Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Hué, The Anti-Communist, The DMZ, The Tombs and The Rain, 24-28 March 2011

Haiphong to Hué

Having got the boat back to Haiphong, I had to wait three hours for my connecting bus to Hué which is half way down the country and would take all night to reach. Haiphong was a completely different place to that I left a few days prior. The rain had stopped and the sun was out in force. Waiting for buses is an annoyance of travelling as it's difficult to know what to do. This time I decided to walk and find a park where I could get my book out and read for a while, then go to a restaurant for a bite to eat before heading back to the bus station to catch the night bus.

Whilst I was sitting in the park watching the world go by and the people going about their daily lives whether it's walking the dog, taking their kids to the park or post work exercises, a man asked whether he could sit next to me in a meaningful voice. I am always apprehensive when people come up to you and ask to sit with you, but also enjoy it as you get to meet interesting people which is what travelling is all about. This man was indeed interesting. He was an elderly retired teacher who had lived through the war not as a soldier, but a teacher. He now lives alone in Haiphong since his wife passed away. The man relived his painful experience of his country splitting up during the Vietnam war and how he dislikes and hates to current communist regime. He told me how he wanted to relocate to the non-communist South during the period of free movement but was not able to as his family were stuck in the north and he was a teacher at the time. He carried on telling me how they are forced to restrict their freedom of speech, especially as a teacher where certain topics are prohibited in the classroom. He asked me whether he could write to me and told me to pass the letter onto the BBC. I have since spoken to my mother and she informed me that I had received a letter from him which she read it out to me. I will put a copy of it up here as soon as I receive it as this story is one of many Vietnamese people who feel the same helplessness around the country today.

The man made, who carried with him an English language book wherever he went, said farewell to me and left the park to continue his evening stroll. I thought that was a perfect moment for me to move on too, so I grabbed my bags and looked for a restaurant to have some dinner at before I returned to the bus station. I found one, Kentucky Fried Chicken or as the popular kids call it 'KFC'. I hadn't had a chicken burger since I had a slight addiction to them in Nanning so I decided to go for it. KFC is different here than what it is back home as you actually get what you order and the whole experience is pleasurable unlike those outlets in the UK. I once walked into the KFC on East Road in Cambridge and was immediately greeted with, “I'm sorry, we only have chicken left.” I was a little drunk at the time and this left me extremely confused, I did to him, “But you're a chicken restaurant, so there's no problem, right?”. It turned out that they had just run out of popcorn chicken and the stuff that goes inside wraps.

I digress. After I ate the meal and wasted some more time reading my book, it was time to head back to the station and find my chariot for the evening. At the bus station I met a group of Canadians who were travelling on the same bus as me, Kyle, Tanners, Pete, Kevco and Lauren were all travelling South East Asia for a few months before heading home and to university. We all got on the bus and they decided to take beds that were not allocated to them which caused the steward annoyance as people in Vietnam stick to their seats as a strict rule and cannot cope if things aren't clearly laid out in front of them. They all had to move but luckily I had legitimately secured my bed by swapping with a lady who wanted to be beside her husband. So I was safe from the shake up. The beds on the sleeper bus are one inch too short for me and the vertical bend in the bed is not ergonomically suited to my body. These buses are for Asians and Asians only. The journey took 14 hours as opposed to the 10 hours I was told by the lady I booked the ticket off. Oh well.

Arrival in Hué

Inside the Royal Palace grounds
When we arrived in Hué, the sun I had seen on Cat Ba Island seemed like a dream as the rain had a firm grip on Hué. I had planned to stay at Hué Backpackers Hostel and convinced the Canadians to come with me, so we shared a taxi from the bus station to the hostel in the centre of town. Check in was simple and we soon found our beds, I was given a double bed for the same price of a single which was nice of them, but it wasn't time to sleep just yet. We were all starving, so we headed for the Indian restaurant a few doors down the street where we enjoyed a fantastic curry that tops my list of meals on my journey so far. Maybe because I hadn't eaten for a while but still it was lovely. The hawkers selling waterproofs were out in force down the street and were relentless in their sales pitchers despite the fact I had one on already.

The outer wall of the Citadel
Later that day, whilst the Canadians were sleeping, I went for a walk across the bride into the citadel. Hué sits right smack bang on the split between North and South and saw one of the wars heaviest battles. The 1968 Battle of Hué was the bloodiest and most destructive battle during the Vietnam-American War. The battle was part of the larger Tet Offensive which saw the North Vietnamese break the truce agreement that stated neither the north or south would take part in any military actions against the other during the new year period. The Tet Offensive saw the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong launch a massive and unprecedented surprise attack on military targets and cities across the South which caught the South Vietnamese off guard. Hué was especially hit hard as it had insufficient protection against insurgency despite it's importance and location close the the DMZ. Hué was completely unprepared and was quickly taken over by North Vietnamese Army. The next month saw fierce close face to face fighting on the streets between both sides where the southern armies led by US Marines finally regained control after dropping napalm and bombs that destroyed 80% of the city and cost the lives of nearly 15,000 people. The American and South Vietnamese incurred 668 deaths and over 3,000 personnel wounded whereas the North Vietnamese forces' deaths totalled over 8,000. Most shockingly, 5,000 civilians were killed during the battle, many of them were executed by the North Vietnamese. As a result of this battle, Hué was mostly razed to the ground and the United States started to lose public support for the war and marked the beginning of their pull out.

Inside the palace walls
I didn't go into the citadel that day as it was terrible weather and I was just too plain tired. So I headed back to the hostel where they provide free beer every evening between 5pm and 6pm. It is a fantastic offer yet dangerous as people quaff down as many bottles as they can in the hour so they get their money's worth. I think I drank a fair few as we were playing drinking games to entertain ourselves. Later on, when the hostel bar closed we headed to the bar on the corner called the 'Why Not Bar' to play some pool. By this time it was just me, Kevco, Jonas, a Swedish guy I had met in the hostel bar earlier, and two disgustingly drunk English girls who had to be carried home as they just couldn't walk and it wasn't safe for them to walk alone as the street is full of opportunist muggers. After a few games of friendly pool, Kevco and a Vietnamese man played for some money, not a lot, just 100,000. Kevco officially lost the game and went to retrieve the money out of his wallet. “What the F**K!!” he exclaimed as he saw an empty wallet in front of him where 3,000,000 Dong was supposed to reside. “S**T, I've been pick-pocketed!” He soon realised. It was the guys outside who all act extremely friendly but had managed to get into his wallet, take his money and return it empty to his pocket. Luckily he still had his cards but was obviously annoyed by this breach. I personally always split my money, quarter in my wallet, half in my secret pouch and quarter elsewhere in my bag. My three credit cards are also split up, that way if one thing gets stolen, I still have means to get money. We decided that this was the end of the night and returned to the hostel for sleep that was well overdue because of the previous evening's bus journey.

Beautifully decorated gates to the Palace
The next morning I sat there eating breakfast and was joined by a Vietnamese man who was wielding a Vietnamese/English phrasebook, copied of course, and he went on asking me questions whilst making notes in in his phrasebook on pronunciation. He then asked me whether I could provide him with a few chat up lines that he could use on women in bars. He was going to work in Paris in four months time and was obviously petrified about the prospect of not being understood although he could speak French as many Vietnamese can. Jonas sat on the table next to me chuckling to himself about the situation and so I got him and his iPad involved in the discussion. The Vietnamese man listened with intent and noted everything down in his little book. He was quite obviously very serious about learning English as every page had an annotation on it. He probably will end up moving to the UK after initially working in France for a while. I wished him luck and moved on as the drunk English girls came down stairs and one of them had lost their purse but couldn't remember where or what they did the night before so I had to tell them where they were during the evening and took them to the bar to ask whether they found a wallet. They hadn't and to be honest with you, I hope this was a lesson learnt for them.

Main gates into the palace with Ho Chi Minh's portrait
After trying to help the hung over girls, Jonas and I visited the citadel and imperial palace. Hué was the capital of the region until the communist government ousted the emperor in 1945 and created their central government in Hanoi. When Bao Dai, the last emperor was overthrown by the North he relocated to create his capital in Saigon with the French colonial support. The citadel has within it an imperial palace which is reminiscent to that of the Forbidden City in Beijing that was allowed only for the emperor and his concubines. It's a nice place to wonder around and imagine what the citadel must have looked like before the war destroyed it's beauty. I enjoyed visiting this place more than the Forbidden City, mainly because it's 'real', it is how it is and there hasn't been any embellishments inflicted on it for the purposes of tourism. Jonas and I went to see a performance that was very similar to the one I saw in Hanoi at the theatre in the grounds of the citadel before leaving the place through it's main entrance that has a huge headshot of Ho Chi Minh hanging as a sort of 'up yours' to the regime he overthrew which again is similar to the Chairman's photo on the walls of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The Demilitarized Zone

Following Viet Minh's decisive victory against the French in Dien Bien Phu and the French giving up control of Vietnam, the Geneva conference agreed to the establishment of the DMZ on 21 July 1954. The 10km wide Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) stretched almost 100km across Vietnam from the South China Sea to Laos on the 17th parallel. The split was a temporary solution to the ongoing battle between the communists and imperialists until a formal election was held to decide who should take full control over the country. The south disregarded and refused to take part in the elections stating that they were not bound by any dicisions made by the Geneva Conference. This sparked the insurgents to rebel against the south and thus started the Second Indochina war.

I went on a tour of the the DMZ and the Vinh Moc tunnels one day as they lie around 50km north of Hué. The tour was a little disappointing and personally I didn't find the experience enlightening as I could barely understand the tour guide and the tour was basically a long drive down the highway where the split used to be. We started the day off early with a breakfast next door where I met Matt Otter who was travelling upwards towards Shanghai from Cambodia. Our first stop was on the side of the road where we could take photos of 'The Rockpile' which was an important strategic look out post for the American army, the bus driver intelligently stopped the wrong side of trees though so we couldn't see it anyway. 

Kids in a village, note the boy dressed as Santa
The second stop was at the Ho Chi Minh trail and the first bridge Ho Chi Minh built. It was just a bridge, nothing special and not worth a ten minute stop at all. Our third stop was at the American base of Khe Sanh, where there was a small museum showing how the American fled in panic as their base was 'triumphantly' overrun by Viet Cong and the obligatory cashed aircraft and relics left over from the war. One thing worth seeing there were the newborn puppies running around which the tour guide bought one and took it with us on the bus (not sure if it was a pet or dinner thought). We got back on the bus for a few more hours before stopping at the Mekong Hotel in Dong Ha for dinner and then travelled along the river which lies on the divide towards the main attraction and only interesting thing on the whole tour, The Vinh Moc Tunnnels.

An entrance to the tunnels
The Vinh Moc tunnels were created after the American forces tried to scare the villagers of Vinh Moc to leave their homes as they believed they were assisting the Northern Vietnamese army. Instead of fleeing, the residents relocated their town 10 meters under ground but the Americans forced them deeper into the ground as they designed a bomb that would travel well into the ground and destroy their tunnels. The tunnels were then sunk to the lowest level of 30 meters below the surface where people lived. Seventeen children were born in the tunnels between 1967 and 1972. Interestingly, the Americans apparently released 9,000 tons of bombs on the village which equates to 7 tons per person. I couldn't imagine what it was like to live in the 2kms of tunnels below the ground in darkness and not knowing what was happening outside. The tunnels have been widened for foreigners to visit in recent years but they are still small and require a constant bend of the neck and legs. It is amazing to see such a feat of human engineering and what people are capable of when put into dreadful situations such as war.

Back in the Hostel

Getting ready for the shot of Arse
I learnt a new card game in Hué called shithead, not exactly a nice name for it but I'm sure some foul mouthed Australian named it and I'm only going to say that because I'm sure Ash and Matt, an Australian couple, tricked me. I'll refer to it in a more politically correct fashion from now on and call it “Faecal Cranium” or FC for short. The game is pretty fun but I really didn't understand how I kept losing (I do now though). I was losing so much so that Ash felt sorry for me and kindly offered to buy me a drink, a shot called Arse, which of course tasted like it stated and was the single most disgusting drink I have had! I was determined not to lose the next hand but to my astonishment I still lost meaning I got another shot, this time it was Chilli Vodka which made my eyes weep and amused the staff and my two new Australian friends. I don't even know how I ended up at the bar and playing with them but if I had known this was how it was going to turn out I may have stayed away! We finished our game and headed over to a late night bar/club called Brown Eyes to play pool.

Who needs chalk?
During my stay at Hué backpackers I had met Ben and Illy from England and Norway respectively and discovered that they were selling their Suzuki GN125. As time went on, I got more and more interested in buying the motorbike and travelling down to Ho Chi Minh with it. One evening Ben took me outside to show me the bike and have a ride on it but as he twisted the throttle and pushed the electric start button, nothing happened. He tried many times, but each time it failed to ignite into life. A bottle of petrol was added to the tank to make sure it wasn't that but still nothing happened. I told him to give up and come back inside as the free beer had begun to flow in the hostel. Despite this and the rain that had started again, he refused and spent another hour cursing and hitting the thing in a hope that it will come to life. Needless to say, it didn't. A couple of days later, I was still interested in buying it and so Ben, Illy and I went down to the mechanics to see what the problem was. Eventually, we found out that there was a lit of water in the engine which was cleared out and the bike started up, but it wouldn't keep going and they thought it was the battery but Ben and Illy confirmed that it was a new battery and they only just bought it. The mechanic carried on working on it for the next few hours whilst we sat in the hostel waiting for news. When the news came, it wasn't good news at all, I'm not up on motorcycle mechanics but he showed us a part which looked like the alternator and pointed out some broken parts within it. Ben and Illy were in uproar as they had only replaced that part the week before and had obviously been stung and given an old part instead of the new one promised. After a few expletives they agreed to the replacement of the part. A few hours later the had a working bike and I managed to get a go on her. It was the first time I had ridden a clutch, I had ridden semi-automatics before but this added another thing to do. I rode around the block a few times which sounds easier than what it actually is as the amount of obstacles in your way is crazy. People are coming at you from all angles and you just don't have a chance to properly get used to anything. I returned to the hostel in two minds whether to buy it or not. Could I ride this bike with confidence? Will it break down along the way? How long will it take to sell once I get to Saigon? Questions that I was going to spend the evening pondering and Ben and Illy had left the keys with me, saying that I should take it out for the whole day the next day and see how I feel.

Quiz night... Where is the Gulf of Bothnia anyway?
The morning arrived and I tentatively handed the keys over to Illy and told her that I had decided not to take the bike as I was concerned about my own safety and confidence. She completely understood and told me not to worry about it but I could see that she was a little disappointed as a couple of days ago I was 99.9% going to buy it and now they have to try and find another buyer. Having spoken to them since, I heard that they never did sell it but on a lighter note have got engaged! So congratulations to them!! 

The Imperial Tombs and Mausoleums

Only 10 minutes after I turned down Ben and Illy's motorbike, I rented a scooter out so that I could go and see the tombs and mausoleums of the past royals that dot around the city. Although the engine size between the bike I didn't buy and the scooter I was riding only differed by 15cc, I felt a lot safer on the later, maybe because it wasn't mine and it wasn't somebody I cared about.

The path across the lake to Minh Mang's tomb
As I confidently rode out of Hué, a lady in her forties rode up beside me on her motorbike and began talking to me asking me how I was, where I came from and all the usual questions. Having answered her inquisition I enquired as to the whereabouts of a petrol station as I desperately needed some or I was going to be in big trouble soon. She took me to a petrol station just around the corner and translated to the pump attendant for me. She didn't really need to but it was nice all the same. She then asked me where I was going and I told her that I was going to go to the tombs, she generously said that she would take me there as she just lived around the corner and it wasn't far. Nice of her I thought, but alarm bells began to ring as she then invited me around her house to visit her children and for a meal. I began working on my get out excuse that I would have to give her, there is such a thing as too nice and they usually have the ulterior motive of money! Sure enough, as we arrived at the mausoleum, I bought my ticket, thanked her for her assistance and politely turned her offer down as I 'needed to get back to Hué early'. She took me by the arm and escorted me through the archway into the grounds of the mausoleum and began on the sob story. My children, they each go to school to learn English and it costs her 1,000,000 (£30) Dong each month (or week, I tuned out at this time...) and it's very expensive and she'd be ever so grateful if I could help her out. I put 20,000 (60p) in her hand which I wish I hadn't done as it frustrates me so much that these people are disgracing their fellow countrymen as all con artists and swindlers. She looked at the 20,000 I had given her and disgustingly and ungratefully asked for more to which I replied absolutely not, that is all I was going to give her, I thanked her and walked off. I should have taken it back off her and told her to F off but she knew where my bike was! I hate this whole crap that constantly surrounds you in Vietnam, an air that everyone is out to get you and that no offer can ever be as gracious as it sounds. What about the poor friendly folk that actually want to invite you round to their house and meet their family like the Hmong people and the hotel owner in Sapa?

Through the bullet hole into Minh Mang's Tomb
The first tomb I visited was that of Minh Mang who was the second Nguyen emperor and lived from 1791 to 1841 and his final resting place is just off the river surrounded by a lake. His tomb is surrounded by a two circular brick wall and his body was taken into it by means of a tunnel that was blocked up afterwards to stop people robbing his grave. The outer wall has a gate in it that had some bullet holes left over from the war that made good peeping holes into the inner circle. The surroundings of the tomb are blissfully peaceful and a great resting place for anyone, dead or alive. Upon my arrival at the tomb I bumped into Matt from my hostel who was on the organised tour that took people around by bus. He left incredibly early in the morning and hadn't accomplished much more than I, so I was happy with my decision, although I was a lot wetter than him! With him was a Dutch girl called Urske who, not that I knew it then, I would be meeting down the road randomly again.

A tomb left at peace
As I moved onto the next tomb, I remembered why renting a motorcycle is such a great idea. I travelled down the small, poorly maintained path-like track that weaved it's way beside the river through a small enclave of houses. It's fantastic seeing these beautiful little villages where real Vietnamese people live and work as it gives you a proper taste of what the country is all about. A few kilometres down the road, I randomly found two more tombs, one that was completely overgrown and seemed like they didn't care much for and another which was down a small dirt track and was quite big but under renovation. Both tombs were blissfully deserted meaning I could begin peaceful exploration of the sites without any hassle.

Surrounding area of Tu Duc's tomb
The rain began to expand its vertical bombardment soaking me more and more as I was exploring the surrounding area of Hué hoping to find Tu Duc's Tomb sooner or later. After half an hour of an excellent ride through some hills, in some sand, finding dead ends, I found it and also got reunited with Matt and Urske who had just been to a shop to see how hats were made or something like that. So glad I wasn't on that tour. Tu Duc was the fourth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty who died in 1883 and is buried in one of the most lavish tombs of the area. It is set in some beautiful forested area and the exceedingly large construction costs brought outrage to the workers who protested and attempted a coup. It was extremely difficult to walk around as the rain and mud had made the red slippery tiles even more slippery meaning every step had to be balanced or you'd end up on your arse. This was the last tomb I visited on that day and headed back to Hué, firstly the scenic route down some small winding track through a village, but when that came to a dead end I decided to turn around and go back on the boring main road back into Hué. I took thirty minutes to do a quick lap around the walls of the citadel to see the rest of Hué which wasn't much and headed back across the crazy bridge dodging motorcycles towards the hostel where Matt was sitting there already with his laptop in front of him looking smugly dry as I dripped.

One Final Thought...

The track through the villages
Hostels are great places to stay in as you get to meet lots of new people and it can be great fun. Although the guests at Hué backpackers annoyed me a lot. One night I went up to my room to go to sleep and I was greeted by a Canadian guy sitting outside. He asked me whether I was staying in there, to which I replied yes. He then asked me if my bed was on top in the middle, which it was and then proceeded to tell me that it was free now. My mind raced, why would it not be free, it was my bed and no body else should be in it. A question that was finally answered the morning after. Apparently the Canadian guy went back to the room to go to sleep only to find two people disgracefully having sex in his bed and the only other bed that was free was above, which was mine. I thought this was utterly disgusting behaviour and I hate it was British people show us up like that. There was three of them in a group, one had food poisoning so was being sick constantly in the ensuite toilet but the other two had obviously drunk too much and were also chundering all night long too. There was just a constant line and noise coming from the toilet. When there was someone in the toilet, they proceeded to think it was OK to throw up in the shower. They began to leave the door open which made me even angrier as I was facing the toilet, so I just shouted, “Oi, shut the f***ing door before I smack the s**t out of you!”. I'm not a violent person but these 18 years old just pissed me off too much. Luckily they left the next day. However, the dorm the following evening was a completely different place as the 3 Canadians were extremely drunk and had us in stitches all night long making for an enjoyable last night in Hué

Next Time, Hoi An, Dalat and maybe Mui Ne

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