This heading will only make sense once you've read the entry. Sorry.
So, after a week or so of being a couple of beach bums, we are now back on the road being good tourists doing touristy things. We’ve been exploring cities in central Vietnam, starting with the ancient city of Hue (pronounced ‘way’. That heading makes a tad more sense now, eh?). In contrast to many of the places we’ve seen up north, Hue is very Western-orientated, and there are many more European faces. It’s a nice change from Sam Son where we felt very conspicuous!
It is worth mentioning at this point that our major mode of transportation over long distances has been the train. The trains offer a variety of services of varying standards, and the quality of the service is determined by the prefix before the train number. Roughly speaking, trains starting with ‘TN’ are cheaper, but do not necessarily have comfortable seats or air conditioning; we use the ‘SN’ trains which are more expensive, but you get an allocated seat in an air-conditioned carriage. For more details, check out the website below, including information on overnight sleeper carriages:
Note to the wary: Many hotels and travel agents will offer to buy train tickets on your behalf, but it is worth noting that some of them charge a ridiculous amount to do so. You know you are being ripped off when your tickets are handed to you with a piece of cardboard carefully stapled over the price! We removed them, of course, to discover we had paid double the actual value of the tickets. In this case we didn’t mind too much – we figured it was worth the extra for the convenience – but we will keep this in mind for the future and buy them ourselves when possible.
The trains aren’t particularly clean, but then Vietnam is an untidy place. There are no waste bins, so people just leave their rubbish wherever. The train staff do sweep the carriages at regular intervals, however, so the mess never becomes a health hazard. The worst thing by far about Vietnamese trains, though, is a method of torture cunningly disguised as entertainment; it goes by the name of RailTV. Each carriage has a couple of televisions attached to the ceiling, and these play a series of non-stop programmes very, very loudly. Some of the shows are okay – dramas, cartoons, kids’ shows – but the overwhelming majority of the time is taken up with annoying ads and equally annoying music videos. Having spent a fair amount of time in the presence of these things, I came to the conclusion that they were showing a medley of Southeast Asia’s rejected Eurovision Song Contest entries. What’s that you say? Southeast Asia doesn’t enter the ESC? Thank heaven for small mercies!
On one particularly memorable 6-hour journey, I spotted a guy in our carriage who was wearing an identity tag proclaiming him to be a RailTV employee. It was very brave of him, I must say. I’m amazed that the rest of the passengers didn’t get together and beat him to death with their hand luggage. I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking this way. The one time the TVs went on the blink the whole carriage gave an audible sigh of relief.
Anyway, the moral of the story is this: take an MP3 player with you, and make sure it is fully charged. Time flies much more quickly when you don’t have to listen to an Elvis looky-likey belting out the Asian equivalent of boy-band songs. Trust me.
Other notes about trains, before I get back onto my fantasies of strangling the sadistic inventor of RailTV:
1) They have toilets – some Asian-style, some Western – but they are generally not very pleasant. Take your own loo roll as there’s no guarantee any will be provided.
2) They (often) provide free bottles of water, and have a food service. They sell a variety of snack foods: corn on the cob, chicken wings, popcorn, etc. but if you order a main meal you don’t get a choice. From what I saw on one train, you get a lot of rice, some veg and a couple of meatball thingies. Large serving sizes, though, and it seemed popular with the locals.
In conclusion: the trains aren’t particularly fast, but they are pretty reliable and get you where you’re going without all the swerving, honking and near-death experiences associated with driving in Vietnam.
And in such a fashion, we arrived in Hue.
I liked it immediately. The place had a really friendly, laid-back atmosphere, plus dozens and dozens of restaurants and bars, most of which offered Western food. Having just over-indulged in all things yummy at the Sun Spa resort, I was keen for more of the same, and we soon made ourselves regulars at an Italian restaurant and drank way too much imported - and therefore horribly expensive - wine. (They actually list the price of wine in US dollars, ‘cos the good stuff costs over one million Vietnamese dong. They’d need to supersize their menus to print the prices!)
Anyway, when we weren’t eating and drinking, we went exploring. Hue has a lot of tourist attractions in easy travelling distance… and this is how we met Long, Vietnam’s only serenading cyclo driver.
Long, to put it mildly, is quite a character. He has a way of ‘wooing’ customers, making a point to shout a cheerful hello at any passing tourists and initiating a conversation when possible. He carries a little book of testimonials written by satisfied customers, and he is quick to show you all the nice things people have written about him. He has a cheeky grin, a wicked sense of humour, and is impossible not to like.
On day 1 in Hue, Long convinced us to hire a couple of cyclos for a trip to the citadel. I was slightly apprehensive due to the crazy traffic, but Pete seemed relaxed enough about the idea, so I just shrugged and trusted myself to Fate and the innate unwillingness of the Vietnamese to run over tourists ‘cos it’s bad for business.
As drivers went, Long wasn’t bad. He even stopped at red lights sometimes. And, because he didn’t have a horn or bell on his vehicle, he’d pedal along shouting, “Beep beep!” at anything that got in his way.
The thing that I will remember forever about that day, though, is being driven over a bridge in a drizzling rain listening to Long belting out a selection of Beatles’ songs (in pretty good English, it must be said). It was quite surreal, very amusing and altogether unexpected. I am hoping for a serenaded nighttime gondola ride when we return to Venice later in the trip, but I’m sure now it’ll just remind of Long and his slightly off-key rendition of ‘Hey, Jude’. Who needs opera, anyway, eh?
Some 'serious' piccys from Hue citadel (click on 'em to enlarge 'em):
The citadel was built in the early 1800s. The complex is huge, containing an imperial palace, temples, gardens and tombs, but much of it has been destroyed by wars and fire. Restoration projects are currently underway, but we enjoyed the parts we could see. The architecture is amazing in places - so much colour and fine detail!
And a not-so-serious piccy from Hue citadel:
Pete playing silly buggers. Honestly, I can’t take him anywhere!
On the way back, we got a free peek at the tanks outside the American Museum. This is the one that I want:
Dear Santa, please can I have one of these for Christmas? I promise to be really, really good. (Yeah, right!) One of these days I am going to go on one of those tank adventure days where you get to crush a car. I’m not sure where I get my destructive streak, but this idea definitely appeals to me!
Ooh, look, I’m waffling again. I think I’ll split it into two, like I did with the Japanese entries. More tomorrow…