White Knuckle Ride!

Published: April 10th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

We were met at the hotel foyer the next morning by a motorbike cavalcade waiting to take us off on a white knuckle ride of the local countryside. Having never been on the back of a bike in my life, and never having intended to go on the back of a bike I wasn't exactly looking forward to it. So Phat had decided in his wisdom to put me with the lead guy as he was the 'safest' and 'more experienced'. Trouble was, of course, that he headed off into the traffic mayhem first (after a 1, 2, 3 hoe harrrrrr from all the riders) while my knuckles got whiter and whiter!

Our first stop, after avoiding all the other massed mopeds and moterbikes of early morning Hue, was the banks of the Perfume River (Song Huong) where our dragonboat was waiting to take us on a trip. The boat was pretty big, but just one deck this time, with plastic chairs if we wanted to sit down. We spent some time all having a go up front perching near one of the dragon heads with the Vietnamese flag flying away. The boat driver suddenly made us all come inside and sit on the chairs as the police boat, anchored in the middle of the river, came into sight. He needn't have bothered as the policeman on board was lying on his back, hands behind his head, fast asleep! You've got the wrong job Phat, we said to our tour leader.

As I was taking photos of the scenery around us I happened to notice what I thought was a fisherman on a kind of long open canoe, only he wasn't fishing, he was scootling along the bank edge popping up and down to see what the people sitting on a bench by the river's edge were doing. Not fishing, but decidedly fishy! Didn't find out what he was actually up to, but no doubt it wasn't good.

We finished our boat trip and got off - disembarked if you want the technical term 😉 - and headed off to see the Thien Mu Pagoda (or its alternative name of the Celestial Lady Pagoda OR Phat's alternative name of the Fairy Woman Pagoda!). This beautiful building is sited on a hill overlooking the Perfume River and has seven tiers representing the stages of reaching nirvana. Phat gave us a little potted account of Buddhism explaining there are three types, northern (practiced mostly in the countries to the north of India where Buddhism originated), southern (you can guess...) and Zen. The northern version Buddhists can eat meat before 11am only, the southerners no meat at all (vegan in fact) or any alcohol either (additionally they aren't supposed to eat garlic as it's meant to stimulate the sex drive!). In Vietnam about 70% of people are Buddhism followers and they worship many Buddhas from Happy Buddha (who incidentally doesn't have a fat belly cos he's been eating too much, but because he is taking on all the sorrows of his followers to help them become happy), to female Buddha, Present Buddha, Future Buddha and Past Buddha (or History Buddha).

Phat pointed out what looked like a swastika on the pagoda, but explained that its 'feet' point the opposite way to the Nazi version and it actually has the meaning of 'happiness', the complete opposite then. There is also a phenemonally large bell in a side building that when tolled is said to be heard from up to 10 miles away it's so loud! In the opposite building is a huge stone turtle that, if you rub it, is supposed to give you a long life, or lots of grandchildren, or a boyfriend or girlfriend (supposing you don't already have one I assume). I rubbed it for all three - might as well be optimistic! You may have heard of the monk (Thich Quang Duc) who drove his car to Saigon in 1963 and burnt himself to death as a protest at President Ngo Dinh Diem's repressive regime. There is a famous photo taken of him in his orange robes engulfed in flames. Well he was actually from the Pagoda we were visiting and his burnt car and the photo in question are on display to remind people of his sacrifice.

We all got back on our motorbikes and with a '1, 2, 3 hoe harrrrrr!' we were off on yet more white knuckle riding, this time weaving along some really narrow alley ways between people's houses and shops. We saw some fascinating things from little shrines that were up on poles a bit like bird tables, little puppies playing around in the dust, children off to school in their uniforms, some children just playing (they have school in two shifts), they would laugh and shout hi hi and wave or even slap our hands in a high five as we rode by, we saw people watching tv in their open front rooms, hanging washing out to dry, making food, corn on the cob, chickens in little round wire cages ready to take off to be sold etc. All through these neighbourhoods the riders would beep their horns every few seconds to say we were coming and mothers would gather in their children as we passed and cheerily wave. Not the sort of reception we would get making that racket and petrol smell if we did the same in the UK! Suddenly we would get to the end of the village track we were on and emerge onto a main road, straight into the flow of traffic crossing to get to the next track - white knuckle ride eeeeeekkkkk! Close eyes!

We started to get more into the countryside after a bit of hairy speeding along the dual carriage way section (probably only 30mph really but I'm not a fan of motorbikes so had never been on one before and it felt fast!) and headed off along narrow concreted tracks, some between lush, green paddy fields stretching for miles and some through villages or alongside small rivers. Again we were greeted with hi hi and lots of smiles and giggles from both the children and adults. I wonder what they say about us after we've gone. We rolled up at a village market come tourism festival event where some of our group immediately got stuck into a hilarious game. First they were blind folded, then they had to walk towards where they thought a hanging clay pot was strung up and after loud encouragement from the crowd - left a bit, right a bit, forward, stop - they had to take just one hit to try and break the pot. We had a 2 out of 3 success rate, Jodie was particularly chuffed with her win and jumped up and down much to the crowd's amusement. Then they claimed thier can of drink as a prize.

We then went to meet a tiny old lady known as 'black teeth mama' who gave us demonstrations of farm activities including threshing corn and beating the oxen. She was a very fiesty and fun little lady and both her and our group quickly gathered quite a crowd including the local TV crew covering the event for the tourism festival week, who interviewed a few of us. The best demonstration mama gave though was showing us how she had got her 'beautiful' black teeth. The story goes that before tooth paste they used to get yellowed teeth, despite their attempts to clean them with salt and the like, and so they preferred to make them black as they thought it made them stronger. 'Black teeth mama' showed us how she cut up beetle nuts and leaves from the plant and combined them together with a paste of crushed limestone and then popped them into her mouth to chew. She then offered it around and Natalie and Gino were brave enough to have a go. Nat's face was a picture when the taste set in! She eventually had to go outside to spit it out much to the crowds amusement. What a delightful little lady 'black teeth mama' is. I have a great picture of really tall Lottie standing next to tiny black teeth mama. She was literally about 3 foot shorter than me!

We said our goodbyes to mama, after buying a few of her bits and pieces, and then went off to have a look around the market. We saw some weird and wonderful looking vegetables and fruits, particularly this spikey looking cucumber shaped fruit called bitter melon. We also saw meat for sale on slabs, decorated wonderfully by flies, and Phat explained that is was customary to feel the meat before buying to see if it was ok eeeewwww! We also saw some pots of food being cooked from snails, to corn on the cob (one little girl was brushing butter onto them with a toothbrush!) and even pop corn.

Crossing an ancient bridge, the Thanh Toan tile, roofed bridge constructed as a present for the village, we came across some demonstration paddy field contraptions that some other tourists were having a go on. First there was a kind of water scoop hanging down from a wooden frame that moved water from one area of field to another, then there was a kind of wooden cycling contraption that moved water along in a king of mini scoop fashion. Me and Nat decided to have a go, started pedalling the wrong way then promptly broke the whole thing when we reversed to the correct backwards pedalling! Oops. Prompt exit and we were back on the bikes and white knuckle riding again. The rest of the day was full of jokes about how on the tv news that night would be a huge story all about a sudden drought in the region caused by some kind of mysterious machinery malfunction!

Next stop was vegetarian lunch cooked by the nuns of a monestry. The head nun was the fattest Vietnamese person we have seen so far. The local Buddhist worshipers donate money to support the monestary and obviously the living is good, for the head nun at least! After lunch she took us to their temple to show us how they pray to the female Buddha. I had a burning incense stick thrust into my hand and she bonged the bowl and we all were supposed to be telling Buddha our names, addresses and what wish we wanted granted. I spent my time telling Buddha that surely he/she ought to know already who their followers were and where they lived, if they were any sort of religious leader and surely they weren't about to grant wishes to atheist Lottie. Imagine my surprise when a voice boomed out across the room, 'Go back one level on the path to enlightenment Lottie of Norwich, do not pass go, do not collect 200,000,000 dong!'

White knuckle riding again: '1, 2, 3, hoe harrrrrrr'! And we sped off around some more country lanes finishing up at an incense stick and conical hat making place. A girl showed us how to make incense sticks, rolling the kind of clay like putty (made of sandalwood and some kind of chemicals mixed together) with this wooden paddle using yellow powder to make sure it didn't stick. I was first to have a go and managed a passable attempt if somewhat thicker than her perfect versions and of course taking about 10 times as long as her. Various weird sausage shaped inscence sticks later and we'd all produced one of varying standards. Next to the conical hats famous in Vietnam. They are made of grass leaves that are dried and then flattened, then wettened just before they are sewn onto a frame made of thin wood. Next they place a paper cut out pattern, depicting scenes from around Hue in this case, before adding another layer of the grasses. These are sewn on with fishing line. A waterproofing coating is painted on to finish. When you hold the hats up to the light you can see the patterns. The lady who owned the business was proudly showing us her father's paintings and urging us to buy some of them. Being a buy buy buy type of group this entailed lots of umming and ahhing and eventual chosing of paintings that were removed from the wooden frames, rolled up and put into plastic tubes (with handy shoulder straps so we could carry them on the bikes!). I got myself one with two of the Ao dai (or long dress) girls walking towards a pagoda through the woods. Lovely colours and very atmospheric. The long dress is has the lovely phrase 'covers everything, hides nothing!' as they are always made from very thin floaty material.

'1, 2, 3, hoe harrrr!' and the white knuckle ride continued. My guy was on his mobile phone loads by the way, whilst honking his horn and swerving around other traffic! We headed off up along what would be lovely, quiet footpaths through the woods in the UK, but it seems Vietnamese hiking is biking! They were even honking their horns there! We ended up at the top of a hill opening out onto a wonderful view over a bend in the Perfume River. This now scenic viewing area was used during the war as a defensive point and you could see Hamburger Hill from where we were. There were some watch tower/bunkers remaining. Ten minutes later (no hanging about in the countryside!) and group photos of us all on our bikes taken - they stupidly showed us where the horns were so every photo taken was accompanied by '1, 2, 3 beeeeeeep!' (no peaceful country walks enjoying nature here!) and we were off again. '1, 2, 3, hoe harrrr!'

Last stop of our motorbike tour was to the Elephant and Tiger arena where the Emperor used to have his prize elephant trample the poor tiger to death. The elephant always won as they put the tiger at a severe disadvantage removing both its claws and teeth before the fight! Usually the building is locked up these days, but we made such a racket arriving on our bikes that someone came out to unlock the gate to let us have a look inside. You could see claw marks on the walls where the tigers were kept before the fights. Poor animals. There should have been a geocache to find here, but as the past 5 people who had logged put a 'did not find' I didn't bother searching. I did however find a massive snail that looked more like something you would see a hermit crab in and we noticed this guy outside the arena with a long, long, thin stick trying to catch something in the trees, so went over to find out what he was doing. He produced a cicada bug for us to look at and quickly he shoved it at me, probably expecting me to flinch. It actually stuck onto my hands, its wings being really sticky - the reason he was able to catch them with his stick. They were huge - about 5cm long!

And so we headed off for the last time with a '1, 2, 3 hoe harrrr!' on our last white knuckle ride back through the busy traffic of Hue to our hotel. What a fabulous day out and I so nearly missed it cos I was scared at the idea of the motorbike ride.

The rest of the afternoon was free time, so I decided to head back to the citadel, after looking up the geocache I'd missed the day before to get a photo clue as to where it was hidden. I walked there this time, over the huge bridge and over two massive roads with 100s of mopeds that you wouldn't dream of attempting to cross in the UK. Here however you pick a gap then just start walking slowly and they really do just drive around you! I headed straight to the spot I knew the cache was hidden and to my surprise the quiet little stepped area I'd been to the day before was now covered with colourful masks, with one huge one guarding the exact spot of the cache hidey hole! Again it was all part of the Tourism Festival. I quickly logged my find on the paper inside the little plastic canister and swapped the clogs travel bug I found with my daughters' Jumping Franya key ring with their photos on ready to start its travels around the world. I only just did it in time as the guys arranging the masks turned up. I just hope they are so engrossed in their masks that they don't notice the little pot. Yay my first actual physical geocache find in Vietnam. Hope they don't muggle it. Good luck Jumping Franya, hope you have some great adventures for my girls to follow 😊

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