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Clare’s Travel Diary

Monday, 26 May 2008

Location: Hue, Vietnam

Map"You never go, you never know" seems to be the catchphrase of Hue... Based on the success of the motorbike tours run by a Vietnamese guy called Thu (pronounced two) from his Cafe on Thu wheels, everyone is saying it to get people into mini day tours! Some other gems from the guy include the inevitable "Lovely Jubbly" which follows the English round the world like a bad smell and when describing the life of a monk in Vietnam "no Tiger Beer, no hello darling, no meat, no fish, no tuna, no Bob Marley, no pool, no football, no Rock and Roll, not good life for me" (!)

So we are nearly two weeks into Vietnam and are racing at breakneck speed through south in a bid to have a enough time to lie on the beach at Nha Trang! Its also very. very hot, sticky and humid, which really starts to leach the life out us in the middle of the day. Our hotel room here in Hue though has air con -my first one in 7 months - its bliss!

We left Hanoi by bus to head a few hours south to Ninh Binh where we spent a great, but very very hot day cycling to Tam Coc and the 'Halong Bay on rice paddies'. Its a gorgeous Coracle ride up the waterway between the rice paddies, passing through caves and past huge Karst formations for a couple of hours. Luckily we weren't rowing ourselves, but of course on the way back the inevitable trunk of tourist tat was retrived from the bottom of the boat and we had to fend off the woman's desperate attempts to part us with our cash. Not that much incentive for us as far as we could see. After recovering by drinking about 3 litres of water (its about 38 degrees and 85% humidity) we cycled slowly off in search of that ancient capital of Hoa Lu. I say in search because four hours later we were defeated and turned back to the hotel in town. A major delimiting factor being that we'd been given a hand drawn map of the area by the hotel but that failed to take into account the stonking great three lane highway which is under construction down to Hoa Lu. It criss crosses the original road (barely wide enough for a car) and we just got completely lost. We think we got pretty close but the day was drawing in and we headed back to shower before we got on the night bus to Hue.

The bus system in Vietnam is great. We've bought an open jaw ticket from Hanoi to Saigon for 30 USD which allows us to get on and off at all the major stops down the country and gives us travel down the whole 1000Km length of Vietnam with most of the big journeys as over-nighters. There are sleeper buses or soft seat buses - we're cheap and have got soft seat tickets, but we were upgraded on the Ninh Binh to Hue section for free. The sleeper buses are amazing! completely flat beds with space for hand luggage storage - they're narrow beds and some are on the top deck but they have seatbelts, pillows, blankets and a toilet on board, and I have to say, I slept really well!

So here in Hue (approximately half way down the length of Vietnam) we've been to visit the Forbidden Purple City in the Imperial Citadel (which sounds a little more impressive than it actually is) and have been whizzed around the pagodas and royal mausoleums by Thu on his motorbike tour. A really great way to see things as we took us on routes we would have never known about and threw in some creative interpretation of history to boot! I didn't realise that Vietnam was a monarchy until 1949 and the captial was Hue... in fact I'm realising there are many things I didn't know about Vietnam (such as the Vietnam war is called the American war over here as they were pretty much continuously at war with either China, France or America for about 500 years) and everywhere we go seems to have been the capital at one time or another.

We also did a quite sparse (sights-wise) but reflective trip to the former De-Militarised Zone (DMZ) from the American War. We saw a section of the former Ho Chi Minh trail (used by the North Vietnam army to supply the Communist Viet Cong in the south). This is heavily linked to the amount of bombing that went on in Laos as the trail criss-crossed the Viet-Lao border. We also visited some former sites of American bases. These areas are scarred and stripped bare of vegetation and forest due to the Agent Orange herbicide/Napalm combo that was dropped in a bid to clear the jungle and allow the Americans to track Viet Cong movements. Local people are still suffering health problems relating to the use of Agent Orange and the area which was previously pristine jungle is obviously now almost useless to the population. The things we do in the name of war.

The highlight of the tour was however a visit to the Vinh Moc tunnels by the sea in the northern DMZ. Over 300 local villagers lived in these tunnels for 5 years, 17 babies were born in the maternity room and school took place in the biggest tunnel (about 1.5m wide). They had living quarters, wells, washing rooms, guard posts, stairways and emergency exits. Its a testimony to human endurance but these tunnels cover over 5 kilometres in length and were hand dug. The deepest are 23m (there are three levels) and they form a rabbit-warren of routes to and from the beach, up through the hill further into the countryside. There is a more extensive set of tunnels at Cu Chi down in the Mekong Delta we'll be going to next week which are apparently more raw as they were used for combat, but it was really amazing to see what conditions the local people survived in here. Originally there was only one ventilation shaft but an American bomb created a second, more effective one - one of America's gifts to the world is after all Air Con!

Anyway, we're off to Hoi An tomorrow (another UNESCO listed town) and then further south to the beach and some diving. Its so hot and sticky here I have to admit I am really looking forward to being able to dip in the ocean. I've added some more pictures as well so please do browse!