Asia | South East Asia | Vietnam | Central Provinces | Hue – Cruising. boats, buses and bikes
Hue was one of those tourist bubbles. Once the seat of the Vietnamese Royalty, now a must do stopping off point for every holiday maker and backpacker in Vietnam. For this reason a bottle of water is three times the price it is anywhere else in Vietnam and you can’t negotiate as the street sellers know the aged French tourists on their 2 week Indochine package-tour will pay the price if the ever frugal long distance traveler wont.
Too lazy on the river
A couple of days were spent here, eating French pastries, ice cream and waiting for my Lao Visa to be processed. I took a cruise on the Perfume River; $2 included lunch and an all day cruise. If you wanted to actually enter all the pagodas and mausoleums along the river bank (which was the purpose of the cruise) it was another $10 more and the budget conscious crowd of British backpackers I was with were preferred to sit outside the temples playing cards and talking rather than pay the fees. This was fine by me, as historic monuments go, they werent that old (1800’s) and in the ancient ruins stakes seemed somewhat unexciting after the wonder and size of Angkor Wat; I think Ive been spoiled!
North vs South
Leaving Hue I took a tour bus 80km north to the famous De-Militarized Zone or
DMZ; the old dividing line between North & South Vietnam. An official tour-guide spoke from a virtual script that kept very close to the party line. We visited a few important battlefields, A maze of secret tunnels where whole villages lived for years at a time during the worst of the US bombing,. The guide advised us from the outset that he couldn’t answer political questions and despite this restriction and the obvious Vietnamese bias you still got to vividly understand the horror of the war. The civilian population of Vietnam was bombed continuously over many years in one of the longest military bombardments in history. The atrocities were horrendous and weapons such as Napalm and Agent Orange are creating birth defects in children born today. Aboard our bus was an American, now a coffee dealer in Costa Rica who left the US to avoid conscription in the late 60s, next to him was an old German gentleman who fought for the French Foreign Legion in the early days of the conflict; everybody, including the guide were intrigued by his accounts of his time as a prisoner of War under the Viet Cong.
I was dropped off at a town on Highway One, the main North/South road. The next day I headed north along the flat coastal plain, the mountains visible to my left and the ocean somewhere to my right. That evening, conscious that my days in Asia are now very much numbered and eager to make up some time I flagged down a bus and jumped aboard taking a swift ride 150km to the town of Vinh.
The never-ending journey
The bus journeys In Vietnam are always was an experience. Due to the preponderance of convenient, if not a little clinical, air conditioned minibuses few tourists take the local buses and I am a novelty feature with the packed bus loads. I seem always to be put up at the front next to the crew, who usually consist of the driver, co-driver and a man whose sole job appears to be to shout at the driver when we about to hit something! Many of the buses run the entire 1,600km Saigon Hanoi route, stopping only to pick up passengers and the occasional food and petrol rests. To ensure safe passage on this mammoth 24hour drive this bus had a florescent Virgin Mary and a flashing Buddha affixed to the dashboard. The Lady Madonna for the Catholic south and the smiling Buddha for the North! On this ride the look-out guy entertained the masses by making jokes (seemingly at my expense) back to the eager audience seated behind!
Despite the pain discomfort of sitting on a small wooden seat, next to a woman who is vomiting out of the window while her young son urinates into a beaker speedily fashioned from a local newspaper these rides are an experience that you cant buy. For all the comfort of the tourist bus I would gladly suffer with the locals. I get this feeling that there is far more a sense of community in these countries. Everybody works together to get things done and no more vividly is it demonstrated on the bus. There is no fear of handing you child to a stranger none of that concern of sharing a bottle of water or sleeping with your head on somebody elses shoulder.
Cabbage Patch Capers
Our bus took a 40km detour to off-load a roof full of what looked like cabbages. While me and my fellow passengers sat patiently at the edge of a cabbage market watching the bus crew negotiate the final part of their trans-national cabbage arbitrage deal an old man from the village came and squatted next to me. With his hat, traditional Vietnamese costume, wrinkled face and beard he looked an intriguing figure, a veritable sage. He couldnt speak any English but talked to me in Vietnamese as if I understood every word he said. He took my pen and scribbled something in Vietnamese on my notebook; nobody on the bus could decipher it, other than the last words being Ho Chi Minh. That is when you realize how much better it would be to be able to speak the language. To be this age, in this part of the country you must have seen some amazing (if amazing is the right word) sights and could tell some stories.
I got off the bus at Vinh, a major port that has been completely rebuilt after being flattened during the war. Already late in the evening I checked into the first guesthouse I came to. The following morning I started out under cloudy skies. This would be my last day in Vietnam and I was prepared for a long climb over the mountains and into Laos. The day turned out longer than planned, my guidebook had said it was 70km to the border, which turned into 70 miles. The never ending expanse of paddy fields full of ever busy Vietnamese farmers changed into forests and the road started going up. The only other traffic on this quiet, desolate road were motor scooters heading in the opposite direction, contraband refrigerators and Sony TVs precariously strapped to the back. Up and up the road went, winding along the side of the valley. In the distance you could make out the road many kilometers above. At one stage I nearly cycled over a Cobra, which reminded me that it wasnt just landmines I had to be a wary of when relieving myself by the side of the road! Being British and thus having eaten, shot or forced to extinction most of our wildlife I still find it hard to believe that there are such things as cobras, wild elephants and tigers lurking in the undergrowth!
As I reached the pinnacle of the climb over 3,000ft higher than from where I had started that morning I met a Dutch cyclist heading the other way, we exchanged pleasantries but with 50km more to ride and both eager to find accommodation before nightfall we headed on our separate ways. The border was a quick process and entering Laos I exchange $50 for Kip and received a wad of notes too big to fit in money belt. The largest denomination note equates to less than 50cents, you need a carrier bag to carry your daily budget around!! I was then in Laos .