View Vietnam Photography
Out of the train and into the sauna of Hue. We traveled by train through the night into what is considered South Vietnam. Hue is a small town of about 300,000 people (I’m not being sarcastic) and it holds a very prominent place in Vietnam history. The first and most important thing to know is that Hue is pronounced ‘way’. It was a hotbed of activity during various wars and rulers and it’s bisected by the serene Perfume River that runs through it. This is the setting for when my luck ran out. I had been gambling with food choices all the way through Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia – but Hue, Vietnam was the end of the road.
We went to visit the Citadel in Hue the first afternoon. I didn’t really know much about it so before we arrived I had visions of a prestigious military fortress. It was a fortress, but one for royalty. Centuries ago the Mandarin empire utilized this as a palace grounds – a little city of sorts protected by 9 cannons (gifts from the Portuguese), 2 large walls enclosing the grounds, and a moat. This place was kind of like ancient ADT. Unfortunately most of the grounds were destroyed from the Tet Offensive during the ‘American War’. The North seized the city of Hue for 3 weeks, many Southern Vietnamese people perished and the city was destroyed. The US came and bombed the city to get it back into Southern control three weeks later. Hue is in the process of trying to restore the Citadel – but it has a long way to go.
Hot, hot, hot in Hue
Our guide Huong led us through the crumbling complex in the hot afternoon sun. The heat was a shock to all of us after being in cold Sapa where we bought mittens. Now I felt like I was going to melt or faint…not sure which one. That’s why I was so baffled as to why all of the women were covered in clothing from head to toe. You could normally only see their eyes. They had on sandals with socks, pants, a short sleeve blouse, gloves that went past their elbows, and a full face mask that even covered their ears. There were many variations of this – but the general look was like a mismatched burqa. Huong told us that this dress was not for spiritual reasons, nor were they trying to make a strange fashion statement – it was solely for sun protection. The sun protection wasn’t driven by health reasons, it was mainly because white skin was considered more beautiful. If your skin was dark then people would think you were from the country – of a poorer lower class. The strange thing is that they must not believe in sunscreen lotion as you couldn’t find any in Hue! Of course I was in the least amount of clothes possible to still be ‘acceptable’, sweating profusely, drinking my water – and the women of Hue were covered head to toe, eating hot soup at the vendors! A good example of being worlds apart!
The next day I decided to get up for an early run along the river as there was a nice path and I could get in 3 miles before the city started to boil. Much to my dismay, even at 7AM the city was already simmering – making for a 3 mile run/walk. Various locals stopped me to take my picture. I wonder how many Vietnamese cell phones have me as their ‘wallpaper’. When I finally got back to my hotel I had to quickly shower and eat breakfast as we had signed up for a motorbike tour that morning. I had bought some yogurt and muesli from a little store the other day as I was longing for some dairy. There is virtually no dairy in the Vietnamese diet – no milk, no cheese, no yogurt – just rice, noodles, broth, and veggies. I thoroughly enjoyed my ‘American breakfast’ and ran out the door to meet the group for the motor bike tour.
Motorbike Tour in Hue, Vietnam
I met my driver, Dong who gave me a little bike helmet to wear. I asked him where his helmet was and he pointed to his khaki colored hat and said “My hat is from the Vietnamese Army”. Ok – I’m not going to argue with the Vietnamese Army! I took my position on the back of his motorbike and off we went. The motorbike tour was my highlight of Hue! Our group of six each had a motorbike and a driver. We zipped through narrow little alleys, villages, through the middle of markets, along river paths, over flimsy wood bridges, on dirt roads, on big highways, through ride paddies, and even through a seldom traveled path in a cemetery! I sat on the back of the bike, wind blowing in my hair, holding onto Dong with one hand and my camera with the other – I was on top of the world! It was definitely one of those ‘I must be the luckiest person in the world’ moments. We stopped at various places to get off and go look around. Our first stop was a little one room school in the countryside amidst rice fields. The kids were so happy to see us that all they could do was scream and try to fight their way in front for a photograph. They LOVED the camera – so much so that I couldn’t even organize them to take a picture…it was like being rushed by munchkins! I tried to take a few pictures – but they were all pushing each other to get in front and I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. The few pictures I did take I would show them on the screen and they would all crowd around and scream in utter delight. I took a look in the school room to see it filled with ABCs and 123s. For a moment they all sat orderly in their little chairs as I took off my shoes and entered the classroom – however the moment I took out my small camera to take a picture of how cute they all looked – they got up and rushed me again! I never knew I could be so popular with kids!
We went on to visit an incense stand on the roadside where I was able to roll a few on my own – incense that is. We also went to an old emperor’s tomb and grounds, and we visited a disabled woman who made conical hats to see how she created them by hand…and foot. We also made short stops at a nunnery, and an old brick enclosure where they used to hold tiger and elephant fights for the king. One of my favorite stops was at an old Japanese covered bridge that was out in the middle of the countryside. There I met a woman named Yu who read my palm. I don’t normally do these things – but I was amused by her and thought that the setting was nice – so I figured that I could entertain a reading for a few thousand dong – roughly 50 cents. I shared with her my age and my marital status and she looked at my palm and told me that I would live a long life until 83 or 88 and that in 5 months I would meet two men. One older and one younger (specifically 31 years old). The older one would give me things and treat me well, but the younger one I would fall immediately in love with and he is a good man. She told me that I should most definitely go for the younger man. She went on to tell me that I would have 3 children – at which point I let out a big laugh! I told her I was too old for that. She said that I could marry a man with children – also worth laughing at. She had been married to an American soldier, but he died young – like so many soldiers. She was a fun lady regardless and I got a kick out of the whole thing – and I guess I’ll be on the lookout for a 31 year old in Europe….it can’t hurt!
The heat was picking up and I was getting a bit uneasy on the bike, my stomach was rumbling – not sure if it was hunger or something else. We next stopped at an orphanage. There was a little part of me that looked at these kids and thought – maybe Yu’s reading meant that I should adopt three kids from Vietnam…ok – maybe not three, maybe just one. I could raise the child in the Midwest as a single parent….no problem. Photo: Doesn’t she look like she’d like the Midwest? Adorable! (All of my dear friends and family can now pick themselves up off the floor as I”m sure that you just fell off of your chair) Upon looking back at this moment of truly strange thoughts racing through my head as if I had been drugged – I realize now that I must be really sick with a fever! Daydreaming about adopting kids and moving to the Midwest are two things that I really, really don’t desire to do…ever! Or maybe the motorbike fumes got to my head – I guess I needed one of those face masks after all! I made a donation to the orphanage instead…that’s more my speed.
My luck finally runs out
When we stopped at the nunnery for lunch I didn’t really have much of an appetite. My stomach was getting more upset so I ate a small amount. I was really tired at that point – and I thought it was from the sun. Huong suggested that we take a little nap after lunch in the pagoda. We all went and laid down in the pagoda on the rug. I was out for about 30 minutes when they woke me up to go. I felt a little better, so that was a good sign. Napping in the pagoda in the middle of Vietnam was one of those surreal experiences. Kind of like having lunch on a glacier in New Zealand. One of those places that you never thought you would be in your lifetime…it’s a wondrous feeling.
We arrived back to the hotel and I hopped on the internet for a while and that’s when it really hit me – I was going to be sick…really sick. Damn – after 6 months of traveling it finally caught up with me. I spent the next 18 hours in my room, my body trying to rid itself of the evil within. I was miserable just laying there in pain for hours – not even able to move. I was hot/cold, I was having crazy dreams…I was sick. My poor roommate, Sarah, would try to help but there was nothing she could do but bring me water and crackers. We had to be on a bus the next morning so I was just praying that I would be mobile by morning. Sickness brings with it homesickness. I haven’t been homesick at all in my travels – but when you are down and out in a bathroom thousands of miles from home, you just want your own bed, and your mom – I don’t care how old you are. I wanted to close my eyes and be home with my cat, my TV, and most of all my own bathroom. No one else from my group was ill and we all shared that same lunch so I traced my sickness back to the yogurt. Damn dairy. Sure, ‘milk does a body good’, unless you are in a developing country. I should have known better – the day before there were two different power outages in Hue for about 5 hours – probably not a good idea to buy dairy there. Oh well – it was bound to happen sometime.
I did make it up the next day mainly because I had to. I was feeling better but it would be days before I was back to normal. I was able to make it on the bus and sleep as we left Hue on route further south. Overall, my memories of Hue will be positive because even sickness can be part of the adventure!