Which Hue?

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December 16th 2014
Published: December 16th 2014
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Which Hue?

So I get off the train coming back from Sapa, and I have a very chilly motorbike ride back to the hotel. I get some warm tea there and await my taxi to take me to the airport for my flight to wait. I don't know much about hue, except that it was the ancient capital of Vietnam, and has a lot of ancient ruins. On the airplane, I see a guy wearing a Detroit Tigers hat. Therefore I ask him, "Are you really a Detroit Tigers fan?" He replies, "No, but I'm from Michigan." And I say, "No way, I'm from Kalamazoo!" And crazy enough, not only is he from Grand Rapids, he moved to the Bay Area seven years ago, and now lies in Oakland. This is so ironic, since I moved to the Bay 5 and a half years ago and I'm also moving to Oakland. He is there with his girlfriend and they seem like a lot of fun. We exchange emails, and speak of trying to meet up later.

I get a shuttle bus to the hotel, which costs around two dollars. It drops me off right at my hotel, which I am thankful for as it's raining. I have a private room in a moderately nice hotel, for $12 a night. It has air conditioning and a hot shower. There is a dog on the front doorstep. When I asked his name, the receptionist tells me it's not really their dog, but they call him Dollar. I like this dog. He just sleeps on the step all day. Not quite a guard dog. It is raining, but I have a poncho and an umbrella, so that I then set out to see some of the city.

I first stop at Mandarin Cafe which I found in my Lonely Planet book. The food is okay, but the staff helps me plan my bike ride for the next day, and the owner, Mr. Cu, is a riot. He is dressed in a beret and suspenders and is so friendly. He gives me a pamphlet of a nice walking tour of the city, which he designed himself. He offers me a free postcard, made from his photographs. His postcards are so nice, that I look through his photo book and order some prints for gifts. He tells me he was in the Vietnam sad, but actually served in the US side as a fireman. He then gives a shameless plug about his success on Trip Advisor.

I then decide to follow the walking tour, which starts with a walk around the entire citadel, which is in the center of the ancient city. There are cobblestone roads, and gates on each side of the city, which is surrounded by a large stone wall. You need to pay an entrance fee to get into the city, which I deferred for today since it's late afternoon and I plan on doing so tomorrow. The walk is nice and the atmosphere is serene and very historic and ancient, as if the ghosts of residents pasts still live within the walls. The outside of the city center is lined with cafés and shops. I walk over the bridge which crosses the Perfume River, and then end up at the Dong Ba market. This market is quite large, two stories and indoors, and filled with commercial and noncommercial stands alike. I do some bartering, and pick up some gifts for my niece and nephew. I get two small North Face backpacks for only seven dollars apiece. I then run into Lindsey and Ryan, the couple I had met on the airplane. We make plans to go out for dinner and beers that night.

I meet Lindsey and Ryan at their hotel, which is massive and amazing. Lindsay is in ESL teacher in the States, and one of her previous students was a rich pregnant Vietnamese woman who got came to California to give birth because she wanted her child to have dual citizenship. She invited Lindsey to come and visit her, and she finally took her up on the offer. Ryan and she paid for their plane tickets, and little did they know, the rest of the trip would be paid for. The woman arranged all of their hotels and all their tours and insisted on footing the bill. Not a rough go. Their hotel is called the Imperial Hotel, and it is massive and all of the staff are dressed in traditional clothing. It is opulent and, well honestly, a bit ridiculous. They acknowledge this as well and we have a good laugh.

We then walked to a diner I had read about in on the Internet. It is a Vegetarian restaurant commonly frequented by monks. Unfortunately, as it is a Sunday night, it is closed, so we wander around trying to find a good restaurant. We end up in a bar that has a wooden roof and canopies with a nice garden in the middle. The ambience is great. The waiter asks us if we are getting the hot pot, which I take as an indication we should probably order the hot pot. However, we order other dishes instead, and this was a mistake. The food is actually awful. Worst I've had in Southeast Asia. However, we each have about four beers apiece, because they are cheap the atmosphere is good, and it is still raining hard outside. Finally the rain lets up, we pay our tab, we decide to go to a bar we could both read about called "Brown Eyes" for a nightcap.

Well, nightcap indeed. We walk in, and the music is thumping, and the patrons are drunk, and the waitresses immediately serve us shots and start dancing with us. It honestly is like Cancun Spring Break. If we had had one less beer with dinner, we may have walked out, but all of a sudden we are dancing and ordering drinks. Strong marketing. We resultantly have a very big night, and a ton of fun. We are dancing all over the place, meeting new people, and drinking large buckets of mixed drinks. At some point, I lost a reasonable sum of money, either stolen or lost from my own drunken state, but I chock it up as part of the experience. I make my way home quite late and I sleep in quite late as well. However, it's raining all morning, so I use this as a fine justification of staying in my own private bed for a while.

I stop by Lindsey and Ryan's hotel early afternoon and they are worse for the wear than I am. So I leave them to their opulent mansion and I go to explore the city a little bit more. I decided to walk to the pagoda which is 5 to 6 km outside of town. Fortunately the rain holds up for most the time, and I have my poncho just in case. I get to the pagoda and honestly it's not all that impressive. I have seen much more in my travels so maybe I'm just jaded at this point. However, the monk resting grounds are very serene and pretty, and there is a nice view the city. There is also an old baby blue car there with quite historic significance. A protestor of the old dictatorship drove the car to the center of town before setting himself on fire. Intense.

I walked back and I'm hounded by taxicab drivers and moto drivers but I assure them I really want to walk and I keep going. On the way, I discover a che stand. I had read on a food blog that Che was a really delicious dessert, so I decided to try. The vendor spoke no English, but I just pointed and I gave her the money she gestured to a table, so I sat down and waited. She then comes to me with a glass half-full of ice with what appears to be beans and some gelatinous tapioca pearls and some white cream on top. I then stirred the concoction together and take a bite. It is heaven in my mouth. It is some syrupy, crunchy, chewy, soft, coconutty, sugary but not too sweet concoction which is melody of flavors and textures. Every bite I am astounded that it still taste this good. I could have and should have ordered another one straight away. But I resist and enjoy the sugar rush for my hike back.

I go back to the citadel and I go to the museum and I am able to see some of the cannons as well as the old fighter jets. The city ruins themselves are also quite well preserved and history is very interesting. There are also three graves which are frequently visited by tourists, but I'm done at this point and ready for dinner.

I end up back at the original restaurant we had tried to eat at, Lien Hoa, and I have dinner next to a monk. The menu is a bit confusing and I don't recognize the names of many things, and the combinations seem disparate. I try to order one and I'm told it is no longer on the menu, so I ordered two others, a salad and a side of greens. They are cheap and delicious. The salad is topped with fried starch vegetables topped with almost an Italian vinagrette, and the greens and mushrooms are garlicky and flavorful. It was a great

Redemption from the meal we had last night. I am trying to ask the waitress to bag up the rest of my new for takeaway, but she can't understand me. Fortunately, there is a young girl across the table from me who explains to the waiter what I am trying to do. She and I get to talking, and she is a 21-year-old student named Ly who is studying English at University. She asks if we can have a conversation for her to practice her English. I say of course. We get to talking and we talk for about an hour. In the process, I tell her about the che I had eaten and how delicious it was. She then invites me to go have some che from the market. Her English is very broken, so sometimes we have to communicate with hand gestures and written words.

I of course agree, and I hop on the back of the Motorbike and we go on a che hunt. I'm glad she's with me, because it's difficult even for her to find it in the market. We ask many different people and they all point us in different directions. We finally chase down the woman with the glorious cart of Che. Ly asks what I want, and I tell her I trust her, and she orders our ches. This one is different from the last, and has what I believe to be purple taro root purée. She also puts crunchy coconut candies on top. I didn't think it was possible, but this one is actually better than the one I had before. Ly tries to pay for mine, but I insist on paying for hers. She then asks me what I want to do, I say it's up to her it's her city, so she takes me to a local market.

Along the way, we stop at the bridge, and now it's apparent that she wants to take selfies of each other. Is is quite comical, but I entertain her. She gives me directions as to how to pose for my photographs, giving the peace signs like the Vietnamese like to do. I can only imagine how ridiculous I look. At this point, she declares that we are "best friends"and it is our "anniversary." I'm pretty sure she's a little off with her language, but it is so comical I can't help but go with it. Before you know it, we are arm in arm skipping down the road, best friends on our anniversary. We then decide to go to a café near my hotel for a cup of tea before bed. After a circuitous journey to my hotel (I am so shit for directions) we then arrive at the cafe. She then looks at me apologetically, saying she doesn't have enough money, so she will say goodnight. I insist on letting me treat her and she comes in for the tea. The tea cost me approximately 50 cents.

Vietnamese tea is quite a production. It is a green hued tea with small leaves on the bottom served with a side saucer which contains a twig, a lime wedge, a cube of what appears to be a dried fruit, a packet of sugar, and a pile of salt. I bite into the stick to try to figure out what it is, but I really have no idea. It tastes like a stick, and not of the cinnamon variety. Ly shows me how to prepare the tea, which includes putting in a small pinch of salt, sugar to taste, a squeeze of lime wedge, the "pho mai" which is the cubey thing, and the quick all of the goes in at once. We then sip everything slowly. It really is a nice combination of flavors, tart and sweet and herbaceous. The pho mai softens as it sits in the tea, so every once in a while we take little nibbles of it. I tell her I usually like coffee, but this is an extraordinarily good tea. We then talk about her family, her cat and her boyfriend who is at Da Nang University, but isn't really that attractive. She's a very funny girl.

At the end of the tea she signals for the check and I pay. I get up to go, but she insists "no no no, just one more second." The waiter comes and hands her a small baggie of something, and she gives him whatever dong she has left her pocket. It turns out, unbeknownst to me, she has used the remainder of her money to buy me some of the tea and some of the pho mai from the waiter. It was an extremely kind and generous gesture, which I find to be very representative of the Vietnamese people. We have a big hug and we exchange information and I wish her the best of luck. She tries to insist on driving me to the bus station the next day, and I tell her no way. We say goodbye and the next morning I board the bus to Hoi An with memories of my new best friend.


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