Vietnam Day 5: Zipping Around the Central Highlands

Eep! This week has been so busy, I'm falling behind on my honeymoon recapping novella. A travesty! Now, where were we? Oh YES! We were in Hue, struggling our way through um, an ailment. That's a nice way of putting it. #Blessed(ly) it was pretty much a 24-hour disaster, so we were up and at 'em the next day for a big adventure riding motorbikes all over the hills and valleys of Central Vietnam.

Sons of Anarchy

Wait, did that photo imply we drove the bikes ourselves. Oh, no. They were piloted by professionals while we were strapped on the back. 

tootling

Our guides were with a great tour company called Hue to Go Tours, which we selected as much for the itinerary as we did for the excellent punnage. I'd never been on the back of a motor bike or cycle or two-wheeled-motorized-vehicle of any kind and was ever so lightly terrified. When the drivers picked us up at the hotel I was CLUTCHING to him like a spider monkey ...a reference that yes, I did pull from Twilight...but that's neither here nor there.  After some reassurance from my guide I managed to lighten up and I'm proud to say I was pretty, prettttty chill riding on that old hog. I'm thinking I might join up with the Sons of Anarchy. 

Do you think I'd fit in??

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ANYWAY, we spent the day tootling all around the countryside outside of Hue (note: do they call it "tootling" in Sons of Anarchy?), through lush green rice paddies and little villages, winding on dirt roads along the river and up into the hills. It was beautiful and such a fun way to see the country. 

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Our first stop was in a small farming village to visit their market and see the Thanh Toan Bridge.

Thanh Toan Bridge
village market

All of the villages are along creeks and every family has at least one rowboat. While we were there, the water was at a safe level, but during the rainy season, the towns flood so much that the only way to get around is via boat!

boat and bridge

While we were there we learned a little bit more about the history and technique of rice farming in Vietnam. They are the second largest rice importer in the world (after Thailand! I would have guessed China.) but in the midlands farmers primarily practice subsistence agriculture, growing enough to feed their families rather than great exporting. They still use many old-fashioned techniques, including tools of bamboo and stone, but new technologies are making it easier for larger scale farming. However, young generations are less interested in farming - instead studying technology or moving into cities (as with in most developing nations!) so times are a' changing. Many of these farmers are incredibly poor, living hand to mouth in small villages and this ride around the countryside was our first glimpse of the hardship of country life and an eye-opening experience. Some more thoughts on all that to come! 

After the village, our tour guides took us to the tombs of three members of the Nguyen Dynasty, the last ruling family of Vietnam, who ruled from 1802-1945. The tombs were built while the rulers were still alive and served as vacation palaces during their terms as well as eternal resting spots, so they were almost like little mini compounds with lakes for fishing, theaters and, of course, homes for the Emperors' trillions of concubines. They were all about that concubine life - each had well over 100. Which we will come to learn is actually like, small fish compared to the Angkor kings, some of whom had thousands of concubines each.

Thousands!! How exhausting. 

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. And don't really remember any details of these tombs because I'm horrible and bad at paying attention to things so let's just enjoy some photos, shall we? 

Khai Dinh Tomb (built 1920-1931): This was the newest and our least favorite. Where the other tombs were park like and green, this was just kind of grey and scary and meh. MEH I say. Meh.  

Khai Dinh
Brian the guardsman
tomby time

Tu Duc Tomb (built 1864-67): This was our second most favorite and the one with the most waterfowl. Quack quack! Also the most ruins and the most terrible photos taken by me. 

Tu Duc quack quack
tu duc ruins

Minh Mang Tomb (built 1820-1840): This was, you guessed it, our favorite! Huge grounds with beautiful Chinese influenced architecture, bridges and lush gardens. It was ALSO where I learned some pretty important lessons about banana storage...even if bananas are the only food your body can handle due to your, um, ailment, you should NOT just throw them in the bottom of your backpack because they will smash and cover everything you own in banana goop. The more you know! 

Minh Mang
temple time
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Our guides then took us up into the hills, to an old war bunker high above the Perfume River. On our way there, we stopped at a little stand where they were making and selling incense for tourists and worshippers to bring to the temples. 

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It was really pretty and cool to see, but this, among a few other stops on this trip, felt a bit like money traps. The Vietnamese are known to be sort of pushy in these situations - really aggressively trying to get you to buy things. It got worse the further south we went, so I'll talk about it a little more later. Even our tour guides on this trip, who were great, kept trying to sell us on more tours even though we told them we were leaving the next day. We tried really hard to remind ourselves that it's a different culture with a hugely vast level of poverty we're not used to, and for many of these people the trinkets and things they hock on the side of the road is what keeps them fed and under a roof. Still, it could be overwhelming and a little upsetting to not be able to walk past a vendor without having someone up in your face pushing "buy, buy, buy!!" We encountered situations like this a few times with the Hue to Go team and occasionally felt like we were being a little duped by them - our one complaint about the day. I'd still recommend them to anyone going, but just to give a heads up! 

Anywaaaay, the view from the hillside was as beautiful as it was startling, with the bunker and tunnels there. We didn't do as much military tourism as we could have (should have?) and this was one of the first really stark reminders of our two countries' complicated histories.

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Perfume River

ALSO atop the hill but un-pictured, two teenagers fully sucking face. It's kind of comforting knowing that, no matter how far you travel from home, you can always count on randy youths to just unabashedly make out with each other anywhere, anytime, no matter how inappropriate the location (hello, actual war zone) or how many strangers are walking around them. 

Kids! God love ya. You keep me young.

We headed back into town where we stopped for lunch at a cafe - and I ate my first non banana food in 36 hours and then visited the Thien Mu Pagoda, a Buddhist Temple on the outskirts of town.

Thien Mu Pagoda

Hue residents come here to worship and it is also an active monastery, with monks living right on the grounds...and riding motorbikes!

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During the 1960's the Temple was an important gathering place for anti-government protests was the home of Thich Quand Duc, the monk who famously self-immolated in this now historic photo. 

The car that drove him downtown where he set himself afire is now on display at the Pagoda. It instantly reminded us of earlier this winter when in Memphis for a family wedding we visited the MLK Museum, which has the car he had been driving before his assassination on display...somehow we're now on like, a tour of cars involved in famous, brutal deaths. 

Fun times!

After the temple we hopped into a "Dragon Boat" and cruised a bit on the Perfume River, eventually being dropped off downtown where our guides scooped us back up on our bikes and returned us to our hotel. 

Dragon Boats
pagoda from river

It was a long, hot, educational, adventurous, super-duper day! We went out for an early dinner - bravely trying some local foods - and then spent the evening sitting in the lobby of our hotel eating cookies and playing rummy. I think the staff thought we were the hugest dorks butttt we like, kind of totally are so...yeah. 

And thus ends our time in Hue! Next up: Hoi An, our favorite city in Vietnam! I can't believe I've only covered five days so far, good lord. Get comfortable, guys...we have a long way to go! 

xoxo Liz Ho