Hue took some time to grow on me. Not as obviously beautiful as Hoi An, but it has its charms. Hue was the old imperial capital, and so of course I had to check out the imperial Citadel. It was a very hot, sweaty day of biking around, but well worth it.
I saw the weirdest squat toilet yet in a coffee shop I ended up in for lunch – just a tile floor with two raised piles of tile to act as food beds. Just pee on the floor and rinse it away. The variety of toilets in Asia is quite entertaining. I also spent time wandering around (where I was often asked by locals to sit with them to practice their English), and drinking at the DMZ bar (mostly with a new friend, Will).
After the amazing food I had in Hoi An, and being left to eat rice porridge with mystery meat my first night in town (the Vietnamese eat pretty early so there are not too many late night options), I did some leg work to hunt down the famous imperial Hue cuisine. Apparently the emperors who lived in Hue refused to eat the same dish twice. Talk about food snobs! I found some good stuff but quickly got tired of gelatinous rice cakes, which were everywhere.
I decided to skip seeing the real DMZ (I decided I had seen enough about the war), and instead go on a day trip to Phong Nha cave. Somehow I didn’t quite know what I’d gotten myself into since I booked through the hotel without seeing an itinerary. But as we started to pick up others – who all had their luggage with them since they were not doing this long journey as a day trip – I realized I had signed up for 8+ hours in a van. Yikes! I almost aborted the trip, but then figured I had nothing better to do, really, so what the hell. At least the cave was amazing and well worth the trip.
On the way back I was the only one in the van (i.e., the only one dumb enough to do the round trip in one day) and was trying to sleep to pass the time. The guide asked if it was okay if we picked up his friend and gave her a ride to the university. Yeah, sure, fine. The excitement came when we dropped her off at the university, which is over an hour outside of town. Some locals begged the guide to let them ride into town with us since their bus reportedly was really late and nowhere to be seen. At first he agreed to take two people, but then we added another five. It was near mayhem as they all piled into the van with their various baskets and bags. The guide seemed to have been ambushed and was a bit beside himself with this situation. It somehow reminded me a clown car at the moment. Then the locals started chatting excitedly and it was really lively. I was a bit groggy from my nap, but curious to see where this situation would go. But then my guide shushed them like school children and the rest of the ride was quiet and uneventful. I think he really just wanted a nap himself.
A highlight in Hue was the motorbike tour I took with Thinh, who Will recommended to me. He took me around to a couple of tombs, to the Japanese Bridge, and best of all to the monastery where he himself studied for eleven years. We caught the monks eating lunch, which means we saw the elaborate prayers they do over their food before eating. It was about twenty minutes of praying and chanting. Their ability to do that while hungry proves their patience. Thinh is a devote Zen Buddhist and eagar to share his wisdom. He was very excited that I was born in the year of the snake, since he said it’s a lucky match with his water buffalo. Since we made it through the day in one piece, I guess it was a lucky match! He also basically gave me a fortune to take with me (sitting down to handwrite me a long note), and gave me some spiritual guidance, which was actually just what I needed. It’s not often that I come away from a tour feeling like I’m in a better place mentally.
So while I didn’t fall in love with Hue, I did love the people I spent time with there. And I learned that there are an uncountable mix of toppings for gelatinous rice cakes…