When we got out of the train it was pretty steamy. We took a taxi to the hotel we thought we were going to stay at, and of course, that's not where we ended up staying. The place looked beautiful, it was all booked up, and we found a really nice place across the street at an unprecedented low price. It pays to have experience. We took a walk to find a place to eat, sat down in a small restaurant that had a sign out for lẫu (fondue), but unfortunately, it was a bit too late for dinner. They had nem chua, so we ate a lot of those and drank beer. We asked the owner about tours of Huế and how we could get to see the local music. We went back to the hotel and turned in.
The next day brought two expressions to mind. The first one was, "what goes up must come down", and the second one was, "when there's a well, there's a Huế". The steam from the day before was back now as rain it rained, it rained and it rained. Pretty soon the water was sloshing in the street. It rained the entire time we were there. We had been warned about the rainy season, but we figured that it's better to go when it's cooler. But if you've never experienced this type of rain, then you've never been wet. Aside from a few short letups, it was a deluge every minute we spent in Huế.
That morning we had soup at a small, street restaurant with small chairs, around the corner from the hotel. I got a lot of attention, not from the people in the restaurant, but from a busload of tourists who were probably told that you would die if you ate in such a place. The job of the morning was to buy rain slickers, and it was the job of the morning because of course, you had to bargain. There are always a lot of angles to consider when you buy something in Vietnam. In this case I needed a large-sized slicker, so I was at a particular disadvantage, and next, a manly and tasteful choice of color. But with time and patience, nothing is ever an obstacle.
The other job was to find a tour of Huế. This is always a bit bewildering, because everyone tells you a slightly different version of things, and in the end you have to take it on faith. We talked to the people in our hotel, a tourist agency and a small travel agency where I stopped to read e-mail. In Hanoi we had decided it was a bad idea to depend on the hotel, so we were extra critical, and put off making the decision.
In the meantime, we took a walk around. Again, it was sloshing with rain, but that didn't seem to stop anyone else. After all, if it rains all the time you can't just sit around and wait it out. We visited the Teachers' University and then crossed the bridge over the Perfume River. Everyone was out and about their business. There were people walking, people riding, people hauling things, and there were special bicycles with wire meshes carrying full-sized pigs a bit cruel for my taste. The one concession to the rain was that the streetside vendor selling tropical fish had put a tarp up in front of his stall.
We stopped in at a cultural center to see if there was any kind of music. There was, though not the type we expected. A group was rehearsing communist songs as part of some star-studded, gala extravaganza that would no doubt take Huế by storm. The male lead singer romanced the microphone, the chorus jumped up and down with the greatest enthusiasm. The visual was great, but the no one had told the male lead that you're supposed to sing in the same key as the band. He was a full step higher, and proud of it. It was the utmost of smooth professionalism (as seen on TV), but someone had forgotten to add the talent. No problem, since if the show didn't take Huế by storm, Huế had enough of a storm already.
We sloshed out of the cultural center and went to visit the Citadel. The Citadel is an imposing sight. It was built by the Nguyễn emperors, when they made Huế the capital of Vietnam. There were various compounds, as well as a Forbidden City for the emperor. In recent times it hasn't done so well, and was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the Vietnam War (or the American War, as they call it there). Most of the Citadel was devastated, and parts of it are now used for farming. But even so, you can still get a sense of the scope and scale of the place. It was so wet that unfortunately, my camera lens was always steaming up, and taking photographs turned out to be a major problem. A great shame, since Huế is a beautiful place.
After visiting the Citadel, we thought about some advice that the Railroad Inspector and the Tax Man had given us on the train. The best way to see Huế, they told us, was to go by cyclo. Cyclos are these bicycle contraptions with the seat in the front. In Hanoi they're dangerous, but the streets in Huế are wide and there's not so much traffic. It was wet, and we needed some sort of transportation, so we hired these two cyclo drivers for the day. The bonus was that they had plastic to cover the front of the seat, and the overall effect was that of being pushed around in a stroller.
We headed toward the the other side of Huế, and from the cyclo, we got a good view of the entire city, not just the tourist sights. At this point it had rained so much that you couldn't tell the difference between the river and the street next to the river. Near to our destination, we came to a part of the road that was totally submerged. The cyclo drivers got off the seat and pulled the cyclos through water that was up to their waists. They said it's part of the job, but I call that dedication to one's work. I sat around in the cyclo, but just from watching them I was soaked, too.
One of the more unusual sights we saw was the Thiên Mụ Pagoda. It's a Buddhist temple, and a quiet, peaceful place. It was also from here that the monk Thích Quãng Đức drove to Saigon and immolated himself, as a protest against the South Vietnamese government's persecution of the Buddhist majority. The Austin that he drove is on display.
We came back toward the Citadel and dropped in to a restaurant for a late lunch. The restaurant consisted of a giant tarp with tables underneath and an open kitchen, right by the Citadel. The place was empty, and as we walked in I noticed there was a cat sleeping on one of the pots a good sign. The restaurant staff noticed that I noticed, and kicked the cat off the pot. After all, this was a proper establishment.
The cyclo drivers joined us for lunch. The food wasn't the very best that I've ever had, but it was all right, and there were some Huế specialties. We had khai vi (dried beef, which was salty), prawns, curried eel, and a Huế pancake (egg and rice flour) filled with ground pork and bean sprouts. The cyclo drivers, of course, asked the Two Questions, and we compared notes with them. It was obvious that they had a hard time making a living, and both of them had a lot of kids. One of them talked about having been in the army, but when he got out, a job never materialized. So now he's a cyclo driver.
At one point, Duyên said, "You know, he used to be a general." I think I must have missed a few steps. The cyclo driver didn't look like a general or like he ever was one, and it seemed a bit far-fetched that there could be such riches-to-rags story. The newspapers eat that sort of thing for breakfast. I asked again, and it turned out that it was the owner of the restaurant who used to be a general. He was in his fifties, but now he was retired and a family man. The family, for its part, was cooking and waiting on the tables, and from time to time joining him to look at the football game on the television. We paid the bill, which was a bit steep, and realized that the cyclo drivers must have had some kind of arrangement with the restaurant. Nonetheless, we weren't bitten that badly, and it was nice to have invited them to eat with us, especially after they dragged us through the water.
We continued on. We visited the Imperial Museum. It was in a 19th century, Chinese-style building, and unfortunately, the water was coming in through the roof. Vietnam has become aware that preserving its heritage is important and that tourism brings in money, but there's still not enough cash to shore things up. The country is rebuilding.
On the way out of the museum, we saw another building across the way. Thinking that it was part of the museum we went to take a look. It didn't belong to the museum, but had artifacts for sale. The fellow showed us colonial Vietnamese money, American dog tags, signature chops, and all sorts of bric-a-brac. What caught my eye, however, were the paintings on the wall. This man had painted them. They were interesting; sort of Kandinsky-ish, sort of cartoon-like. Out of idle curiosity, I wanted to know how much he was asking for them. This was Vietnam and my money was worth a lot here. To my surprise, he told me a price that I could afford.
Once I asked the question, it set forces in motion that were beyond my control. There were two Vietnamese present, and that's all you need for the bargaining to begin. The painter tried to steer me to other paintings, but I knew which ones I liked. He must have liked them too, since he told me that they weren't for sale. Now I know what it must be like to be a collector. If you really want something, you stand a chance of not getting it. In any case, we bargained, and everybody wore everybody else down. Finally, the deal emerged. I would come away with two paintings.
The painter looked absolutely shattered. He started nervously tidying up the place. He explained that since he has this business, he hadn't painted in a while, and those paintings were two of his favorites. After all the hard bargaining, I felt sorry for him. I told him that his work was in good hands, and that I hoped he would start to paint again. He rolled up the paintings in a piece of plastic pipe, covered the pipe in a black plastic bag and sealed it with plenty of tape, since it was still pouring outside. I put the pipe under my rain slicker. I decided at that moment that for his gallant bargaining, Duyên would have one of the paintings. We stepped into the cyclos, covered up, and that was how my (limited) career as an art collector began.
We went back to the hotel to get ready for the concert that night. Huế had been where the emperors held court. It showed in the food, and it showed in the music. There was a tradition of courtly music that was rather different than other types of Vietnamese music. Nowadays, it's played by people who study it as a specialty, in barges that sit on the Perfume River. This evening, Duyên and I were the entire audience.
The band consisted of a zither, a fiddle, and my favorite, the monochord. The monochord is a one-stringed instrument with a metal bar at the end. The musician holds the plectrum in the left hand, and while plucking the string, touches it to get harmonics out of the string. That determines the register. The exact note comes from using the metal bar to loosen or tighten the string. The overall effect is that of a Hawaiian guitar. There were also singers, who played percussion instruments as well.
It was a nice concert, and being the only audience we had to pay extra attention and clap extra loud. During the break I mentioned that I had studied ethnomusicology, and that it was great that they were keeping this tradition alive. One of the musicians mentioned that he had played in Washington, and I wouldn't be surprised if we knew the same people. It would be great if they could come to London.
Later that night, we hired two other cyclo drivers to take us somewhere to eat. We ended up in a street-side restaurant eating a bowl of soup. Our table was outside, and inside was a bunch of guys eating, drinking beer and smoking, all at the same time. On the television was a documentary about Mongolia. The soup was pretty good, but we wanted to try something else. We ordered fried noodles. I wasn't sure about this, since that means chow mein. It sounded pretty unoriginal, but when it arrived I changed my mind. It was truly Vietnamese in style. There were mint leaves and cilantro, and it was really, really good. I had never seen or heard of this dish before, and that alone made the day a great success.
The next day, we booked a driver through the hotel. Before setting out, we asked the driver if he knew a place for a Huế-style breakfast. Did he! We went to a restaurant (small chairs!), where we had cơm nghêu . This soup was spectacular, and one of the culinary high points of the trip. Cơm nghêu is made with hến, which are little seafood. (The guide books, by the way, tell you never to eat things like this.) These hến are cooked in a pork leg and onion broth, with spaghetti-like rice noodles. They give you shredded banana flowers to add to the soup. Duyên and I both ordered a second bowl. A bunch of road workers came into the restaurant for a meal between their breakfast and their lunch. They saw me and yelled "Clinton!". Bill Clinton was in Vietnam. Due to the flooding in Huế, he cancelled his trip. This man will never know cơm nghêu, and it serves him right.
We made the rounds of the imperial mausoleums that were all over the area. The Nguyễn emperors thought about these things their entire lives. They had geomancers (as in feng shui, priests who studied the location of things) to find a good place to put a tomb. Often, they would use these places while they were still alive, and their construction, of course, was a terrible drain on the country. At the same time, they came up with beautiful architecture.
We went up-country to see Minh Mạng, taking a boat the rest of the way. Everything was inundated. We visited Tự Đuc, and to vary, we went to a Buddhist monastery. The monastery was unbelievably slippery and wet, and since it wasn't mentioned in any of the guide books, we hovered behind a German-speaking tour guide trying to get some useful information. The driver, Hùng, was really worried that we were going to drown. The biggest worry was that everything was sloshy, and that my camera kept clouding up. Every picture I took I had to clean the lens, and I was concerned that the water was ruining the thing.
Following the success of the soup that morning, we asked Hùng if he could show us another Huế place. Hùng was originally from Saigon, but had lived in Huế so long that he could speak the local dialect. He was a very nice man, extremely concerned about helping his children and their education. At the same time, he has a good sense of humor and made a good travel companion. We told him that food was one of our main interests, and that he could take us anywhere that he himself would go. We went to a restaurant that specialized in Huế-style dim sum. The emperors didn't like to repeat dishes, and wanted a large number of things at their meals. That forced the cooks to do a lot of inventing, which in turn influenced everyone's cooking in Huế.
We had bánh bèo (rice noodle dim sum with toasted shallot), small cakes in banana leaves, rice noodle steamed in banana leaves, and rice noodle and prawn steamed in little packets made from banana leaves. The packets were tied with little strings, also made from banana leaves. We had bò nướng, and a sweet made from bean paste that was made to look like a plum. This was also wrapped in a leaf. The bad news was that before we could sample any more, the owner came and told us that the restaurant had been booked out for a private party.
On the way back to the hotel, Duyên and I agreed that we should try and hire Hùng to drive us the rest of the way to Saigon. Driving gives you the most freedom, and Hùng seemed like an excellent person. Duyên made the offer. To sweeten the pot, he told Hùng that he would share his room so that he wouldn't have to spend extra money. Hùng said he'd think about it. That evening, he asked to talk to Duyên in his room to clinch the arrangement. We had no doubts about him, but he had been a bit concerned about us, especially since he would be sharing a room. Duyên, of course, passed the white glove test, and the deal was on.
Our last night in Huế, we wanted to splurge on a restaurant. We had forgotten, though that the city closes early. The hotel sent us looking for a restaurant in the wrong direction, so we lost an hour. We got a cab, who took us to the place, but it was closed. We asked him to take us somewhere nice, but he left us off at a tourist trap that we had avoided on purpose. At that hour, the only option was the restaurant in an expensive hotel. We got two surprises. The bad news was that the food was pretty awful. The good news was that it wasn't as expensive as the place looked. You win some and you lose some, but on the whole, Huế had given us a fair shake.