If you ignore the sheer volume of overly persistant Cyclo (and to a point, motorcyle) riders desperately trying to get your business - to the point that some will happily follow you for a couple of hours trying to sell their transport to you every 20 seconds or so - Hue (pronounced kind of like Hway, as in 'Hway the Lads') is a nice little place.
The former Imperial capital, it has a kind of neglected and slowly decaying feel which is actually very pleasant. The Forbidden Purple City is central to that. Vast, yet half in ruins and most of it open and seemingly unexplored, making wandering lovely and never knowing what you would come across next. Including 2 elephants, something i've never seen previously except in Zoos or on TV. The sun was out, the weather warm, and life was just good. I was starting to feel at home in Vietnam. Hue Imperial city has fairly recently been added to the UNESCO heritage list, and as such there is a sign that some restoration is occuring. But whilst this is obviously a good thing, I can't help feeling that being actually restored to its former glory would actually mean the Palace losing some of it's draw.
If for no other reason, come to Hue because of Tinh Tam. I admit that the idea of me championing the cause of a vegetarian restaurant may take a bit of getting used to (can somebody slap Jim - and probably many others - around the face with a wet cod to release him from the shock?). but gawd damned it, that is one amazing restaurant. The place may not look much, but the food is equisit, and it's the sort of place I may very well waste my entire holiday allowance - and then some - and make the entire 40ish day round trip from Sweden to, just for a couple of meals.
We spent an extra night in Hue to take in the more or less obligatory DMZ tour. The girls had continued through to Hoi An instead of stopping over in Hue, meaning there was just two of us to arouse bleary eyed at 5.30am to crawl on the bus.
The tour itself wasn't desperately noteworthy, but had to be done, and wasn't bad at all. We stopped at the Ben Hoi river, the former boundary between North and South and saw the monument (scarily, despite the war being over for 30years, it took them until 18months ago to finally put a monument up), and also the change from forests to clear fields - with many bomb craters - which occurs for 10km either side of the river. Then onwards to a small village on the Northern side to a small museum, and a trip into the tunnels. Every village in the area essentially moved underground, and so a huge warren of tunnels exists. The Americans never discovered this (they were mostly bombing this area by air, as oppoosed to being on foot) and there surprsingly few casualties in them.
The tunnels are kind of scary, just for their scope. In our one, 17people had been born (16, including one of our guides, are still alive), although the "maternity" room was barely 2 x 1metre in size. And that was one of the big rooms. Family rooms, were maybe half that, and yet whole families lived in these tiny cubby holes in the sides of the tunnels for many years. Wow. The "meeting room" - a kind of wider and taller passageway - had been designed for 70people, but even our group of 20 or so struggled to fit in.
We then headed out towards the Lao border, down a long valley which had been one of the most strategically important during the war, past the sites of numerous old bases, a stop off in a small minority village, and finally to the former Tacon American base. None of us were impressed at all to discover the inevitable hawkers selling dogtags etc, which they had found with metal detectors and dug up off dead bodies to sell, although i'm sure there is a market for them. Tacon was the site of the 1968 battle which completely rocked the Americans and South Vietnamese and was the diversion used before the stunning Tet offensive (arguably the turning point in the war and its most important battle) took place 2 weeks later on. The feeling and energy of the place was just strange. It felt and looked so quiet and peaceful, and yet there was something there, and obviously everybody knew it's history - and not exactly ancient history at that - which also played a part. Wierd is the only way I can really describe it. Headed back to Hue, notable only for a couple of breakdowns (astonishingly my first, i think, on this trip) and a prolonged stop due to a water leak which was fixed using the hithertunto unknown proceedure to me, of using a blow torch to fix the rubber piping. Strangely, it even worked.
That evening, amazingly, Sweden won the Hockey beating undeafed arch rivals Finland in the final, although they celebrated Silver happily anyway. Annoyingly, despite a crowd of Hockey fans (something you don't really expect to find in Vietnam), the TV cunningly decided - it must have been a standard programing thing, and it wasn't just our TV which went - to switch from the final towards the end of the second period to Leece v Juventus.
We were not amused.
Reduced to following the remainder of the game on a text webcast in Finnish was not something which any of us especially wanted, although (especially withoutr a single Finnish speaker present) it did have some kind of bizare enjoyment value. Joy for the Swedes victory was slightly tempered by the Manure somewhat destroying Wigan in the Carling Cup, and then the Welsh being demolished by the Irish in the 6 nations, in the only game i've so far managed to see, and in all likelyhood will all season. Grrrr. But even thats of no relevance after hearing of Scotlands Calcutta Cup triumph!
That night Helene came down with a really bad tooth problem. I had had a few twinges in my wisdom teeth before Christmas and am still praying that I will survive this trip without tooth incident, but she had a recurrence of a known issue with her's, and it wasn't pretty. Travelling is such a whizz of events, excitment, meetings, images and sensory input and delight that you sometimes forget that normal everyday things occur as well, and bring things back down from some where near La-La land (Dipsy Land??) to the ground.
It's odd, and perhaps it's because i'm getting old(er), but incidents like this and the Shanghai birthday always seem to end up with me feeling like some old grandad looking after people. The fact that it always happens and I keep trying to help suggests that I probably enjoy it, at least subconsciously. That is in no way a criticsm of anything/body, just a very strange personal feeling I get, and one i'm still trying to work out (a) why; and (b) if its a good thing. Answers and words of wisdom on a postcard, please, or as I have no postal address right now, perhaps on an email.
Thus it was that a constant supply of cold drinks (in lieu of ice packs) had to be found, and when the pharmacist openend the following morning, I had the delights of wandering around town trying to explain what the heck was wrong and what was needed using both my words of Vietnamese, neither of which were "tooth" or "pain". Astonishingly, it even worked (second try) and I hit the jackpot, finding useful antibiotics, complete with English description. But from there it was a case of rest, wait and hope. And then get on the bus.
And with that, we headed to Hoi An. Another random place, like Kyoto, which i've stopped in not solely because it is an anagram of it's capital cities name.
Hoi An is basically a clothes shoppers paradise. A small town near the coast, south of the city of Da Nang, Hoi An has something like 300 tailors (and shoe) shops, all doing dirt cheap and high quality tailor made clothing. For a female or somebody with a credit card, it's a dangerous place, but when an entire wardrobe can be had for a few hundred dollars (cost for the same in Europe, maybe 10000), you can see why. Everything is custom amde to fit, with your exact specifications. If you want extra pink spots on it, you can. And if you don't know what you want, they have hoardes of catalogues and magazines to browse through until you find something you do. Or just take something you already have and it will be copied. The post office in Hoi An quite possibly has the greatest average cost per item posted of any in the world, as everybody spends loads and then posts it home.
All of the girls, plus Yvonne and Richard, two friends the Danish girls had met in Halong Bay spent a chunk on clothes, and more or less had to be prised away from the town. Along with virtually everybody else we met, including the now familiar group of people on the same Bus ticket as we were who were doing the same trip at about the same time. I'll probably regret it later on, but I didn't actually buy anything. I don't need much stuff, and have all that I need. And things like suits and shirts are for people who have serious real jobs that require dressing up, not traveling cartographers...
We even finally braved a bottle of snake wine, allegedly a huge aphrodisiac with great healing powers. It had an interesting taste to it, and was approximately drinkable, although I probably won't be experimenting much more in the near future. How the dickens they manage to get the cobras inside the bottles and positioned as they are, gawd only knows. Now that is one i would like to find out.
I don't want to turn this into a boring "we did that, we saw this entry" like almost all of mine have been, so at this moment I head of in a completely irrelevant direction and will break the news to an almost certainly sniggering audience that Kiki has managed to track down another of my email addresses (luckily, still not a desperately important one). Thats not the news however, the details emparted to me was that their marriage is seriously on the rocks. For those of you that don't know the story, shame on you. I don't write this b*llsh1t for my own enjoyment you know*. Apparently, Christian has had a change of heart and a couple of sudden realisations have hit him...
Undoubtedly, there will be more on this as the story unfolds
- ok, ok. Actually, I know it's really just for me. Yes, I admit it.
The town itself is lovely anyway. Another UNESCO site, it's a wonderful mixture of old French colonial architecture and local twists, with a great laid back feel, a river front, beach just a few km away, and a relative lack of all the types of hawkers that have blighted Vietnam so far. And the local food was excellent. Fresh Fruit shakes and juices are a feature (and a great one) in Vietnam and Hoi An was no exception. Cau Lau, a local kind of semi soupy noodle dish, and a dirt cheap one, is also glorious, and fried wanton is tasty beyond description. White Rose, a prawn concotion isn't too bad either, and the local beer was about 3000 (1.5yuan or SEK, urm, about 6pence at a guess) a go.
When I said that I might use all my holidays in the future just to visit Tinh Tam, I might have lied. I would have to also spend a few days stocking up on Cau Lau and Fried Wanton in Hoi An.
And whilst we are on the subject of food, I would like to highly recomend taking Cooking Classes in Hoi An. We did, and they were great. We paid (i think) 6usd a head and got to choose 5 dishes - we could pick what we wanted, regardless of price - and then spent a great 3 hours learning how to make them. We chose Stuffed Squid, Country pancakes, Fish in banana leaf, Sweet and Sour Crab and Fresh Spring Rolls. And of course, we got to eat our creations as we went along, and not a single one of us actually got poisoned.
The electricity failed a couple of times, but as we were cooking on gas (and BBQ) that was of no problem and we cooked by candle light. The crab - we named him Boris - was stabbed at the begining and then continued to struggle and wave its legs in the air (with a huge carving knife sticking out of its belly) for the next hour or so, before valiantly giving up the fight after a few more twists of the knife.
He was very tasty.
The interesting thing about the class was how ludicrously simple all of these wonderful delicacies actually were to make. In no way am i trying to say that chefs etc are not talented (completely the opposite). I'm just saying that even if you had given me just the required ingredients for one of those dishes, it would have probably taken me 100 attempts before I even got close to producing anything that looked or tasted anywhere near so good. It's amazing how simple some very complex looking things can be when you just know how. This isn't a promise by any means, but if any of you happen to drop by and I have time to source stuff, I'll happily try and recreate the wonders of Hoi An food for you. Assuming you sign a disclaimer absolving me of any responsibility in case of death or seious poisoning, of course.
And to end our time in Hoi An (and to prevent further damage to credit cards in clothing stores) we took a trip to My Son. If the americans et al hadn't bomed the sh1t out of it in the war, the site would almost certainly be even better known. Sadly, large chunks of the complex were destroyed, but even so - whilst admittedly on a much smaller scale - My Son is still worthy as being Vietnams equivalent to Angkor Wat. An assortment of temples, ruins, statues and artefacts (plus bomb craters) dotted around a lovely green site up in the hills, and also site of some traditional dancing, music and singing, which was, how shall we say, curious - but not uninteresting - to say the least. Although the fact that the show ended when the CD player broke down was kind of ironic to a traditional music show...