If you were paying attention last time, the heading should make sense.
I know I promised to post this a few days ago, but my previous hotel’s Wi-Fi connection refused to cooperate. Sorry. Also, due to the number of photos in this post, I've had to make them all thumbnails. Click on them for the bigger versions, as usual...
So, where was I? Oh, yes…
A couple of days later we ran into Long again. This time he had the bright idea of giving us a half-day tour of the area on motorcycles. If I was concerned about the cyclos, the idea of getting on a motorbike in Vietnamese traffic made me break out in a cold sweat. Again Pete was unconcerned, and Long, as usual, was persuasive. He introduced us to his friend, ‘Ken’ (not his real name, but close enough), who would be riding the second bike. He was also a really nice guy. He had all his limbs, full sight in both eyes and a bike that seemed solid with no evidence of being in a recent crash. (Picky, maybe, but a girl’s gotta have standards!) He also told me that the bike was his own and he had been riding for over fourteen years. And then he produced a crash helmet that actually fitted me.
I guess by this time I was kind of committed to the project, doubts or no.
Ken was a really careful rider. He knew I was nervous. Well, it was kind of a clue when we introduced ourselves and the first thing out of my mouth was, “Pleased to meet you, Ken. I’m Julie. Whatever you do, do not drop this bike!” He just laughed and kindly agreed to let me hold onto his waist, but it was clear within about twenty seconds that I was gonna crush the poor guy’s ribs. I considerately switched my talon-like grip to the rail behind the seat; I swear he sighed with relief. I don’t blame him in the slightest. Driving is bad enough in this country without having to worry about having the air squashed out of you by a panicky tourist!
Long (left) and ‘Ken’: very nice guys and great drivers!
What a day that was. We started off touring a couple of royal tombs (Khai Dinh, which was incredibly ornate, and Minh Mang, which was quite boring-looking in comparison).
Khai Dinh was Emperor of Vietnam between 1916 and 1925. He financed the building of his tomb by raising taxes on the peasantry. It's easy to understand why he wasn't terribly popular!
Long wanted us to do three tombs in total, but really, two dead dudes is more than enough for us in one day, so instead we asked to be taken to the Ho Chi Minh museum. We didn’t have any particular motivation to see this place; neither of us knew anything much about Vietnamese history or politics other than what we'd seen in movies, but it was an interesting way to spend an hour. ‘Uncle Ho’ (as he is known here) was obviously a very intelligent guy with strongly-held beliefs about what was right for his country. Whatever your political ideology, it’s hard not to admire someone who has the nerve to stand up and tell politicians that they should be honest, good role models, and take responsibility for their mistakes. The West could learn a thing or two there, I think.
After the stifling heat of the museum, we were keen to get back on the bikes and spend some time in the open air. Long had a bright idea:
“I take you to Japanese bridge,” he told us.
“How far?” we asked.
“Not far,” he replied.
Of course, we should have realized that ‘not far’ in Long-ese could mean anything up to 100 kilometers away, and the bridge turned out to be outside the city. I have to admit, this was my favourite part of the whole trip. Not the bridge itself, though that was pretty enough, but the getting there. I’d forgotten how much better the world looks from the back of a bike.
The journey took us through the countryside and several Vietnamese villages. Unlike in Hoi An, the locals weren’t putting on an act for the tourists’ benefit, and we got a glimpse into their daily lives as we drove by. I enjoyed seeing the unexpected items in their front yards: the small shrines, the haystacks, ducks and chickens and even a few buffalo. There is a lot of poverty in Vietnam, but the overall mood was positive. Even in the most run-down areas people were cheerful; many waved and yelled greetings at our drivers as we passed. This was a pleasant thing to see. Vietnam has had a rough past, being occupied by the Chinese, Japanese, French and Americans. From the little I have gathered talking to local people, they are now enjoying being a free nation again. Good for them!
Ken and I actually arrived at the Japenese bridge way before Pete and Long. For a while we were worried they’d fallen off or something, but it turns out they’d just run out of petrol. Never mind; while we were waiting I was distracted by the most gorgeous puppy. He was obviously only a week or two old – when his owner put down a plate of food for him, he got pushed out of the way by half a dozen greedy chickens, that’s how small he was! I, being a dog lover, was completely smitten by the cute little guy. If I could have brought him back with me, I would have. Ken and the other locals found my preoccupation with the pup hilarious. Although they keep dogs as pets here, their attitudes towards them are very different. Dogs aren’t pampered or petted they way they are back home, and are not encouraged to approach people for attention. On the whole, the dogs I’ve seen here have been very well behaved. Of course, this makes sense in a country where they are also considered food. It’s less a case of ‘dinner’s in the dog’, but more ‘dinner is the dog’, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, Pete and Long finally arrived; my cute puppy, having eventually managed to rescue some of his dinner from the chooks, curled up and went fast asleep. I had no more distractions, so off we went to inspect the bridge.
Thanh Toan Bridge (a.k.a. the Japanese Bridge). Tran Thi Dao, the wife of a high-ranking Mandarin in Le Hien Tong's court, initiated construction of this bridge in order to improve transportation and communication in the village. Emperor Khai Dinh (him with the posh tomb I mentioned earlier) obviously wasn't all bad, as in 1925 he granted Tran Thi Dao a posthumous title for her good works, and ordered the villagers to place an altar on the bridge in her memory.
On the other side of the bridge was the smallest museum I have ever seen. It had a staff of one: a tiny, elderly Vietnamese lady who spoke barely a word of English, but who still managed to entertain us for twenty minutes or so by giving us practical demonstrations of equipment used by the local farmers in everyday life. She took us through the rice harvesting cycle, miming cutting with a scythe, then showing us how the grains are separated, ground and made into flour. She also demonstrated buffalo herding, field ploughing and catching fish – all the while smiling broadly for the camera and encouraging us to take photos. At the end she wouldn’t let us leave until she’d had a picture taken with each of us in turn – we were surprised by how tiny she was; Pete looks like a giant next to her!
This little old lady is possibly the most enthusiastic museum curator anywhere, ever!
On the way back to the bikes we were accosted by another little old lady. This one spoke better English, and said that she wanted to tell my fortune. I think palm reading is a load of old hooey, but I indulged her because it was easier than saying “no” a hundred times ‘til she got the message. Madam Fortune Teller made three predictions:
1) I’m going to have 3 kids; the first one’s due next year apparently. (Um, no; not in this lifetime, anyway.)
2) Next year I’m going to be very happy (I do hope so.)
3) There will be alcohol in my future (Ditto.)
Two out of three ain’t bad, I suppose. We thanked her and gave her a few thousand dong, then returned to the bikes, laughing at prediction #1 (she was so obviously telling me what she thought women of my age wanted to hear!), and discussing the likelihood of prediction #2; we reckon that prediction #3 will help enormously in #2’s development.
So, another good day; but the sightseeing wasn’t yet over in Hue. The one place I really wanted to see when we came to Vietnam was the DMZ: the demilitarized zone from the Vietnam War (or, as they refer to it over here, the American War).
The DMZ is approximately 70km outside of Hue. There are bus tours available, of course, but they are 12 hours long, starting at 6am. (Noooooo!) Some quick research on the Internet confirmed our worst fears: of these 12 hours, 8 were spent on the bus. Many people also said that these tours tried to cover too many places in one day (most of which we had no interest in seeing anyway), so we rejected this as an option and instead choose to take a more expensive private tour. We hired a car, a driver and an English-speaking guide, and took a trip that lasted approximately seven hours (starting at the more reasonable hour of 10am). Instead of trying to see everything in the area, we just focused on the highlights.
First we visited an abandoned American military base, of which little remained except the rusting shell of a tank and a couple of bunkers; the rest was overgrown with thick weeds. The DMZ was supposed to be a ‘safe zone’ between the north and the south, but as we walked along the guide pointed out holes in the ground: large ones (craters from explosions) and smaller ones (where locals have dug up unexploded bombs). She told us that the bombs are still a problem in the area, and that there are several deaths every month, mainly children who don’t fully understand the dangers. She herself had a small hand injury from a bomb that exploded when she was in primary school – some boys were playing football with it when it went off. The stories were sad and the abandoned base was vaguely spooky. In all honesty, I was glad to leave.
From there we headed to the Ben Hai River and the Reunification Bridge (a duplicate, as the original was damaged in the conflict). During the war each side painted part of the bridge in ‘their’ colours, so one half was red, and the other half was blue. It’s strange walking across that bridge now, knowing how the country was divided then. Family members didn’t see each other for years! The two sides finally reunified on July 2, 1976, becoming the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Us posing on the Reunification Bridge, trying not to look too windswept!
The best part of the tour by far was our visit to the Vinh Moc tunnels. This network of tunnels was used to transport soldiers and supplies towards the south, and covered 100s of kilometers on three levels. When bombs were dropping, up to three hundred Vietnamese people lived in the tunnels for days at a time. There were tiny ‘family areas’ – barely bigger than a large box – water wells, washing rooms, cooking areas, meeting rooms and even a health station. Our guide told us that 17 babies were born in the tunnels; amazingly all of them survived. (What a start to life they had, eh?)
We got to walk through part of the network. It was a bizarre experience. It’s hot and stuffy down there, the steps are steep and slippery, and the tunnels are cramped (for us tall Westerners, anyway!) It’s impossible not to bump your head on the ceiling in places (*). Although it must have been a very strange way to live, the tunnels were a success: none of villagers were killed, and the one bomb that made a direct hit failed to explode, so they used the resulting hole as a ventilation shaft!
Me and our guide (name now forgotten!), in the Vinh Moc Tunnels. There are similar tunnels in Saigon, but I'm glad we got to go to Vinh Moc. I've heard you have to crawl through the other ones - not good for claustrophobics! I don't think I'd have enjoyed that very much.
And so ended a tiring few days in Hue. After all this touristy stuff we decided we wanted to hang out and chill for a while, so we continued down the coast to Da Nang and Hoi An. I shall tell you all about our overindulgences there very soon!
(*) Still, looking on the bright side, after many, many years of head-banging by lanky tourists, the ceiling height will increase and we won’t have to stoop any more!