The others left for Hue at 7:30am, but I’d decided to stay a couple more hours in order to get a few more gifts I’d seen for my friends and family back home. So I arrived in Hue at around 5:30pm, to be met by a moto driver holding a card with my name on, which the others had organised for me.
We spent the evening opposite our hotel, at Cafe on Thu Wheels, a small bar run by the eccentric, fun-loving Thu. It’s a real backpackers hangout with cheap food, permenant happy hours, grafitti from past visitors adorning the walls, and the kind of music you used to listen to at Uni. Thu welcomes her punters with questions like, “what’s your poison?” and, “how’s it hanging big boy?” and she got everyone in the bar playing her imaginative, slightly rude, and largely hilarious drinking games. Tasha’s friend Chris (who she knows from home but who’s also travelling around the world) spent the evening with us and almost got his hair singed when Thu stuck a cocktail stick in his head and lit it, because he was hesitating about whether to join us on Thu’s motorbike tour tomorrow! Clearly she doesn’t believe in gentle persuasion!
After laughing so much our ribs hurt, we left Cafe on Thu Wheels in order to check out Belgian bar B4. It may well serve Belgian beers (Leffe, Hoegarden and Grimbergan) but at four times the price of the Vietnamese variety. So we all drank beer Huda and amused ourselves by playing Jenga and Uno and listening to Tasha’s quirky limericks.
The next morning Thu insisted on cooking us all breakfast before we embarked upon our ‘Tour on Thu Wheels’. We headed into Hue’s countryside, down narrow dirt tracks only just wide enough to accommodate the width of the motorcycle. We witnessed working water buffalo, and men, women and children tending to the rice fields. It was a real glimpse of Vietnamese village life, and I had the luxury of a driver who enjoyed taking me over the largest bumps and potholes and running chicken off the road!
We stopped firstly at Thanh Toan Bridge, a covered footbridge similar in design to the Japanese Bridge in Hoi An. It’s mostly used by local villagers for naps in the shady walkway and a number of young children stared at us curiously through the decorative stonework, their legs dangling over the sides of the bridge.
We subsequently took a drive up to Thien Mu Pagoda, which is built on a hillside overlooking the Perfume River. It’s one of the most famous structures in Vietnam and is the unofficial symbol of Hue. The 21m high seven storey tower is the main feature but there’s also a huge marble turtle (a symbol of longevity) and a 2052kg bell (which is apparently audible up to 10km away) housed in pavillions at either side of the tower. Thien Mu Pagoda is also home to the Austin motorcar which monk Thich Quay Duc drove to the site of his 1963 self immolation in Saigon, and a photograph illustrating ‘the event.’ Thich Quay Duc was protesting against the policies of president Ngo Dinh Diem. It strikes me as a rather extreme method of argument . . .
At Tu Hien Pagoda (a pretty temple complex in a shaded area surrounded by gardens and lotus ponds) we witness an alms ceremony taking place. A long line of monks and novices (the novices wear white robes and exhibit small tufts of unshaved hair at the front of their heads and to the left and right of their crowns) paraded through the gardens in front of the temple and along the pathway leading up to its entrance, where we stood in a long silent line as if we were about to greet royalty. They carried their alms bowls and a glass of milk into the temple and we watched them chanting and praying through the open windows.
We continued our tour by driving up to Bunker Hill, an old American gun position with a commanding view over a bend in the Perfume River, and finally the most famous of the royal tombs, the tomb of Tu Duc (entrance fee 55,000VND) who was a poet and the king of Vietnam from 1847 to 1883. His Mausoleum is spectacular and there’s also a wooden pavillion built on a peaceful spot by the lake where the king used to write his romantic poetry.
The tour ended around 2:30pm (6 hours in length) and was well worth the $6 price tag. We ate a late lunch at Lac Thanh Restaurant, which has a good selection of Hue specialities and vegetarian food, and in the style of Cafe on Thu Wheels, grafitti covering the otherwise dreary interior. The cheerful owners certainly made up for the slightly drab and dated feel to the place and the food was both cheap, original and first class.
When the others returned to the hotel to pack in preparation for their overnight train journey to Hanoi, I visited the Citadel and had a full blown argument with a cyclo driver, who tried to do me out of 15,000VND. I reluctantly agreed to the ride to the Citadel as it was, preferring to walk everywhere if at all possible. In hindsight I wish I hadn’t succumbed, as the driver managed to taint my view of the Vietnamese as a race of very friendly and welcoming people. He demanded I pay him 30,000VND for a ride we’d initially agreed would cost me 15,000VND. After relaying our initial conversation to him several times and stating that I would not be paying him an extra 15,000VND for taking me to a pagoda I didn’t even ask to visit, I shoved 15,000VND roughly into his shirt pocket and walked off, half expecting him to follow me and try and run me down with his cyclo or re-appear with one of his friends who conveniently happened to be a policeman. Fortunately he didn’t.
Photo is of monks at the alms ceremony, Tu Hien Pagoda, Hue.