Our stay in Hue was a two night affair, which involved one full day of touring. Hue, the original capital of Vietnam, has a deep and colorful past and is centered around the Perfume River, named for a particular type of aromatic flower that used to grow on its banks prior to being herbicided into extinction. Our tour started off by hopping onto a dragon boat which has become the home of numerous displaced farmers who left the countryside during the war seeking safety from the combatants and a better life, which degenerated into having their wives and daughters servicing the US soldiers on their boats in order to eke out any form of subsistence. Numerous boat people were Viet Cong sympathizers and lured unwitting GI’s into their boats for a session which sometimes resulted in an eight inch spike being hammered into the skull of the unsuspecting customer. Happy Endings are obviously quite subjective in this country.
We cruised the river with the boatperson hostess stopping off at a police checkpoint mid-river to offer the required $1 bribe to continue the tour. A quick visit to the local pagoda,
hampered by some rain and we were off to The Citadel, which served as Vietnam’s answer to China’s Forbidden City. It was the home of the local emperor and his court.
The parts that were not destroyed by the French or the Americans impressed us in terms of scope and beauty. There were areas for the concubines, for the queen, the king’s mother, a working area and a general palace. The king was surrounded by the best and brightest administrators who were required to pass an exam that was offered every three years. The three top applicants, who were able to offer up the most creative answers to local governance issues, foreign trade, administrative planning, local development questions, etc. were appointed as Mandarins. There was no room at the top for Tangelos, Clementines or Seedless Valencias.
Speaking of seedless, other than the King the only males allowed on campus were the court eunuchs. All other inhabitants, including the king’s 300 or so concubines were of the female persuasion. He was not big into sharing or competition apparently. Again, rain made the excursion a bit less pleasant that it ought to have been, but no big deal, it was like water rolling off a tourist’s back.
Lunch was followed by a visit to the tomb of Khai Dinh,
the second to last emperor who died in 1925, and was the last one to have a tomb made for him.
The hillside location took 13 yers to find. The king sent out a small army of geographers seeking the appropriate spot. It ended up being about 10 kilometers out of town and had a view to die for. Construction began 5 years prior to his death and took 7 years of keeping him on ice to complete the job. Pictures say it all. The mist caused by the low hanging clouds added a surreal and ethereal mood to the experience.
Lori found a new friend in Hue. Mr. Cu ran a local restaurant across the street from our hotel. In addition to his main gig, his walls were covered with photographs he’d taken of various scenes in Vietnam. Obviously, the two got along like a house on fire, exchanging pics, ideas, apertures and the like. He signed a couple of shots and presented them to Lori as birthday gifts. A delightful man and a pleasure to spend some after hours time with drinking ubiquitous tea together.
Hau, our tour guide, picked us up bright and early the next morning; well, not so early, around 9:00, and we headed south to Da Nang. The drive along a large lagoon was inspiring as we got to see how the locals have created an industry raising oysters in the shallows. As we left Hue province, we had to climb a mountain pass that hugged the edge of the coast. When we reached the peak, we were able to look back at the China Sea and forward to Da Nang, with Monkey Mountain looming in the foreground. The peak of the pass was a strategic location for both the French and the US. There were concrete bunkers and brick bunkers with slots to fire out of. All were pockmarked by countless rounds courtesy of the Viet Cong firing back from the next hill
Lunch followed in Da Nang, which was the first incursion point of the US. In addition to a large naval base, they also built a radar station and a landing strip. Both are currently in use by the Vietnamese, as are many other landing strips all over the country which, including Hue, have been turned into local airports. You’d think the VC would be appreciative, but not even a thank you card.
Da Nang has evolved from a sleepy port that had seen more than its share of grief into a hugely successful development town. To its south is China Beach. Named by the US soldiers and a subsequent hit TV show, the gorgeous sandy tract is being turned into one long strip of hotels, condos, and casinos. One of the leading developers is a company called Vina Capital, a real estate firm owned and operated by the daughter of the President of Viet Nam. Pure co-incidence apparently. Lori noted that the development in the area seemed similar to the changes we have observed over the past decade or so visiting my parents in Palm Desert, CA. What was once undeveloped scrub is now a cacophony of strip centers, golf courses, gated communities and condominium projects. I’m talking about both Palm Desert and Da Nang, folks. The growth is explosive and, given the financial issues facing the two different markets over the past two or three years, the smart money is on ‘Nam.
Going back to Vina Capital, The Imperial Hotel in Hue, and the 5 star resort in which we are presently ensconced, I would have to think that the national symbol of this country should be the washing machine, given the level of laundering that is evidently happening in every sector of the economy. Government officials, who earn very meager salaries all, seem to have friends who own huge mansions and allow the officials to live there for free. Or they have brothers who own hotels. Or they have friends who run large factories. Odd.
We arrive at Hoi An, a sleepy little town that’s been on the map for the past 6 or 7 centuries.
A trading town/port situated on the South China Sea, the town has been populated by the Japanese, the Dutch, the French as well as a plethora of other nations taking turns playing Conquest a Milton-Bradley board game available to despots wherever they may be. People would remain stuck in this town until the Trade Winds showed up at which point they would be back on board and heading home with their lucre safely on board. Marco Polo was apparently an early visitor. All went to pot when the river silted up in the 19th century and Da Nang became the port of choice. Fast forward to 1999 when UNESCO put Hoi An and its old town back on the map by designating it on its World Heritage List and look out mama, the tourists are back. The streets are teeming with travelers. Everything from the nomadic backpackers staying at $5 per nigh hostels in the middle of the old town (God, I miss those days) to high end five star resorts such as the Palm Gardens where we are presently camped out (OK, a reasonable offset against my old knapsack days).
Stop one was Valy’s, a high end tailor shop where I’m in the process of realizing a lifelong dream of having an off-white linen suit being made to measure for me at a price that I’ve previously paid to buy a tie. I am desperately seeking formal invitations for this upcoming summer. If you are anticipating holding some type of fancy party, please make certain to invite us. I will amuse and amaze whilst wearing my Robert Morley circa African Queen/Sidney Greenstreet circa Casablanca outfit.
We checked into the aforementioned and sumptuous Palm Garden Resort for our longest single repose of the lux portion of our holiday and, after unpacking, hit the bar and knocked back a few (OK, several) Long Island Iced Teas while talking it up with Hank and Michelle, an Ozzie couple on holiday with 3 of their 6 children. Dinner was sumptuous and we retired for the evening.
Today began with an 8:30 pick up. We headed to the farm/home of a well respected member of the Tra Que Vegetable Village, a local tourist destination
where Lori and I got to don those brown Mao looking tunics, conical hats,
and hoed, raked and planted a couple of rows of Morning Glories after being given a tour of the farm (each family gets 200 square meters to raise their crops, which get sold to the high end restos and hotels that dot the neighbourhood. The focal point of this tourist project is a family dwelling and business that processes tourists by the dozen. It is a well oiled machine. The place comes equipped with a seventy year old matriarch who served the Viet Cong, was captured, interrogated and tortured to the point where she’s lost her mind. She wanders around the homestead, reading nationalistic propaganda poetry off of a virtually blank piece of paper and rolls the smoothest looking cigarettes in the palm of her hand. Imagine Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies
were she to come from Vietnam and be a lunatic and you get the idea. It seems that the government shows a great deal of respect for those who fought the good fight back in the day. Missus is nuts and her husband lost his hearing as a result of being too close to one too many bombardments. They have been selected as the ‘go to’ farmers for the regional tourist attraction in recognition of their sacrifice. They are now doing well financially, very well. The business is run by one of the sons and he and his wife have carved out quite a niche for themselves. Picture Ava Gabor and Eddy Albert from Green Acres
and there you have them.
After the hoeing sand planting session, which was led by Thieu, a cute, perky 22 year old attractive cousin who spoke a delightful English and has ambitions beyond the family farm, we were given sumptuous foot massage,
with a bit of Tiger Balm on the temples action, followed by a cooking lesson, given up by various sisters, cousins and associated meshpucha. Picture Petticoat Junction
and there you have it. Naturally I was a star when it came to making this delicious crepe type pancakes filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, up to and including mid-air flips that landed squarely in the pan.
We ate all the food we prepped and then headed back into the village where we wandered the streets, caught some of the local culture, I had my first try on, and we finished the afternoon attending a hokey folk song, local instrument production that, as Lori accurately pointed out, if they were going through the motions with even a modicum less verve, they’d be catatonic.
|Check out the jugs
Our last stop involved a visit to a collecxtor of artifacts. She was a colleague of our tour guide who seems to have half a dozen varying businesses going on, one being a cataloguer of national treasures, a portion of which end up in his private collection. Apparently one of his confederates is a researcher too, also with a stunning collection of antiques. We were privileged to get the opportunity to view the collection, a portion of which is apparently available to a select group of visitors of which I am apparently one. To access the collection, we entered into one of the many innocuous tailor shops on the main drag, we went through the curtain in the back and then up the stairs. I half expected to see Napolean Solo and Ilya Kuryakin there, but we seemed to be alone. The only piece that I really wanted, a 16th
century vase recovered from a local shipwreck,
was not available and had it been, I doubt that I could afford it. All in all, it was a fun afternoon and we headed back to the resort and signed up for two of the most sumptuous massages imaginable. As it turned out, Lori and I were being worked on in the same room, with two Vietnamese masseuses doing the honours. I spent the better part of the hour trying to figure out how to turn the session into a serious advantage for me, but nothing worked out. Oh well, had to suffer.
Tomorrow is another cooking lesson, a final try on and who knows what else. Stay tuned.