Well, I think we got our cities mixed up, because here we thought Hoi An was going to be no big deal, and Hue was going to be the Cat’s Meow. But it turned out to be the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, Hue is nice, but it’s barely a shadow of Hoi An.
We arrived late night to the normal hustle and bustle of touts trying to get us to use their hotel. I found the rooms to be a bit expensive, and truthfully, not anywhere near where we wanted to be. So ignoring all the hollering, we swiped a map from one of the touts, loaded up our backpacks and walked in the direction we thought was the right one. A few miss-turns and twenty-five minutes later we found the river, which was the first landmark I recognized on the map. Swinging right we headed down to the backpacker part of town. As we are walking we notice a familiar shape in front of us, a tall solidly built older gentleman, with red Bermuda shorts and t-shirt and a graying mullet. There was no mistaking our German friend Karl. He was walking away from us, so we had to double-time it to catch up with him, hollering his name.
He was quite shocked to see the two of us running up fully loaded with our bags and gear. He asked if we had accommodation yet because he had found a nice guesthouse that he was staying at, really cheap, and right around the corner. We headed over there and got a great room for 14 dollars a night, what more could you ask for.
Exhausted as we were, Karl was leaving the next day so we headed across the street to have dinner and drinks. Well, the dinner was great, and drinks were flowing like crazy. It was all good till the Chinese Wine made its debut. Chinese Wine is closer to vodka than any wine I had ever had. We learned all about Karl over a few hours, how his tourist persona is just that, because normally he dresses in a long leather coat, black jeans, black shirts, numerous skull rings, and a cape. He was playing with a cigarette extender that he had picked up at a shop in Vietnam, the icing on the cake for his bartender look. Reminded me a bit of Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, two badass gangsters dressed up in cheesy tourist outfits, as Taratino says, “Dorks. They look like a couple of dorks.” He regaled us with stories from his bar, crazy customers, atmosphere, and how mornings were not his thing.
An annoying English couple joined us who we were all pretty convinced were cheating on their significant others. It made for some interesting conversations, and greatly increased the amount of Chinese Wine as they were rubbing Karl wrong, so to get rid of them we all out drank them. Which worked really well, till the next day. I was pretty good, woke up feeling like a Pho Soup, and headed out. Poor Yvonne was not so well.
The Pho’s in Vietnam are just amazing, and there is nothing I would rather eat for breakfast in the world. I walk the streets till I find a crowded corner with lots of plastic stools about eight inches high, with some small tables next to them. The more Vietnamese there, the better, because a crowded soup shop means it’s a damn good soup shop. I patiently wait for a stool to open up, then sit down quickly, usually mixed in with a group of people who stare at me funnily for joining them. Who’s this goofy white guy sitting with us? As I fumble with the words, pho ba(beef), pho ga (chicken), I get some giggles and eventually a bowl of broth and noodles is slapped down in front of me. If they really dig me, I get some tea also, free of charge. In the center of the table is a bowl filled with mint leaves, lemon, hot peppers, bean sprouts, and leafs of different sorts. You rip a few of everything in, toss it in the soup, and slurp away. The types of meat in it varies, though usually its’ thinly sliced raw beef that cooks in the broth. Some times it’s big chunks of mystery meat. But I am pretty sure it’s not dog because dog is a luxury meat, which means it would be more expensive. I was sitting there this morning and two rats came scampering down the street, hoping to get some goodies. I pointed them out to the old lady cooking, and she poured some hot water at them, sending them down the drains. I love watching wildlife when I eat.
Well, love was in the air, let me tell you. As I was enjoying my lovely Pho, I hear the sounds of beeping horns echoing down the street. Then a splash of color hits the otherwise gray block, as crimson red blurs begin to jump around. It was time for a dragon dance, and not just any dragon dance, but the dance of love. A wedding procession lined up in front of me, all in traditional garb, accompanied by drummers, dancers, and dragons. Really what more could you need. It was really beautiful, and such a nice surprise.
I took this day to just relax, and wander around with no plan. They had a really nice pedestrian walk way running along the Perfume River, great for jogging, with four sets of bridges. I ran down one side, crossed over, than ran back along the other side. On the north side of the river you could see a huge walled complex, with large palaces on the other side. This was the Imperial City, and the walled complex was the Citadel. I wanted to spend a day here, so I just ran along the walls, admiring the moat.
The next day we came back and decided to tackle the Purple Forbidden Palace, which was inside the Citadel. You can enter through numerous giant gates, which are at least twenty feet thick. The complex is enormous, total size is 4 square kilometers. Once you pass the outer walls, which have the biggest Vietnam flag in the country on top of it, you approach a smaller compound, that houses all the palaces, gardens, and servants quarters for the empire. When the Palace was occupied, only the royal family and their servants were allowed inside. The Forbidden City was started in 1802, and continued to be in use till the mid 19th century. A large part of it was destroyed during heavy fighting during the Tet Offensive. The North took over the city, and the U.S. ended up destroying huge sections of the city trying to get them out. They even dropped napalm on the palace.
The Thai Hoa Palace is gorgeous, with tile roofs, dragons gracing the spines of the roofs, 80 lacquered columns, and a large elevated throne. They are in excellent shape. There were dragon dogs guarding the entrances. Inside were throne rooms for some of the kings. They are slowly in the process of rebuilding the grounds, and a lot of the buildings are just at foundation level. But here and there is a finished renovation, so you can imagine how majestic it was.
In the compound they were doing elephant rides, but I did not like the look of the elephant. He looked a bit skinny, and was constantly trying to knock the chain loose. It’s really important that you don’t ride elephants that are not taken care of. I am not saying never ride, but make sure to inspect first. A lot of them are abused and mishandled.
The next day I negotiated a deal for a ride on the back of a motorcycle to see some of the sites out of town. I was curious about a stadium where they fought animals together. It’s not as impressive as the coliseum by any margin, smaller than a basketball court, but it’s pretty cool just the same. They would have elephants and tigers fight here. The elephants are the symbol or royalty, so if they lost it would make the king look bad. So what they did not tell the commoners was that they actually declawed the tigers, and ripped their teeth out too. So it was really a one-sided battle, not fair at all. The elephant would end up stampeding the tiger to death, or impaling it on its’ tusk, but one way or the other, the tiger would end up dead, and the King would be the man.
The next stop was a Tu Duc tomb complex. It’s interesting, that the complex for the tomb was enormous, bigger than a palace, and before his death it was used as a pleasure palace. There were numerous tombs in it, from his wife to relatives. Each tomb had a pagoda with it, and a walled area around it. The gardens were gorgeous, with a large pond with an island on it, large forested hills, and rolling walkways. It was more like a great vacation place then a place of death, and was so relaxing too. I just grabbed a spot and started drawing for an hour. I am pretty sure my driver was really worried, because most people go here for an hour. I was there for three but it was worth it.
The next day Yvonne and I headed out to Thein Mu Pagoda that was about 4 km kilometers out of town. We each hired a bike to drive us, and hit the road. It was pretty funny both of us on the back of bikes, taking pictures as we went. The pagoda was at the bend of the river, with a nice hill over looking it. There was a large tower and pagoda on the hill. There were two smaller towers that had an enormous bell in it, with a log hanging from rope that you would propel into the bell to ring it. It was hard not to ring it. In the other was a massive gong. We took a boat back, which was ok but not great. The river was not too scenic, and the price was a bit much, but still more fun then riding back.
The town has a lot of western food options in a two block stretch, and apparently a fare amount of partying, because there were signs for happy hour everywhere. None of the food was amazing, but not horrible either. We stopped in the Spiral Foundation Healing the Wounded heart shop where they were helping handicapped people make crafts out of trash. Money goes to help kids who need heart surgery. All the employees were street kids, and crafts sold went to help them out. It’s a great cause. On the wall you see pictures of all these celebrities who have bought stuff there, from Clooney to Clinton. They wanted a picture of me up, but I did not want to steal some of their thunder. I think it’s important when you travel through the countries to try and give a bit back, in whatever way you can. I like to find reputable charities or organizations, as opposed to giving money to kids on the streets, which never ends up with the kids anyway.