actually here right now, and doing this!" It's a pretty amazing experience. We'll definitely raise a glass of beer in your honor next meal! Cheers! ...or, as they say in Vietnam, Yo!