Our next stop after Hoi An was Hue. Being quite close we opted to get the 4 hour bus instead of the train. Well, despite being a day time journey we were hustled on to a sleeper bus for the journey. This consisted of 3 columns of cramped bunk beds with extra beds thrown in anywhere possible. One aisle was blocked with beds, an extra one was even squeezed into the top row and the toilet (which we ended up quite near to) was out of order and smelled worse than the long drops at 2am at Glastonbury.
The view during the ride however was really nice and we were content to watch out the window as lush green scenes rolled by.
Hue.. Well it hasn’t been our favourite part of Vietnam. In a city that seems to play only 80s & 90s anthems, everyone seemed surprisingly unfriendly. It was a bit of a shock to the system after having such friendly, non aggressive interactions to date. But in Hue I thought the bank teller was going to slap me for asking to change money, people looked at Leckie’s tattoos with disdain and we had a lady try to man handle us onto a boat after we refused to pay 10x the actual price. It was in Hue that we decided to start telling people we were from England instead of Australia. I don’t know what I would have done had I had to hear an exaggerated “G’Day mate” from one more street hawker!
We visited the Citadel, which was quite cool. While there’s hardly any information about, nor recognition of the huge amounts of bullet damage, the place was almost empty. We were able to wander around looking at the damage and exploring hidden areas and bunkers. It was all a little secret garden-esque.
Nothing else really appealed. Disappointed, we found a restaurant that looked nice and was well priced, sat down and ordered a bottle of Dalat wine. No sooner had we popped the cork than they put on Celine Dion’s greatest hits. Noooo!!! Finishing our wine faster than originally intended we escaped, only to walk into a shop also playing Celine Dion.
With a quick calculation, we worked out that since we set out after Christmas we’ve done over 150 hours of long distance travel – by plane, bus, train, boat, car & ute tray – and none of it comfortable. So we decided to treat ourselves for the 14 hour Hue to Hanoi stretch and splash out on a ‘soft sleeper’.
Our $40 per person bought us a prison style bunk each, with previously slept in bedding, in a dirty, cockroach infested train cabin. And it was heaven!! After spending so much time traveling with our knees in our armpits and other people’s feet in our faces, it was such a luxury to be able to stretch out in our own little slice of train.
Our cabin mates, two young Vietnamese men were really nice. With no shared language we settled for eating beef jerky together, comparing tattoos and smiling. One of them seemed to have lost his shoes and they were using one pair between them for toilet and cigarette trips.
We’ve had 1 day in Hanoi before heading to Cat Ba Island (Halong Bay area) and wanted to make the most of it, despite being knackered.
That evening we got back on good terms with Vietnam. We were sitting on comically small plastic stools drinking fresh beer, eating a kind of pizza made with rice paper and shredded beef, watching a man burn what looked like an effigy of the Easter bunny in offering to his ancestors and playing peekaboo with the child at the next table – and it just made the rubbish we experienced in Hue completely irrelevant. This is what it’s all about.
After such a great experience with student tour guides in Hoi An we sought out a similar service in Hanoi. Our student guides took us around the Ho Chi Minh complex, with the words “Socialist Republic of Vietnam Forever” in huge letters across the front of the mausoleum. They were very curious about our politics and so standing in the museum amidst socialist propaganda posters we did our best to explain democratic elections, vote grabbing, question time and coalition governments. They wondered how we dealt with this system where people are always unhappy with the government and it is so unstable. I guess they had a point!
Next we went to a pagoda. We’ve been fascinated with the Vietnamese non religion since we got here. Their shrines and pagodas are so similar to Buddhist temples, but they don’t worship Buddha. They pray and make offerings to their ancestors. However some shrines, like the one we visited have statues of important people from history such as Confucius and past kings. People also make offerings to these. The pagoda was full of graduates who traditionally come here for graduation photos, all dressed up in traditional garb and posing for the same cheesy photos over and over. They were all so happy, it was great to watch, if a little difficult to fight through on the way out.
Then it was time… time for that thing I’ve been dreading… time to do that thing that I’d convinced myself I was going to do in the name of cultural awareness… it was time to EAT DOG! It was all a much more civilised experience than I’d expected. Our student guides took us to a dog restaurant. It was totally empty because in Vietnamese culture it is bad luck to eat dog at the start of the month. Eating dog at the end of the month however chases away bad luck. Well, it wasn’t great. It was pretty much all fat and gristle so I gave up after a nibble. Leckie happily chewed away for some time after this.
Politics, religion, dog meat and Celine Dion. All things that are likely to get you into fights if you speak too loudly about. As it turns out, it was the dog meat that caused the Facebook deletions!
I know it’s a contentious, highly emotive topic and I gave it a lot of thought before I ate dog. After all, dogs are man’s best friend, we keep them as pets, give them human names and allow them to sleep in our beds. But I’ve had chickens as pets before. The chicks used to burrow into the warm space beneath my chin as I watched TV. I truly loved those chicks, but I would still eat a chicken breast for dinner in the evening. Then I thought about my Aunty’s pet pigs, ‘Ham’ & ‘Bacon’. I remember feeding them one school holidays and then being horrified to find one in the deep freezer the next. I still eat pork roast. It seemed to me that it would be illogical to shun eating of dog when I am happy to eat pig, cow and chicken – all of which are farmed for consumption and often experience appalling conditions too. And let’s not forget that in other places, the idea of eating cow or pig is completely abhorrent, yet we in the west do this in abundance. So, in the end, it really comes down to culture. When in Rome…
On the way home to prepare for our next days travel we saw something amazing, which I will end this post with: a cyclo driver wearing a t-shirt that said, “I’m a concrete path specialist, not a lover.”