A river of perfume and how do you say "get a room" in Vietnamese?

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November 7th 2012
Published: December 2nd 2012
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I transfer back to Hanoi and then its another nightbus to Hue. I arrive into a town soft and grey with drizzle at 6am in the morning - having been sardined into a slot the size of a baked bean can all night. Because of absolutely no preparation on my part i'm easy prey for a persistent man on a motorbike. Mr Thien gradually persuades me to part with 180,000 (just under a fiver) to take me around the sights of Hue for the day. As he also manages to find me a guesthouse for under 6 dollars a night I don't begrudge it him too much...but on checking in I suddenly realise that although I am now in Central Vietnam - my underwear is still holidaying in North Vietnam. I've managed to leave my laundry at the Little Hanoi Hostel. Bugger.

I wanted to visit some of the DMZ (Demilitarised zone) to see a part of Vietnam's war history. As there is still UXO – Unexploded ordinance in this part of the country i'm a little relieved when Mr Thien and I get our wires crossed and he ends up taking me to Chin Ham or 9 Tunnels instead. This is a memorial and series of nine trenches around 6km oustide of Hue that used to play prison to Vietnamese under the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dien Dinmh and garnered the moniker “hell on earth.” The tunnels and cages are complete with grotesque mannequins again, one forced to lie face down to drink with a rat scrabbling its paws beside his head, another clutches the bars to his ceiling - his emaciated ribs poking through his rags. The surrouning countryside is eerily calm and provides a cool canopy of fragrant cedars in the heat of midday – belying the horror that its seen.

The royal tombs of various Emperors and Empress line the Perfume River that runs through Hue. I visit two of them. The tomb of Khai Dinh is located away from the centre of town and up a steep hill in the Chau Chau mountains. Khia Dinh reigned in the early 20th century and was not by all accounts a particularly popular chap – as he kow towed to the French imperialist overlords and raised taxes by some 20%!i(MISSING)n order to pay for the kitting out of his lavish mausoleum! It does however have the largest stone dragons up its staircase in all of Vietnam. Minh Mang's tomb is in a shaded and calmer area away from the others. I don't think he was particularly well liked either but that didn't stop him from investing in his dying space. There is a lake filled with large lilly pads decorating its perimeter in front of green and wooded hills. There are more Bodhi trees, their long and curling roots branching through the concrete paving of the square and set in little nooks and crannies amongst the branches are incense sticks. These are holy trees – where Budhha himself found enlightment and provide a lovely tranquil shade where I can contemplate life whilst eating a strawberry cornetto. I finish my little tour by visiting its most famous, oldest and prettiest sight – the Thien Mu Pagoda. Built in the 16th century on the banks of the Perfume river, the pagoda is a creation of dusty pinks and golds. Fearsome temple guardians with mad staring eyes and pointy beards guard the gates. Inside the temple there are monks in grey robes tending to the gardens whilst tourists surrepitiously take their photo. There is also another more shocking sight – an old rusty car responsible for taking monk Thich Quang Duc to the site of his self immolation in the 1960s.

I part ways with Mr Vien and pay 100,000 for a 45 minute boat ride on the Perfume river. In the heat of midday its nice to have an old blue wooden boat to myself. We pass villagers at the river banks and on the little islets in stream inadvertently creating picture postcard scenes of Traditional Vietnam - fishermen in long blue overalls and triangular straw hats casting their nets. The boat drops me off at the local market where women line the street selling bananas and other tropical fruit along with live crabs and frogs. Then i take a walk to the old town – the Citadel. A rickshaw driver calls out to me:

“Where are you going????”

“I really don't know!” I say. Its true, I have no map or any idea what the sights are. Luckily he comes to my rescue and offers to take me around the old town for 100,000 dong.

My driver is called Mr Hue (easy to remember) and he, like Mr Thien, has a little notebook of recommendations from tourists of different nationalities. He has a very warm open smile, bright eyes, deep brown skin and a gentle air.

We go to a couple of temples –in one a monk in saffron robes is giving a sermon to nuns who crowd on the steps in their grey shifts, to listen. I ask Mr Hue if he is Buddhist and he concurs - showing me the dharma wheel he has tattooed on his heart. We visit some pretty gardens where fat fish swim and song birds sing from the trees ad then a Unesco building on the outskirts of another temple. We cross a moat to get to the building and watch a woman who is thigh deep in the thick green water pulling at lotus flowers.

“I no like do this!” exclaims Mr Hue... “Snakes!”

There is a tree heavy with goldenn coloured blooms on the banks with an incredible creamy rich honey suckle scent. On the waters edge opposite is an old and crumbling deserted house. It was occupied by families until recently when Unesco decided to list it as a world heritage site and protect it.

“They very lucky!” says Mr Hue “they get new house for free from Unesco!”

I finish my day having a look around the Forbidden City. Emperor Gia Long took control of Vietnam in 1802 and set about building himself a palace and citadel protected by a moat with water taken from the Perfume River. The main building was the palace and throne room but many more courtyards, gardens and rooms were added. In 1968 Hue underwent 26 days of bombing inflicted by the VietCong and North Vietnamese army against the US and South Vietnam. Much of the beautiful ancient architecture of the city was destroyed. Out of 160 buildings of historical importance only 10 remain. The brick work of the city walls that ring the old town are pocked with bullet marks. Much of it is has been restored only recently . 3000 people were killed in what is referred to now as The Battle of Hue.

“ I don't know my father.” Mr Hue tells me.

“He die in war when I am born. My mother die of heart when i'm 14. Then I live with grandmother.”

His grandmother at 93 is still alive and can't see very far or hear very well so now he looks after her.

His eyes are filled with sadness as he watches me make my way down the staircase to the old wall. I guess the Vietnam war is so recent in our history its not suprising that i've already met one of its living victims.

That evening – i've found a great little thriller at a book exchange and decide to take it with me to dinner at the local restaurant and have “a quiet night in.” I order a beer, some “white rose” (the local speciality – little flowers of shrimp dumpling ) and a Ban Xeo – a deep fried pancake stuffed with prawn, pork, bean sprouts and served with a peanut dipping sauce. I'm just settling in when I catch someone in my peripherhal vision sit down near me. I turn to look – and then (subtle as always) do an ENORMOUS double take as I realise its an incredibly gorgeous guy. I've been so obvious (absolutely no poker face remember) I can't really do anything now except say hello. He asks what i'm eating and explains his friend is back at the hotel.

Martin is a 24 year old Argentinian from Patagonia (the same city as Nico – my taste in men has definitely become a little niche recently...!) He flew out to follow the Rugby world cup in New Zealand before staying on the working visa and is now travelling around Asia with his friend Juan - before heading home for xmas. He has thick black hair, caramel coloured eyes fringed with very long lashes, 5 days of stubble, a husky Argentinian/ Spanishy sounding accent and the ugliest flip flops i've ever seen in my life. It later transpires he's nicked the free ones you get in guest houses all over Asia because he likes them. Juan can only shake his head in despair. Nonetheless - horrendous footwear aside he looks exactly like like Enrique Inglesias' prettier, less manicured younger brother. I take an executive decision and immediately put my book away again.

We carry on chatting - he's very easy to talk too, funny and outgoing with a sunny disposition and eventually Juan joins us and we move onto another bar and play Jenga. Its a clubby tourist trap called Brown Eyes whose idea of a some good tunes is the Grease Megamix and La Bamba and its filled with my countrymen. A sight that normally fills me with dread. Nevertheless the absolutely terrible music can't stop Juan and Martin from kicking off their flip flops and beginning to dance. That is definitely the difference between Latin American men and their Northern hemisphere counterparts. Most British men i've met would be resolutely clinging to their beer and probably be just about building up to a non commital head nod in time to the music about now rather than taking to the dance floor. So its fun to be with boys that know how to party.

Eventually Juan ducks out early and Martin and I go grab a beer at a little street food cafe that's open late. When we start to kiss the locals start screaming, making puckering up noises and pushing our heads together. Then they start to take photos! We've been pretty chaste but I explain that in Laos public displays of affection are frowned upon and they have signs up on the do's and don'ts for Westerners. Maybe its the same here...

“mmmm I don't see any signs up do you bonita?” he shrugs...

Well when you put it like that...

So we carry on until the Vietnamese owner – a woman in flipflops and a butchers apron – screeches

“HOOOOOOTEL!!!!” which I think could be interpreted as “ For Christ sake - Get a room you two.” Her husband is already asleep – sprawled prostrate on a mattress just inside their house.

So Martin walks me back to my guest house and we swap details in case our paths happen to cross again.

Tomorrow my adventure continues – via motorbike! Mr Hue is one of the so called “ Easy Riders” of Central Vietnam and has persuaded me to part with even more cash to take the scenic route on the back of his bike – from Hue to Hoi An. Its 3am and I need my beauty sleep as he'll be picking me up at 9am so i'm climbing the steep stone stairs to my room alone...! But hey ...I manage to drift off with a smile on my face 😉

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