A written account, video, and two interview videos (Philosophy of Life and Tales of Strangers) after a short visit in Hue and its imperial city in Vietnam.
Rocky night train, emerge sleepily. We haven’t booked any hotel. A man approaches us. I like to weigh options. He lures us in, offers a free tuk-tuk ride, we can make up our minds there. Gut instinct says… trust him.
The tuk-tuk toots away, the ramparts of the inner city keep their secret, draped in the noonday heat across the river.
A miniature wife and daughter greet us with a smile. Their father has managed to bring bread back home (the bread is Coco and I).
We walk up to the room. Clean and comfortable enough. The price is neither good nor bad. Walking distance from the bridge into the imperial city. We opt for convenience.
I’ve given Coco leeway for our Vietnam itinerary – want her to take ownership of the travels. So here goes: with a day to visit, we can scramble around town to see the dynastic tombs of yore, then squeeze in a walk into the Imperial City and possibly the Citadel.
Hue Imperial City, Vietnam Video
Remember a large, completely empty bus, which drives us into the countryside. One moment, take a photo of Coco smiling in the incongruous emptiness of our vehicle.
In the next, the fabric of life itself has undergone a change.
A boy is dead, slain and bloodied, face down on the road. The bus roars by.
Since we’ve been in Vietnam, the country’s haphazard traffic patterns have been the repeated butt of the joke – till now, when they’ve materialized so suddenly into the very realness of life and death. Anger at the bus driver’s maddening obliviousness, guilt at not having pressed harder for him to stop, frustration at the overall fragility and cruelty of life – as I write these words, this boy, no older than twelve or thirteen, could be dead.
Later we hear, maddened still, but in defense of our bus driver’s obliviousness (and thus, indirectly, in defense of my own guilt and powerlessness), that drivers who stop by the side of the road to help accident victims may be held accountable.
A peculiar notion of insurance and justice since, faced with such a dilemma, self-preservation most often prevails.
Still, that is not enough to erase the image of the boy’s lifeless body. (Read the short story)
The bus drops us off at a site, tombs, where we’re to meet a group of foreigners who’ve already begun their tour. The song of crickets and humming birds quickly fills the summer air.
Stand behind the walls, waiting for the rest of the tour group to emerge, dulled by the heat, trying to shake off the image of the bloody boy.
Walk up the white steps to the Khai Dinh Tombs, the most famed of the sites, ushered through a row of Terra Cotta-like courtisans, similar in aesthetics to the ones of Xi’an, in China. How long ago was that?
Croesus: The golden, defunct emperor sits smiling, eerily wide-eyed, on his golden throne. We leave, thoroughly unaffected by the site. Is it the heat, the exhaustion after a night in the bumpy train, the too close memory of our savage obliviousness to the young boy’s fate?
The bus resumes its circumvolution on the dusty roads, to yet another tomb. But not before stopping by a seemingly traditional incense maker, then by a nearby stand for refreshments.
The sugar cane cracks and splits as it’s flattened by the machine. Drip, drip: the milky sweet juice is poured and handed out.
The visitors queue sheepishly, eager and thirsty.
Realize that ever since we’ve been in Vietnam we’ve repeatedly been subjected to these commission schemes, herded from a tour bus to a complicit vendor.
(I’ve mentioned this local and heightened sense of commercialism already witnessed during the visit of Halong Bay). Mental note: reminder not to rely on these group tours for visits.
Tales of Strangers, Video
The inner city’s traffic is unremitting. Coco and I wade through the steady flow of motorcycles, limbo-ing and dancing through the parade of two-wheelers carrying students, fresh produce and cackling livery to and fro.
Pink Lotus blossoms line the river – the national flower, as I learn upon writing – we cross the bridge, and into the fort. A sleepy expanse of grass, Vietnamese youths kicking around a football, the noise of the city muffled by the thick walls of ore.
Few, if any, visitors. Stroll under the shade of the trees. Yellow flowers, bright and beckoning. A museum: relics of Vietnam War era air fighters, now inoffensive.
The Palace within the Imperial City is soon to close its gates. Forego entry.
Sit down at a local joint, moved by hunger. A few students in uniforms are slurping bowls of Pho. Pop music glaring through the speakers, lost in the empty air. The afternoon lulls – wonder what the atmosphere is like here on weekends.
A market place, a shopping street, people going about their day and business, buying vegetables for the evening soup. Here too, people eye the camera suspiciously. Indifferently, at best.
This is still the Vietnam of the North. In fact Hue, now visited for its ancient tombs and fortified moat, used to be at the border with the South. Here, only thirty or forty years ago, curtains of napalm torched an entire country. And its people.
“Where’s our next stop?”
“Hoi An,” she replies, with a smile.
I follow her blindly into the train. A short ride.
The scenery unfolds evenly, sandy beaches and groves to the left, lush green, fields and rice paddies sloping up the mountainside, scattered huts to the right.
Good reflexes kick in upon our arrival at the train station: spot another couple of tourists, and offer them to split the cab ride to our final destination. They accept. The taxi drives on a renovated, empty highway.
They’re Australian, on a two-week vacation, fresh from Hanoi. Have a good laugh with them, albeit at their minor expense, when they tell us about getting scammed by a rickshaw in the capital. Talking to them, chubby and innocent, and though we feel by no means like inveterate, hardened travelers, it’s quite obvious how far along we’ve come in the months since our departure.
The clerk at the hotel greets us with a huge smile and, to top it off with luxuries long forgotten, hands us a glass of apple juice served in a champagne flute. I think there’s even an indoor pool. All for budget prices. Coco has stuck to her promise: she’s done her research, mapped out a full itinerary. And she’s done it well.
Hence a very agreeable welcome in Hoi An. And I’m in for more surprises as we’re to discover the charming town reminiscent of the villages of Provence.
Soon we’ve forgotten all about Hue, its slippery tombs, the dead boy facing the sand, and another leaf is turned.
Philosophy of Life Video, Hue, Vietnam