Tombs of Kings and more heat in Hue

Linh wakes me up early and tells me she booked me with a tour bus to go see local sights. Notably, tombs and some temples just outside of the city proper are on the list. I’m barely out of bed (off the floor), before I’m back on the back of a scooter and shuttled Into town just in time to catch the bus at my old hotel.

The bus is full but not too crowded. There’s a good mix of people on board including vVietnamese from other cities, some Japanese and koreans, one American and a very pale and very blone Scandinavian family. I’m no expert at languages but it sounds suspiciously like Swedish when they talk. Then again, half the languages in that part of the world might sound like Swedish if I ever heard them.

At each stop, the tour guide talks. A lot. Mostly he makes amusingly awkward jokes about concubines and virility and tying them to worldly power. Each time he introduces a king, he mentions the number of concubines the king had. One had 500, one had 150. Obviously the one with more was more respected and revered. He also had 400 sons,  where the other fellow had none. 150 women to choose from  and no heir. What a tragedy. He then points out his successor only had 60 concubine. Not very well respected.

I suspect our guide likes talking about concubines more than kings. Can’t blame him for taking the conversation to crany town from time to tkme. This is his job. He probably talks about the same damn kings and their same damn concubines every day.

We hit three tombs and two temples over the course of the day. The tombs are more than wholes in the walls or simple graves. Each one is housed in a massive walled in complex, with gardens and palaces.The tombs tend to show a mix of architecture visons. Since they were built after contact with the french, there is definite french and Italian influence I  the way the courtyards are constructed and fenced in.

The heat gets worse. I buy a water bottle or cold soda water at each stop. The guide wasn’t kidding when in the mornung he said they try to do these in the order from least to most shade so people can survive the hot days. Today is a hot one. 43 degrees Celsius,  plus humidex. Thankfully not as humid as past days, but under the sun when it pops out, it’s pure evil.

Near the end of the tour, Idecide to wait the last sight out in the bus. I can feel a headache coming and fear I might be getting heatstroke.

When the tour ends, I head to the DMZ across the street, bunker down and order two waters, two beers and a pizza. It was one of the odder pizzas I’ve had. It arrived five minutes after I ordered it and didn’t taste like it was frozen. That’s some fast crust. It was good thiugh, especially with a bottle of hotsauce and complimentary dipping sauce. The beers were good too. Nice and cold. Put them away, along with the water in under and hour.

Halfway back in the cab the migraine kicks in. Back at the villa it intensifies,  as well as the urgent need to fall asleep. Mean to cat nap for 15, knocked out for 2 hours. Pretty sure the morning’s activities did give me heatstroke. Don’t feel like a half decent human again until I drink another bottle of water and have a cold shower.

Despit all the insanity with the weather and traffic, part of me is starting to understand this country and warm up to it. At the very least, I find myself marveling that the people out here can persevere from day to day. I suppose you must simply get used to it and find a way to survive and make the best of it. At home we have so much and complain about the pettiest things. Here, most people are too busy working three jobs and selling bananas in the street to keep the lights on. Half the homes don’t even have proper running water and indoor plumbing or even four walls. 

Kinda makes me hate it all the more when students back home bitch and riot over the price of education, while taking full advantage of the cheap and easy living (and drinking) conditions in Montreal.

Prices out here actually make for an interesting conversation piece. Most of the time, prices are usually not listed in stores or restaurants, and definitely never in the markets. The basic rule of thumb is that if you have to ask for the price, you aren’t a local and if you aren’t a local, you have to pay more since they will quote you any number that comes to the top of their head that they think you would be willing to pay. Usually 2 or 3 times the price a local would. For white foreigners, expect 5 to 10 times the price.

Essentially, unless you are a local, good at haggling, and speak the language, you will pay more. Even at government institutes like museums and heritage sites. Every single one has two signs. Local price and foreign price. Same goes for restaurants that do list prices, usually have both a local and a foreign menu with different prices in each.

Even for locals seen to be in the sight of a Westerner can expect their prices to be jacked up. White skin means plenty of money. Whenever I stopped with either Linh and Truc at a roadside restaurant for takeout, they made sure I hid out of sight on the street. If they could buy food for the three of us without being seen with me, the price for our combined meal would be less than a single dish if seen with me.

On my own I’ve paid upwards of 10 dollars for a meal with two cans of local beer. Procured by either Linh or Truc, together we’ve dined until we’re full for a combined total under 4 bucks, with a glass of fresh cane juice each to wash it down.

That turns out to be the last night I spend at the villa as Linh is expecting plenty of more guests. Linh offers to set me up at one of her relatives hotels in town for 20 bucks a night. The place looks a little sketchy out front, and the owner reminds me of a James Bond villain like Dr. No. but what the heck. I stayed at two other hotels, both under 40 bucks.  One was great, one was shit. Let’s roll the dice and see what this gets me.

First up there are no lights in the hallway. Just darkness. I open the door and walk in. I can hear everything in other rooms, from showers to footsteps to conversations. I check out the washroom. There’s no shower curtain or waste basket. Soap comes in two plastic containers which I struggle to open. There are two beds with mismatched lining and covers in the room. One has a squeak to it, and feels suspiciously like a box spring. The other is a cold hard slab. I opt for the slab. Across the room is a scary looking armoire right out of The Conjuring. There’s a fridge,  but it’s warmer in there than outside. The tv struggles to turn on and there’s no sound. Just some silent Australian soccer. Then, out of nowhere, the sound bursts to life like some static hell. Guess I’ll pass on the tv tonight. At least the AC and WiFi work.

Consolation prize: by this time tomorrow I’ll be in leaving one. ity for the next. I’ll be in Da Nang out by the sea in a four star hotel with a bar in the lobby and the beach within walking distance.

Upstairs it sounds like a man walks with a cane and drags his other foot behind him. Place is probably haunted as a bonus. Getting out of Hue seems maevellous. I Can’t wait.

Later that day and the next in Hue

I meet Linh again after lunch. She arrives at the hotel by motorbike with her friend Truc Linh, who happens to share part of the same name as her. Truc is a university professor who lives with his family in a two room house they share with their livestock. He makes 200 dollars a month and is expected to take bribes to supplement his salary. Each day he has to negotiate how many bribes he is willing to take, what he will let students bribe him for, and whether he can convert the bribes into private tutoring instead of grade handouts. In his spare time he taught himself english and is now fluent. Thanks to that and his hard work at applying for grants, he’ll be studying in California for his PhD next year.

They were just at her parents villa, and things are not great over there with regards to maintenance. The property is kind of in shambles at the moment. They spent the morning cleaning the floors, getting rid of three years of dust, and have managed to make two rooms liveable, but the yard is a total mess and the AC might not be working. I tag along with them, riding on the back of Truc’s scooter, as he tells me about local history, his studies and the country in general.

The villa is down a narrow road between a crafts market close to a famous temple. The road is paved with big pieces of cement, lined up after one another and beaten down by years of use and dust. The villa is right at the corner, behind a cement wall with barbed wire at the top. There’s a dog at the gate. His name is No, and he is jittery around visitors. He yaps and yells, and I know then that there’s no way anyone could break in within this dog raising all hell with his siren lungs.

There’s a wide open courtyard leading to the front steps with a raised porch. There are chairs there and a long emptied fish tank. Chickens roam the yard, but fewer than was expected. We think the house sitter probably made away with more than a few of the birds over the years. The yard itself looks like a messy jungle. It’s thick with fruit trees and vines. Durian fruit, khaki, papayas and bananas hang from branches, and dead leaves slump to the ground like torn curtains.

The three of us spend a few hours cleaning the house before we call it a night. I get a ride to a local electronics store awkwardly named”VietThongA” to buy an adapter for my phone. My plugs worked well enough in Japan, but the voltage out here is totally different.  And so is the experience in the store.

At the door we’re greeted by a security guard. Past him we’re met by what are essentially the electronics store equivalent of convention center booth babes. Women just thereto look pretty and make you buy shit. I also notice a table with three cashiers, a manager and possible assistant manager and a handful of sales clerks.  The place is hardly larger than a garage but it’s got over a dozen employees in there.

Truc and Linh inform me that because labour is so cheap and people are so desperate to get any job oftentimes employers will essentially overstock their store with employees bevause, well, they can. The average person makes about a hundred bucks a month in cities, even at stores that sell appliances and devices for roughly the same cost as back home. The difference is instead of being understaffed liked every damn store in Canada, they are over staffed instead.

After my purchase, we took a drive through the old citadel at night. Hue was once the imperial capital and in spite of the destruction that happened here during the war much of the old palaces are still there, though hardly intact. It twas too dark to go into the inner walls of the imperial city, but the outer walls are always open and a road runs between the two, following the moats. At pretty much any time of day, people come here to just hang out. There’s a big courtyard and plenty of green space,a so the locals park their scooters, gather their friends and just chit chat the night away with the remnants of their old capital city in the shadows behind their stove tops.

I stayed at my hotel one more night, the intention that we would eventually clean out that villa well enough for all three of us to stay there. No more work was done that night though, so tomorrow was look iffy.

The sky over Hue th following morning looked like a wet rag. I couldnt tell if it was pollution, humidity, threat of rain, or a bit of all three. I would see that same sky day in and out for most of my time in that citt. The air also felt like a slap in the face. In Japan it felt humid and wet, and by the evening you felt cold  drenched in your own clothes. Here it was different, the air itself felt hot and not just from the humidty,  almost like hot pavement that you were walking through. It was barely 8. Steping out of the hotel, it made for unpleasant welcome. Part of me groaned over the fact I had just checked out of a place with AC and was going to move into one that still didn’t have much in the way of working fans for the next three days.

On the agenda for that day was visiting the citadel during the daytime. I got dropped off there in the afternoon,  after the worst of the heat had passed,  and was free to explore until closing. Outside the gates, people moved about in all directions. Some were visiting the citadel,  some hanging out, some even fishing In the moat. A few kicks were playing soccer against one of the Inner walls.  A security guard sat on a chair watching them with a single eyebrow cocked. Entry wasn’t cheap but it was worth it once I was inside.

The palace must have been gorgeous in its heyday. Even in shambles, meshes of colour, carvings of dragons, and elegant pagodas filled the space with a mystique of its own. It somehow felt forbidden to walk through those gardens, across bridges, around ponds and into bed chambers and temples long unused. Once this was the home of royalty and their attendants,  the palace where the emperor came to hold court and attend to matters of his kingdom, spending the remainder of the time elsewhere in other villas and fortresses around the country.

Linh picks me up send along the way we run out of gas.We push the scooter up to the roadside and she buys gasoline from a woman who keep it in old plastic orange juice jugs.  There are gas statios, but few and far between, so most people who live by the road keep extra gasoline on hand to sell to motorists.

When we’re backat the villa, she goes to pick up Truc and I’m left to my own devices. I’m basically out of fresh clothes, so I do the only thing I can: I wash my clothes in a blue plastic tub in the back yard. As I do, Chickens cluck as they hop from their pen and scurry up the fence. They pick through dead banana leaves looking for food. A rooster in the lot next door caws with jealousy. I wrench my shirts by hand and hang them up to dry in the sun.

Linh drives back wiyh Truc shortly after I’ve finished with the wash. She carries some water, juice and some containers of local vegetarian street food. Inside the styrofoam crate is a mass of thin sliced and fried veggies, tofu flavoured with pepper, sugar and a handful of msg, and some good old sticky rice. As I pick out a big red chili pepper I realize that the average white guy from the west wouldn’t be able to do this. They would die out here unless they could find a pizza hut. Being able to ear spicy food is just about the only survival advantage I have out here. Another day like that under the sun and I would be toast. Thank goodness this is a mostly vegetarian city from what I can tell.

Truc gets the AC working and the three of us eventually bunker down in the one cool room for the nignt. I sleep on the floor, using my blanket for a mattress and Truc does the same. Linh gets the one mattres. It’s her house after all. All things consideeed, the floor feels just fine when you have just enough air conditioning g to forget the heat for a few hours before the rooster in the yard wakes everyone up.

Hue City

It’s night time in Hue city. I’ve just checked into the hotel. It’s a big hotel, resort, spa and dining hall combo. Built it in 80s and the exterior sure looks it. Fortunately the room is big, spacious and well furnished. A huge step up from the Victory in Ho Chi Minh City. I meet up with Linh. She’s famished so we go hunting for food. Most of the city is closed, but bars around the tourist sections are afire with the sounds and smells of busy streets. The DMZ, a western run traveller’s bar and restaurant, is lit up with tiny paper lanterns, candles and old neon lights. It looks like something out of an old war movie, the kind of place GIs hung out at between the fighting, drinking beer and talking shit. It’s filled with white people with blonde hair. A band plays covers of pop and rnb so loud it borders on heavy metal.

Further down the alley, motor cycles are lined up by the dozens, parked for the night. Locals stare at us from sleepy eyes hidden behind hammocks or up from stools.

We pass a hostel filled with Australian teenagers, by the looks of them, drinking heavily. They stumble out into the street. A blonde girl approaches the food cart outside. Met sizzles from a hidden pan. Cups of hot peppers and chopped shallots sit in the open air. “okay,” she says to the woman behind the cart.  “I’m ready to try a bowl”. Her friends cheer her on from behind the bar.

Linh settles on street food and we sit on tiny red plastic chairs in the street. It’s hardly an oddity. Half the street is used for parking, or for storefronts, and tables for customers eating at any of the dozen tiny restaurants here. I notice the buildings in this city all look like the front of garages. They open out into the street, but inside they are just one long somewhat empty room, with maybe a partition at the back, or a stairwell going upstairs to the home. Some of these are homes, with the front open and leading into the street. People can drive their scooters in and out, or just sit there and watch the traffic. At night, they pull down the garage doors, and lock them.

After our stroll, I head back to the hotel and pass out almost instantly. The bed is comfortable and the room is air conditioned. Linh promises to meet in the morning for breakfast at the hotel.

In the morning we meet and dine in a restaurant on the third floor, overlooking the river. In the distance I can see ads for beer and vacations, big billboards on rooftops across the water. Tiny river boats go up and down, pushed ahead by men with sticks or long paddles. The water is the colour of mud, and plastic bags and garbage litter both sides of the bank. A small boat casts a fishing net.

You can tell this city is a tourist hot spot: everyone has something to sell. Men offer me cigarettes, hoping I stop and give them a chance to practice their english, size up a mark and then sell you a ride to the market, temple or tombs of ancient kings. If it’s by the water, things are quite different at least. Here they pitch one hour boat rides to the market, tombs and temples. Walking to the corner of the street, a man on a motor cycle slows down and asks me if I want to buy marijuana, very fresh.

Elsewhere, during the day time, everyone offers you a lift somewhere. If you so much as look at a parked motorcyle, people will come flying out of the woodworks offering you a ride to anyplace you want to go, whether it be the local Pagoda or just the end of the street. The prices they quote are low enough to put Uber out of business.

Linh departs to go and check up on her parent’s villa, to see if its in habitable condition. No one’s been living there for three years. Just a neighbour, dropping by to feed the dog and chickens, whose numbers have probably gotten out of hand by now. Neither of us ar sure how fast chickens breed, but after three years we’re expecting a veritable colony of the noisy little bastards. They probably even have their own flag and national anthem by this point.

She leaves and I sit in the lobby. A group of German tourists flood in from the street. They are loud and take up a lot of space. They walk around drumming on all the furniture, including my chair, like no one is there but them. Did all the rude Deutschlanders decide to visit Asia at the same time? Or are German travellers even worse than American ones?

Remarkably, all the Americans I’ve bumped into have been polite and friendly; hardly the loud mouth jackass stereotype they portray, or happen to embody when they visit Canada. These roaming gangs of young German men on the other hand… two for two for the rude team so far.

Overhead speakers belt out electronic saxophone and Casio covers of top 40 Western radio hits like Taylor Swift, Daft Punk and imagine dragon. The German tourists get on my nerves. Time to leave. Goodbye yellow brick road, the casio version, walks me out as I grab my camera to take pictures of the riverfront and explore some of the nearby parks.