Thursday, 24 November 2011

Days 79 to 81: Hue

Hue (pronounced Hoo-eh) is a small city in central Vietnam. It has an old citadel, a pagoda, and... well, I don't really know. I have to admit I spent most of the time drinking.

For that, you can blame two English fellows, Steve and Luke, plus another English fellow who joined in for day 2, Jamie (i.e. of Ha Long Bay's Jamie and Heather duo). Our sleeper cabin from Hanoi to Hue had four beds, and Steve and Luke filled two of them. With beer readily on sale from a tiny, no-nonsense woman who moved through the carriages, we were obliged to celebrate the Union with several each. Steve and Luke too were interested in my Wonder quest, and offered a few of their own, one of them - Ellora's Kailasanathar Temple in India - I have subsequently decided to add to my list (more on that in a future entry). Beer and conversation flowed, with travel tales exchanged, and even the Grade of Baroso was cracked open, to widespread surprise ("It's not as bad as I thought!").

The drinking didn't abate much upon arriving in Hue. Burness and I had pre-booked a room in the Valentine Hotel - with a name like that, how could we refuse? To our disappointment, it wasn't one giant heart-shaped bed, but two single beds befitting the twin room we'd requested. Steve and Luke, sensing the romantic appeal, decided to join us. By the time we'd checked in, it was getting near lunch time, so we took a very short wander to the nearby tourist area and began drinking.

Hue is one of these places that has a pretty clearly demarcated area for tourists, a concentration of bars and restaurants around which most of the cheap hotels are situated. This can be very convenient, but it also has the effect of creating a bubble that isolates the tourists from the actual town. This was Hue. A couple of streets of pizza restaurants and pool bars, it surely doesn't represent modern Vietnamese life, and hence the streets were filled with Westerners. But bubbles are sometimes difficult to burst out of. The four of us found a bar, ordered food and a couple of beers, and just as we were ready for some cultural exploration of the citadel, the rain began to absolutely chuck it down. The bar had a pool table which we hit, plus a few more beers, and when the rain stopped we weren't really in the mood for the citadel.

We still visited it nonetheless, but I can't say we did it much justice. The centrepiece is the Purple Forbidden City, the one-time home of Vietnamese royalty, and is a sprawling, if unkempt, area of old buildings and courtyards. In the right mood, it would make for a congenial amble, but the four of us weren't in the right mood. We wanted to be impressed and the Purple Forbidden City wasn't a showstopper (or even particularly purple). Aimlessly we meandered, blankly looking at buildings and clumps of grass, before declaring in unison that we fancied a drink. A quick taxi ride later and we were back in the tourist district. With beers only 50p a glass (about 330ml), we were not inhibited about drinking them, and a Scotland versus England pool championship began, which many hours and beers later finished 11-6 to England, after us having once been 6-4 up. Somehow we found ourselves in a dubious bar called "Brown Eyes", which offered free shots, a pro-active promotional team with flyers boasting "Strongly in bed", and a sign outside announcing "Open 5pm till the last person drops". It was predictably ghastly. Luke and Steve loved it. Myself and Burness had a drink but decided to call it a night. Luke and Steve, on the other hand, wanted to test the "till the last person drops" claim, so we left them to their Brown Eyes revelry and like the old men we are were in bed by around midnight. (I hesitate to mention that Luke and Steve were a few years older than us, thus shattering our usual excuse of not being as young as we once were).

The following morning was a quiet one, but by lunch-time Steve and Luke had surfaced, and Heather and Jamie had also arrived, and were staying also at the Valentine Hotel. Wary of immediately getting sucked into another booze session, Burness and I hired bicycles and began a day of cultural exploration of Hue. We managed a couple of hours.

In that time, we visited a pretty pagoda - Thien Mu - and another slightly more remote temple, both of which were pleasant but not really compelling. Perhaps it's because I've visited some pretty amazing stuff in the last few months, or perhaps it's because my research into Hue was entirely non-existent (we only went there because the Dutch couple we met on our first night in Hanoi mentioned it, and it was conveniently midway between Hanoi and Saigon), but I couldn't get very excited about a pretty pagoda and a slightly remote temple. But neither did I understand them - I had to refer to my Lonely Planet just there even to find their names, and any history I might mention would have been directly lifted from there.

Cycling on the way back, we ran into a scam, which I'm going to gloss over here, simply because I just can't be bothered writing or thinking about it again. Very basically, it involved a local couple, husband and wife, going for a dinner and drink, which turned out to be hideously expensive (in local terms, in real terms it was about £24 so hardly bank-shattering). It reinforced the walls of our cynicism, maybe building them higher than before, and we know not to trust the friendly stranger any more. At least, not in a tourist town and not if they approach you. It put both of us in a very bad mood. It also ended our cycling tour, and any chances of reaching the royal tombs south of the city, which I'd quite fancied.

But at least that night it was time for some celebrations. It was the 22nd November, and by midnight it would be the 23rd - Burness's birthday. The magic window had opened, the three day spell ever year where Burness is the same age as me, until my birthday on the 26th. This greatly pleases me; it does not please Burness, who thinks I'm an old man and doesn't like to be my age. The two of us, plus Steve, Luke, and Jamie all headed out for a night of eating, drinking, pool, and Brown Eyes. I'll let the photos tell the story.

In the end, as with the best drunken nights, it ended in chaos, with us losing Steve and Luke entirely, and then Burness getting lost even more entirely. I'd reached the point of passing out in Brown Eyes so had elected to go home, but Burness decided to continue there, alone. Many, many hours later, he returned. It appears he had got lost trying to find the hotel, a mere five minutes walk away. For three hours he had wandered the streets, trying every route possible, so he thought, and resolutely failing to find the small lane that led to Valentine Hotel. Eventually, he flagged down a motorbike taxi, who still took a whole hour to locate it, despite instructions from a different hotel. Poor Burness rolled in at 7am, drunk and exhausted, and also missing his iPhone, which had disappeared without trace at some point in the early hours. It was not the perfect introduction to his 32nd birthday.

Later that day, we bid farewell to everyone, for all four of them had a bus to a nearby town called Hoyang. It was a pleasure having met them all, and the period from Ha Long Bay to Hue has certainly been the most social we've had so far on this trip. In parting, Luke, an artist, gave me details of his work, a colourful monster extravaganza which can be seen here, and happily doesn't take itself too seriously. Jamie also gave me a copy of his book, which he wrote last year, and which I read in one sitting on the train that evening. It was terrific - raw and compelling - and can be found on Amazon. Recommended. (It's also a little cheaper than Luke's work).

But it was a grim day for Burness, who briefly surfaced for lunch, only to return to bed. We had a train at 7pm, and it was all he could do to summon the energy to get there. Which was why the following was such an unexpected, delightful surprise.

The staff at Valentine Hotel had been incredibly friendly from the moment we'd arrived, and in the passing it had been mentioned a day or two earlier that Burness's birthday was coming up. But their birthday cake moment outdid themselves, and I can happily say that love really is in the air - Valentine Hotel, you are the friendliest hotel I have ever visited.

And that was Hue, a city I never did any justice whatsoever but still had great fun in. And now, a hat-trick of overnights. An overnight train has just been completed, and now awaits a ghastly overnight flight from Saigon to Manila from 1am to 4.30am, and then an overnight bus, from Manila to my next Wonder, the Banaue Rice Terraces.

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