Hue-hey!

(Emily) After a few days in Saigon, our next destination was the small city of Hue in central Vietnam, near the coast. First impressions suggested it would be a good antidote to the nonstop noise and craziness of Saigon – certainly the view from the from the back of the taxi as we rode the short distance from the airport was of endless paddy fields, many flooded by the recent rains, and the town itself revealed tree lined avenues and charming, somewhat ramshackle buildings. The Hue Backpackers hostel turned out to be a great choice – clean rooms, unbelievably friendly staff, queen sized dorm beds so we didn’t have to pay for two separate bunks and, surely a perk that every hostel should follow suit with, free beer between 5 and 6pm! Darren got himself a private room at a hotel across the street (the whole dorm thing wasn’t working for him!) but he soon became an honorary guest at the hostel as we all spent so much time there (he even ended up going out for dinner with the lovely Thao who worked at the front desk…) The hostel ran a daily pub quiz which, it’s fair to say, we pretty much dominated on the first evening (don’t know why I’m boasting, I think we can safely say the effect of my presence on our winning score was negligible).

As I think James has already mentioned, the decision had been made back in Saigon that Darren’s time was better spent enjoying Saigon and Hue on a relaxed itinerary rather than trying to fit in a full tour of the country in the short time remaining (Vietnam is so long and thin, a lot of the time would have been spent on planes and trains getting from one place to another, and transport wasn’t cheap either.) This meant that we had a good few days to fill as and how we liked, with plenty of time for eating, drinking and playing cards in between (three of our favourite pastimes!) Hue’s old town is centred round the royal citadel, now a UNESCO heritage site, and we made quite a few trips over there to walk or cycle around the narrow streets and old palace grounds. We found it to be wonderfully peaceful and pleasantly untouristy, seemingly untouched by the frenetic pace of modern life. Many women still wore the traditional mollusc hats and carried two baskets balanced by a bamboo pole over their shoulders to transport their wares. The maze of roads surrounding the citadel were too narrow for cars so people dawdled by on bicycles, only serving to enhance the sleepy, backwater town effect. However, at points, we were reminded of the strife and conflict that, in the not so distant past, must have rocked the core of this small, peaceful community when we came upon rusty old American tanks and artillery pieces, relics from the war, and more specifically, the Tet Offensive. In 1968, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) launched a surprise attack during the national Tet holiday, striking hundreds of US and South Vietnamese targets throughout the country. Hue itself came under heavy fire, the communists’ main target being a US command post in the citadel, and with 26 days of fighting it became one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam war. Militarily, the attack on Hue was a failure for the communists but not before at least 200 American soldiers and 6000 citizens in the city were killed (1800 of which were executed). In addition, of 140,000 residents in Hue, 116,000 were left homeless as a result of the fighting. Wandering around the citadel it was hard to imagine what some of the older members of the community had been through, or appreciate the strength it must have taken to move on and rebuild their lives afresh.  

Keen to gain further understanding about the war following our facinating (not to mention thought provoking and chilling) experiences at the War Remnants Museum and Cu Chi tunnels in Saigon, we booked a day tour that would take us to the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone), an area which had been devised to mark a boundary between North and South Vietnam after the French Indochina war in 1954 and had continued to serve as a dividing line in the subsequent Vietnam War. On New Year’s Eve we woke bleary eyed and dragged ourselves downstairs for the 6am start. The guide finally arrived, fifteen minutes late, only to take us just a few metres down the road for our ‘complimentary’ breakfast (far inferior to the free one we’d have got at the hostel). When, at seven, we still hadn’t gone anywhere, we began to suspect that this was going to be a bit of a shoddy operation (and precisely the reason we don’t normally do organised tours); we weren’t wrong. Frankly, the whole day was a bit of a joke, not least because out of the 12 hours that we were out on the tour, 9 of them were spent on the coach! Not funny seeing as the furthest point we travelled to was less than 200km away; even less funny for the poor woman who had to spend the whole journey on a fold up chair in the aisle as they’d overbooked! It would have been ok if the scheduled stops made it all worthwhile but unfortunately, our ‘points of interest’ were really anything but. Mount ‘Rockpile’ from which the US army had a key strategic observation post was just that – a pile of rocks; the plaque that marked the start of the Ho Chi Minh trail (the logistical network that the NVA and VC used to transport materials through Laos and Cambodia to the south) somewhat lost some of its poignancy now that the ‘trail’ was a highway; and a monument at which we were afforded a generous five minutes lacked significance in the absence of context. The most interesting stop was at  Khe Sanh fire base which, having been surrounded by almost 20,000 enemy soldiers during the Tet offensive, was held under siege for 77 days of fierce fighting. The remaining buildings now house many vivid photographs along with a selection of helicopters, tanks and unexploded ordnance. It was, however, unlike the museum in Saigon, heavily biased and it was obvious to everyone that we were being fed a skewed version of events. Finally, mid afternoon saw us deposited at the Vinh Moc tunnels, which we were hoping would be the highlight of the day. Whereas the Cu Chi tunnels had been used for armed combat, these tunnels, on the northern side of the DMZ, were created and used by civilians in order to escape from the bombing and fighting above ground. Whole villages lived down in the warren of tunnels for two and a half years, the underground labyrinth incorporating school rooms, medical wards (17 babies were born down there!) and communal kitchens. It was sobering to walk through the tunnels and imagine the extent of desperation that would have led people to live like that but unfortunately, the way we were rushed through left little time for consideration. (James: One unintended highlight for us though, was that when we emerged from the tunnels, we did so by the beach. Not special in itself, but this marked our first sighting of the sea, (the South China Sea to be precise) on the eastern edge of the Eur-Asian land mass. Having started on the western edge, it’s fair to say, we felt a small sense of achievement!)

With our bizarre day over we returned to the hostel ready to party; that evening was New Years Eve! I think it was my first one abroad (not for James of course, nomad that he is). The hostel put on a party and we had a great night chatting to fellow guests and enjoying ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ passion fruit cocktails before celebrating the start of 2011 out in the still balmy street. The next day was, unsurprisingly, a write-off – the most we could manage was a bit of cycling around the citadel in the afternoon – but the following day we became bikers again… sort of! We hired mopeds and went for a little jaunt. We originally intended to spend a few hours at the beach but just as we got there, a tropical shower put paid to those plans (at least the angry black clouds and fierce waves provided some dramatic shots). Making a break for it in a dry spell, we headed back inland and had a great time zipping around the countryside in the blazing sunshine which had kindly made a reappearance . I’d never been on a moped before so was a bit nervous but I needn’t have worried, mopeds are brilliant, it really is just a case of twist and go! We had a fantastic roadside lunch, bizarrely ordered in French as no one spoke English but one girl had studied in Canada, which we cooked ourselves using a hot plate and stock pot, and we also visited an impressive mausoleum. It was a great day out and we were all singing the praises of our little mopeds by the end of it – why on earth don’t we all have one at home? (oh yeah, the weather…)

Inevitably, the day came for Darren’s departure back to the UK. It was an emotional goodbye and, after almost six weeks together, seemed somehow too abrupt. Also, having taken us eight months to get to this point in the trip, it was bizarre to think that Darren would simply get on a plane and be back home in no time at all. It felt strange to be back to just the two us again, but we still had the lovely Isabel and Esteban (the Spanish couple we’d met back in Agra and had crossed paths with several times since, and who are collectively known as Estebel) who had arrived in Hue the previous day. What’s more, it was Isabel’s birthday so rather than leave that afternoon on a bus to Hoi An as originally planned, we stuck around to celebrate. The hostel staff – did we mention how lovely they were – took it upon themselves to organise a surprise cake and they extended happy hour in Isabel’s honour (a bit wasted on us as none of us drank rum and coke but it certainly made us popular with our fellow hostellers!) Then it was our turn to be surprised when the hostel manager stood up to award certificates for ‘the first motorcycle honeymoon circumnavigation of the world’! Estebel had organised this on the sly! We stood up to receive our certificates (a tad embarrassed but essentially more than a little chuffed) and were further surprised to be given a complimentary jug of margarita cocktail (James: Mmm…. Great!..) and a free t-shirt each! Awesome! It was a great way to round off our time in Hue.

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5 Responses to “Hue-hey!”

  1. Jackson says:

    So Darren…..how did the date with Thao go?

  2. Julian says:

    HAPPY NEW YEAR!
    Just learnt a new card game from Chris, Unknown Sailor. Will email details…
    love from musttrythiswithturkishcrewindakarnextweekdad X

  3. Jess says:

    You and James look amazingly well. Nice Hue T-shirts – not as good as your motoventurers ones though ;-)
    xxx

  4. Darren says:

    She was lovely Jackson, Vietnamese girls are very very excitable and bubbly!

  5. Martha says:

    Yeah, we had a great NYE too – stayed in and watched Elizabeth:the Golden Age. Really you need to live a little guys!!

    Sorry the tour to the DMZ was a bit rubbish but at least you learnt lots Em (obviously ‘The Fountain’ has little left to learn!)

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