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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

In the ‘art of Hue


The return bus trip to Lao Cai was an event in itself. We pay a tidy sum for a seat in one of the mini-buses and with our gear (two massive backpacks – I’ve never learnt to pack light – and two daypacks) and along with ten other tourists and all their travelling paraphernalia, we pile into the van. The rear boot area is the size of a postage stamp, so most of the luggage is stashed inside between the door and seats and onto our laps. 
Then five locals - including a very disgruntled baby with extremely healthy vocal cords - cram themselves, and their market purchased goodies, bags and other bits and pieces, into the rear with us whilst three more plus the driver hop into the front seat. On the outside, the vehicle may look like a standard fourteen seater, but really it’s just a sardine can in disguise. We trundle down the mountain at a cracking pace, crushing each other at every tight corner and it soon doesn’t take long before the first sign of motion-sickness emerges….and doesn’t let up for the whole of the trip. I try to ignore the flinging of plastic bag after plastic bag of sick tossed out the window (and into oncoming traffic).
Part way down, we stop and pick up another passenger. There is absolutely no room for her, but she squeezes in, stands on the step of the van and off we go. We soon reach a small village where we stop and a local chap hops out. Two more take his place. I’m praying for an end. My legs have seized up and my nose is finding it hard to take in the scent of vomit. Two and half hours later we are delivered to Lao Cai.
Unfortunately the hell-trip is far from over. A few hours later we’re on the train, jolting down the line to Hanoi. I’m still scratching myself stupid with the bedbug bites from the previous night-train, and after searching every corner of the cabin, pulling the sheets and bedding apart, we then lie almost comatose with all the lights blazing for the whole of the trip. There will be no more feasting.
Dawn is just breaking over Hanoi when we arrive but we don’t find a sleeping city. Even at 4:30am Hanoi is whirling about. The streets are filled with runners – ‘they’re game’ I think, casting my mind back to the obstacles on footpaths – and cyclists in lycra (even here they have mamil’s!) Bikes and scooters filled with produce zip around and street markets are a hive of activity. Amongst it all however, plays out a choreographic scene that looks oddly out of place with the frantic pace. The graceful wave and bend of t’ai chi flows from parks, footpaths and on street corners. Hundreds of tranquil faces stare into space, some by themselves, others in long lines.

They stretch their hands, rotate their wrists, hoola wiggle their tummies, jut out their buts and palm push their faces. The craziness of traffic whizzes past and exhaust fumes puff around them, yet they carry out their routine, in public, in any space they can find, in total serenity.
We had originally planned to travel from Sapa to Ninh Binh and spend two days there, before catching a night train on to Hue. But what I hadn’t appreciated was the fact that Vietnam is the current hot spot to visit and just ‘winging it’ in this vibrant country isn’t as easy as I first thought as everything books out and up quickly. I also discover that booking a night train at last minute and succeeding, is akin to winning the lottery. Turns out everyone wants the night trains because the night busses are the stuff of nightmares! So it was to be a flight to Hue, and for the first night; a ‘last minute’ hotel.
The mugginess of the day greets us like an old wet towel when we step out of the airport at Hue, and it saps away any remanet of energy we have left after a night of no sleep. By time we arrive at our ‘last minute’ guesthouse its cement bed and rock pillows are actually a welcome comfort. After reading Hue (pronounced 'way') is considered a picture of poetic charm and a UNESCO gem, I’m eager to discover it and decide the pillow can wait awhile. 
We step out into the invisible wet towel wrap and ignoring the heat, the fuzzy head, the maddening buzz of traffic and the incessant determination of rickshaw drivers and river boat captains to garner our carriage across the Perfume River, we find ourselves being swept up in the glorious texture of Hue’s artistic essence.
In the Dong Ba Market beside the river we find elaborate fruit art in the shape of fighting cocks and dancing birds along with an interesting way of wringing moisture from tofu with feet which gives me the fit of giggles.
Along the main street we find shops filled with furniture to delight any aficionado of the avant-gard and an aquarium selling fish that look as if they’ve been hand painted in delicate roses.
Around the corner we wander down a canal laneway overhung by cool leafy trees and peppered with lace on every door and window. Ornate iron grills in the shape of hearts, tulips, barley twists and Chinese symbols grace pastel coloured shopfronts.
We stop for lunch at a tiny café run by two very effervescent sisters and before we know it we’ve booked ourselves a tour of pagodas and gompas that aren’t on the tourist trail of Hue for the following day.
It’s too late in the day to go to the Citadel so we wander back towards the river, taking a diversion through a park and find it filled with sculptures in which I’ve become so enthralled and mesmerised by I fail to see a small snake slithering between my feet as I take photos of what looks like a piece of cheese balancing on a nut and bolt.
A spark of red captures my attention and I look down to see the snake slip past my shoe and try to raise itself up the rock wall. I freeze. Unable to get the word ‘snake’ out, but definitely making a garbled sound, M looks over from where he is standing near the river and sees my freaked-out face. The snake, unable to get over the rock wall turns itself around and comes back towards me.
I suddenly find my legs and take enormous steps to the other side of the path. Well, I practically ‘dance’ to the other side, whilst screeching, ‘Naa, snaa, snaaaa’. By this stage M has reached me and looks at the snake ‘it’s just a baby python’ he says. The snake is small, barely a metre in length with a bright green head, red neck and pale brown body. I calm down, pythons aren’t dangerous I tell myself and besides, it’s actually quite pretty. We both take a step closer and snap off a few photos before it finally glides up the rock wall and into the long grass.
(Later I’ll find I’ve had a very lucky escape. Showing a photo of the snake to the chap at our guesthouse has him looking wide-eyed and shaking his head at me. “Dangerous, not good” he says. Curious I google red neck green head snakes in Vietnam and discover I’ve had an encounter with a Red-necked Keelback, (Rhabdophis subminiatus) which is not only highly venomous should it bite, but also excretes poison from glands in its neck when it feels threatened. It’s also a commonly found snake in Vietnam and loves cool grassy areas close to rivers, ponds and any water areas where frogs and lizards can be found, which is just about anywhere in Vietnam and definitely everywhere in Hue; for Hue is an abundance of rivers, moats, ponds and lakes.)
It turns out this beautiful park is the International Sculpture Garden and features artworks from various International Sculpture Symposiums held in Hue since 1998. The next festival is in June this year and from what I read, it sounds wonderful. We leave the park and head back across the bridge to the south side of the city and into more wonderful pieces of art and sculpture dotting the streets and parks.
I’m also falling in love with the gorgeous French colonial architecture of the buildings in this part of the city. Beautifully restored they sit with quiet grandeur and grace along the tree lined boulevards.
The heat is really hitting and we duck into the most gorgeous ‘grand lady’ of Hue, the Hotel Saigon Morin for some air-conditioning and mouth gapping - this hotel and its gardens are stunning to say the least. Built in 1901, the hotel has drifted through numerous metamorphosis from hotel to refuge to university before returning back to hotel.
We leave its glitter and sparkles and continue wandering the frenetic streets following our noses to the chow down area of Hue and settle in for hot spicy Indian washed down with local Huda beers, then hours later we stumble out into a gloriously lit city that continues to light up and mesmerise us with its artistic charm.


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