Back in Hanoi, after a half day of schlepping around with our backpacks, we boarded the night train to Hue, the old imperial capital. I wish I could say the train ride was fun, but all the sleeping cars had been taken by the time we bought our tickets, so we had to ride in the regular (albeit “soft-seat”) car – I shudder to think what the hard seats must feel like.
We woke up with the feeling of being trapped inside a slow-moving submarine: outside our windows, in the torrential rain, in the emerald-green rice paddies, drenched white egrets were dejectedly looking for cover and peasants sat smoking large wooden pipes on the stoops of isolated huts with dripping palm-leaf roofs – it all looked otherworldly and aquatic, a landscape from another century and another world…
We could have stared out the window wordlessly for hours but we eventually had to get off the train and (after some adventures that included a bus-chase across town thanks to a friendly cabbie in Dong Hoi) board the smallest, most crowded shuttle to Hue for three more hot, sweaty and uncomfortable hours. That bus ride, like many of our Vietnam bus rides, was memorable: from the seventeen passengers fitted in eleven seats, to the pee breaks along the ditches in the road, and the epic pork belly sandwich that Ed commissioned from one of the many women peddling their foodstuffs at the gas stop. Said sandwich was assembled right there on the ground, in between the pump and the wheel of the bus.
But the reward was great – at the end of this grueling trip, the epic Imperial City of Hue unfolded under our eyes in all its splendor.
The Citadel, former imperial seat of government, is a great sprawling complex of temples, pavilions, moats, and plenty of yet unreconstructed ruins and overgrown gardens that were delightfully peaceful – a rare commodity in Vietnam and a sad result of the “Tet offensive” in 1968 when it was shelled by the Viet Cong and then bombed by Americans. But restoration seems to be chugging along quite well – they were redoing the front gates during our visit.
On the way back from the Citadel, we had an interesting conversation with a language student at the local university – the lovely Lala – who shared with us a local proverb: Allegedly, to achieve happiness, all you need is “A Western house, a Japanese wife, and Chinese food.” While I can see the logic of the first two, I was certainly baffled by the latter – Vietnamese food is among the best cuisines we’ve ever sampled and would never-ever trade it for Chinese food (at least not Chinese food cooked Stateside, but I hear the real thing is pretty heavy stuff too)
We spent only two short nights and days in Hue and then headed to Hoi An, an idyllic town and our first in Southern Vietnam proper – where we lucked out on a great hotel and recovered for the next four days.
Somehow we largely managed to stay clear of Hoi An’s tailoring shops and its storefronts littered with pretty coats and instead focused on its back alleys and the beach. Turns out that the area just outside Hoi An is a sort of rural Venice with a touch of the exotic – narrow canals slither between coconut groves and most houses call the river their backyard.
Needless to say, part of the appeal of Hoi An was the beautiful beach and the existence on that beach of a surfboard that Ed discovered, with a twinkle in his eye, belonged to Alex Knost, a semi-pro surfer from Newport Beach, close to Ed’s stomping/surfing grounds, also of “Step Into Liquid” fame.
So, in Hoi An we bathed in the South China Sea for the first time, making the 15 minute bike ride to the beach our daily morning commute, and generally used our bikes liberally to explore the scenic if rather commercial town center and the beautiful landscapes.
In fact, one story that will probably be told and retold to generations of Gendreau offsprings happened on those very bikes: one evening, after thoroughly exploring Hoi An’s rural backyards, we decided to take what looked on our GPS maps like a shortcut and ended up falling in a time-bubble.
It couldn’t have been more than 45 minutes, but it felt like hours of biking down an ever-darker, ever narrower path between flooded rice paddies, the lights of the city fading and then disappearing entirely behind us until we saw nothing but the stars above and their reflections below
The air was damp and smelled like woodsmoke and dung and the fields looked post-apocalyptic, an impression multiplied by the fact that at every 500 meters a crackling megaphone perched atop a pole blared incomprehensible, militaristic-sounding slogans. After a while we lost all hope of reaching the city before being completely vampirized by mosquitoes, so we turned around and biked back, sliding on the mud and wondering at this world that seemed, once again, to exist outside of time…