You know those Vietnam War movies, the ones where it rains straight for months? They’re invariably set in Central Vietnam. Hue. Outside Danang. Pinkville. May Lai. The DMZ. Chu Lai.
I was beginning to think that straight rain stuff was a bunch of guff. Forest Gump, my ass. Living in Saigon, I’d grown accustomed to the Southern rainy season, during which the rain falls for an hour or two a day. Nothing to write home about. But a few hours in Hue (and a bit of history on the region’s Vietnam War-era history) and it suddenly made sense. In Saigon, you can predict rainfall for maybe a couple hours between 2 and 5pm. In Hue, you can only hope that the rain will cease for at least two hours of the day.
I got lucky on my first day in Central Vietnam. It only rained 3/4 of the day. This was a problem, as the plan for the next four days was to motorbike to Danang via the Hai Van Pass and then head into the port town of Hoi An, where Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese architectural influences converged centuries ago to create a hodgepodge mercantile community. But today I was still figuring out the rain, figuring out when would be the best time to skip out of town.
I’d taken a Jetstar Pacific flight up to Hue early Friday morning, which was in itself a valuable Vietnamese travel experience. I learned two things. First, even if you’ve purchased the bottom-rate Jetsaver Lite ticket, the clerk at the check-in desk will likely not check to make sure your carry-on bag only weight 7kg (15 pounds) if said bag is of reasonable proportions. Second, while planes running on European low-cost carrier routes are notorious for being less than tidy on their last flight of the day, you should not be surprised to find sticky, soda-stained tray tables on the first flight of the day on Jetstar vessels.
Stepping down onto the tarmac in Hue’s airport, I also learned that it is remarkably cold in Central Vietnam in December, far colder than I’d anticipated. After heading into town on the airport shuttle (a great deal at 40,000 VND), finding myself a hotel and Chinese knock-off motorbike rental and downing a cup of bun bo hue, I headed to the shopping plaza on Hung Vuong Street on the North bank of the Perfume River and picked up a corduroy Nino Max jacket for 320,000 VND.
I headed over to the royal citadel, which is in good shape thanks to restoration initiatives. The whole thing was bombed to near oblivion by Vietnamese rocket fire and American air sorties during the war. Typical of the Vietnam War, little was gained or lost in military terms when the fighting in Hue tapered off. The world, however, lost an important monument to civilization. Today though, there’s plenty to see, and for those more interested in ruins than re-creations, there’s a good chunk of the Citadel left in it’s natural, time-worn state.
I headed up next to Thien Mu Pagoda, the first built in the city. It’s an airy, open complex of temples, living quarters and open space situated at the bend of the Perfume and overlooking the villages that dot the surrounding valley. There were few monks mulling about, except for a few young trainees taking lessons in open-front classrooms, which are affixed to the same building that houses the blue Austin that drove Thich Quang Duc to Saigon in 1966. It was there that the monk immolated himself to protest the American-backed Diem regime. His is the image on Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut album and virtually every self-immolation photograph used in popular culture.
There are also bunnies at Thien Mu Pagoda. Adorable bunnies roaming free.
I followed the road further west to a little village past Thien Mu, past young children riding three abreast on bicycles and an old man herding water buffalo. I stopped to snap a few pictures off of men fishing on the river. A curious woman of about 35 stopped and simply watched me take pictures. I got a giggle out of her by telling her hen gap lai (see you again) before driving off.
The rain started coming down again by the time I reached Lac Thanh restaurant for some banh khoi, pork with bean sprouts and shrimp in a fried pancake served with greens and peanut sauce. It’s amazing to me that with Hue’s culinary legacy, I actually had to search for this kind of thing. Later in the evening, I gave up my search for com hen (rice with baby oyster)–turns out its a breakfast food in Hue–and settled for a (surprisingly good) chicken rice near my hotel.
Looking forward to a day of motorbiking to Danang, I headed back to my room, read a few chapters from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and hit the sack. My assessment of the weather: there would no better or worse time of the day to leave tomorrow, and I might as well just head out early, no matter how hard it was pissing down.
Your lesson: don’t go to Hue until February. You are only inviting cold, damp misery upon yourself.