Thursday, June 3, 2010

Hue Part 1 - I'm Pretty Sure I Ain't Going To Be Needing That Scarf Anytime Soon

After our Halong Bay trip, we arrived back in Hanoi with a couple if hours to kill. Jenni and I stepped off the bus looking like a couple of drowned rats as the heavens opened just as we stepped off. After picking up our passports which we had sent off for visa extensions, we killed a few hours while sipping cheap fruit cocktails at our favourite cafe and pub which we had been frequenting during our prolonged stay in Hanoi.

At about 10pm, we jumped in a taxi to take us to the train station so we could catch the 11pm overnight train to Hue, our next destination in Vietnam. Normally this car trip would only take about 10mins from the Old Quarter, but due to the fact that our taxi driver did not speak any English, the taxi trip took a bit longer than usual. We told him we wanted to go to the train station and pointed to it on the map. Even after being shown where we wanted to go on the map, he still looked rather confused, so we told him we wanted to go to Hue. At hearing this, he set off. I noticed that he was driving in the direction of the airport and told him "not airport. Train station. Train station to go to Ho Chi Minh." As we found out earlier that week, there are two train stations in Hanoi, one that goes to Lao Cai in the north and another that goes to the cities in the south and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). If you don't specify which one to the taxi driver, you may end up at the wrong one. Hearing Ho Chi Minh, he took us to Ho Chi Minh... literally! He drove us to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum! Seeing that time was a ticking I succumbed to playing a game of charades with him to communicate to him "the train station". Jenni was rather amused that my mimicking of a set of train wheels, by rotating hands and making a "chugga, chugga" noise, got the message across and we rocked up at the train station with about 15mins to spare.

Due to being exhausted from our Halong Bay trip, we both slept very well on the train to Hue. Stepping off the train, the heat was like a slap in the face. The weather further south in Vietnam is much hotter than that in the north. Although it doesn't seem as humid it is a much more searing heat like that in Australia. We later found out that the temperature on our first day in Hue was about 40 degrees Celsius. The local shopping mall saw some business from us as we made sure to purchase a couple more items of cooler clothing and threw out some of our warmer items like heavy jeans and scarfs which I don't think we will be missing in this heat.

Located in a dodgy little alleyway, the interior of the Waterland hotel, our AUD $35 per night room looked like a room out of a five star hotel. It was ENORMOUS. It had one king sized bed AND a queen sized bed, with stacks of room to spare. The hostel staff were really nice. Almost too nice! Every time we walked through the lobby, we were greeted by about 4 girls, all with big warm smiles and they wouldn't let you get past them without sitting down while they served you with a cool glass of water (even if you really need to go to the toilet you still need to scull a glass of water before being allowed to proceed to your room).  Every now and again, there would be a knock on our door from a girl offering us a complimentary platter of fresh fruit. Next year when they open up their new hotel on the main street, equipped with a swimming pool and an elevator (elevators in Vietnamese hotels are a rarity and a sign of prestige in the hotel business here), this hostel will be one of the best budget hotels in Vietnam.

For the rest of our first day in Hue, we hired a scooter and christened our newly purchased motor bike helmets. Pretty much all people in Vietnam riding motorbikes wear helmets, but the quality of the helmets is not exactly fantastic. The average helmet over here provides less protection that you would get by wearing a cooking pot on your head. People only wear the helmets to avoid getting fined under a new law introduced a few years ago due to the high death rate on the roads. Most young people wear thin helmets with no padding that look like baseball caps, have fancy tartan or denim patterns or fashionable branding like Nike, Adidas, Guchi or Burberry on them. With so many other vehicles on the road it really makes us wonder why people over here are so careless when it comes to their own safety while riding on the road. Just the other day on the way back from Halong Bay, we drove past a lot of commotion on the main road where I spotted the lifeless body of a poor man who had been struck down dead on the road. I did not see a helmet in the vicinity of the body.

Finding helmets that provide decent protection is actually quite a hard task. We managed to purchase some of the Vietnamese government approved Protech branded helmets. They are thicker than the standard helmets, have more padding on the inside and provide more protection around our faces and neck, but they pale in comparison to a real helmet that you would wear while riding a motorbike in a western country. 

We rode our scooter along the Perfume River for a while before stopping off for a drink at one of the local "cafes" by the riverside. All throughout Vietnam you can find little "cafes" and "restaurants" which consist of a set of small plastic tables and chairs setup on the sidewalk by the road. The "fridge" usually consists of an esky filled with ice, the "kitchen" usually consists of a couple of pots and pans setup on a portable gas stove and the "dishwasher" usually consists of the nearby hose on the side of the street! I'm not sure if they are a legitimate form of business, but they must require some form of license as we saw one in the Old Quarter in Hanoi "raided" by a group of army men, having their pots and pans all confiscated. The funny thing was that when this happened, all of the local retailers watching from afar, quickly grabbed all of their "knock off" goods and hid them at the back of their stores until the army men drove off. 30 minutes later the pots and pans were back and business at the little "cafe" was booming again!

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