One thing I’m really good at is going along for the ride. Literally. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a lot of it, but I’m picking it up again.
What I’m talking about is tagging along with others on their travels. During my two years in Botswana, I became a pro at it, travelling anywhere with almost anyone. I like the sense of possibilities when you start out and that I’m relieved of the task of reading guidebooks, blogs and websites etc.
As soon as we arrived in Vietnam, I was back to my old ways. Somara and I flew south to join my sister and her family, who were already mid vacation. We just fell in beside them as they decided where to go, how to get there, and where to put our shoes at the end of the day. It became a bit of a joke about how little I did, and the one time I booked the accommodation, let’s just say it was ‘an experience’. But we sure had a great time.
Last month, we did the tagging a long thing again. Tim had a conference in central Vietnam, in Hue, and Somara and I showed up for the fun, having done very little research. I knew that a group of Tim’s colleagues were staying longer to visit the sites and thought, we’ll just do what they do.
On day 1 when most of the other adults were at the conference I took the lead from 7 year old Lam. The daughter of Tim’s colleague and now friend, Lam said she wanted to go to the beach. I have to admit I did hesitate, knowing from the little reading I had done that the beach is not the top attraction in Hue. But it was unbelievably hot and and after a morning in the pool, and a quick lunch, we added 3 more to our posse and hopped in a van.
Thuan An beach, 15 kms from the centre of Hue, is a gorgeous expanse of golden sand, where you can body surf, sleep under a cabana, or drink mojitos in the shade. Most of the time I hung with Marco, a three year old with the same passion for finding shells as me. I also lost my voice that afternoon, yelling at kids to be careful, and laughing uncontrollably as we bounced between the waves.
Significantly smaller than Hanoi, I knew Hue was going to be a break from the big city, but I couldn’t believe how much of a relief I felt being there. Might have been the salty water, but the streets are mostly wide, as is the Perfume River that winds itself through the centre. Scattered a long its edges are dragons boats to transport tourists to Pagodas and the tombs of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. There’s lots of room to navigate. And in the style I so love, it was an easy place to meet up with others, and then go your own way.
The only place firmly on my list was a visit to the Imperial City. Once Vietnam’s capital, Hue’s main attraction is contained within the walls of the Citadel. Home to the ruling family, the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, it’s a place that is as cultivated and refined as it is earthy and coarse. Decimated by the Americans in 1968, you can still imagine life as a member of the Royal Family, with a field of flowers, ponds of gold fish, court musicians, and magnificently ornate buildings. It’s serene and majestic. There’s an effort to rebuild many of the structures that were bombed, and some are already complete. I prefer the worn, peeling facades of buildings and walls that haven’t been touched. So many layers within them, they are both tragic and stunning.
Toward the end of our stay, on the advice of our friends, we rode motorbikes about 15 kms from town to see Huyen Khong Son Thuong Pagoda, a much less fancy pagoda than the more famous Thien Mu. Huyen Khong, a garden retreat is known for its orchids, flowers and ponds. The journey there turned out to be just as spectacular (and more bumpy) as the stroll within. For the second time since being in Vietnam, I wondered if Claude Monet, the famous French painter had ever been to Vietnam.
Other highlights of Hue, with no thanks to me, were our incredible suite at the Villa Hue booked by Tim’s office. Larger than our apartment in Hanoi, we kept marvelling at the bathtub and shower. Chi, one of Tim’s colleagues took us to two different restaurants serving the world famous Bun Bo Hue soup. Never having appreciated the soup before, my taste buds were treated to what might have been the best possible renditions out there. Sublimely delicious.
My only rule of thumb when travelling is to talk to other travellers. It’s taken me incredible places…and added another dimension to the journey. In July at our favourite pool, Somara and I met an American man who lived in Vietnam for six years and takes any opportunity he can to come back. We talked a lot about food. Following up on our conversation he sent me an email about Hue recommending “a goat hot pot place called Dung Goat. I don’t have the address but will try to get it for you. It’s near Thien Mu Pagoda. In Vietnamese: Dê Dũng”. (In English it looks like you’re talking about poop, but the D actually has a Z sound). I’d been thinking about the goat hot pot since I received that email. Excited that we had motorbikes to take us there, Tim, Somara and I spent the better part of an hour on our final night, driving up and down the road near the Pagoda. Most people we asked said they knew it, but precise directions were elusive. Finally 3 friendly drunks told us to follow them on our bikes. It took about two kms and a near collision to realize they didn’t have a clue, so we made a quick escape. By that time starving for dinner, we ended up eating at a Bia Hoi. The food was lousy but the evening was memorable. We’ll find that goat hot pot next time, I’m sure of it. And if you’re interested I can recommend another restaurant, Hanh’s where we ate at 4 times during our stay. I have an address and map. Remember to share with others if you know ‘the Hue (hway) to go’.