Hue Vietnam…Travel has become a mere necessity to get me from A to B. Often, my daily commute feels like my life’s force is being sucked out of me as I allow the cons of public transportation to eat away at me. You know, broadsheet or armpit in face, the repetitive ‘boom ka boom’ from the leaky headphones of co-passengers, the intrusion of space because some guy decides to ‘man-spread’ his way over to your side…
Ironically though, one thing I love to do in a foreign country is to travel – not just being in the location but the act of travelling itself. I love the feeling of movement – the drama, the intrigue, the adventure and often surprises of reaching a new destination.
Indeed once the mechanics of everyday life have been stripped away, there is something undeniably romantic and engaging about ‘being on the road’… Some of the greatest Silver screen classics revolve around travel – Brief Encounter, Shanghai Express, An Affair to Remember, Titanic, Murder on the Orient Express…
We were trundling along the celebrated “Reunification Railway”, the historical steel artery that runs the length of Vietnam. This year marks the 80th anniversary of its completion in 1936 but it hasn’t had the easiest of rides. It was bombed, destroyed and abandoned for twenty years during the conflict that split the country in two. Fortunately, a reunified Vietnam meant the railway could be eventually resumed some twenty years later (in 1976), linking Hanoi, Vinh, Hué, Da Nang, Nha Trang and Saigon. This was no Orient Express, and thankfully there was no murder on board – although there could have been. The recliner function of my threadbare seat had long failed and I shocked my abdominal muscles in to action to avoid flattening the woman behind me.
Seated in Vietnam’s most romantic mode of transport, we were going to Hué, a UNESCO World Heritage site, famous for its history and for it’s poetry. We sat closely together, locked in a blissful dream, cantering past rice paddies, water buffalo, villages and farms, sprawled out in their verdancy around us. Wheels screeched and squealed as we clambered up and around the snaking coastline. We entered in to a long, dark mountain tunnel, and then emerged in to the best part of our journey… As we hugged the grey bouldered cliffs to one side, the sea fell fifty feet below on the other. A thin whisper of fog coursed it’s way round a small outcrop of limestone cliffs; they stood tall and proud like pillars, stretching themselves out of emerald green waters in to blue sky. Stretches of beaches and rugged rocky promontories held us captive until the squeal of brakes alerted us of our destination.
Boasting a collection of pagodas, palaces, tombs and temples, it was no surprise that we were one of the many tourists spilling out of the train, like an army of ants. The Citadel is the main landmark of the city, but one should bring an imagination with them before traversing over the threshold in to the world of emperors and concubines. Once upon a time the grounds and buildings were lavish and opulent, with ornate gardens and intricate pagodas. Today, due to its war torn history, the Citadel is just a shadow of its regal past, broken, tumbled and barren. Nevertheless the venture for restoration is reassuringly underway. Buildings beyond repair are being replaced with brand new structures, artisans apply the finishing touches of red lacquer and gilt trims to colonnaded promenades… Where restoration is complete, those former glory days can be fully appreciated. A vast room of ornately painted columns and an impressive throne sits central to the room in all its glitz and pizazz; and an old palace that survived the bombings is now a museum displaying elaborate imperial artifacts.
Outside the Citadel, Vietnam’s other iconic mode of transport greets you like a carriage in waiting. I had managed to avoid the cyclo drivers during my month in Vietnam, but photos of beautifully decorated gateways, tombs and flowering tea gardens finally lured me in. It was time to brave the three wheels. We climbed in to the front seat of the cyclo and prepared to be solicited by the ‘Land of Poetry’.
Our driver didn’t have great English but he made up for it in enthusiasm. He pedalled furiously at first depositing us at gateways which led down processional pathways to courtyard gardens framed with frangipani trees. Camera at the ready, he adjusted us in to a different pose – a kiss at the Tomb of Tu Duc, down on one knee at the Tomb of Ming Mang… If this guy was considering a career change, wedding photography should be high on his list, but this was taking too long.
‘You said 250,000 dong for one hour!’ I argued later. ‘3 hours! 700,000 dong!’ he insisted. Strange how his English had suddenly improved. No! Not 3 hours! 1.5 hours maximum!’ we argued back. He grabbed a stick that was lying on the edge of the grass verge and for a moment I thought he was going to attack us. He drew the number ‘3’ in to the dusty area of the roadside. I laughed like a mad woman. ‘1.5 hours!’ I repeated and handed him 250,000 dong. I was about to walk away when my companion handed him another 200,000, giving the rickshaw driver the glory of another ‘Tourists vs Scammers’ battle.
I refused to let this mar our time in Hue though. We were nearing the end of our holiday romance. Every moment was precious now. Avoiding more encounters with cyclo drivers, we hopped in to a different form of transport. Indeed, a visit to Hue would not be complete without a boat trip down the Perfume River, and nothing speaks romance more than a cruise in to the sunset.
A long time ago, the river brought with it a fragrant scent as it flowed through aromatic forests. That must have been decades ago though, long before the river became an unlikely victim of the Vietnam War. All that lingered was the smell of fuel, thick and heavy with the many boats that lined these banks. Snippets of river life were being played out as we coasted towards the Thien Mu Pagoda in our colourful dragon boat… Families living on boats bathed in the river and fishermen tried their luck with nets in long, thin sampans. The silhouette of the seven story pagoda eventually approached as we neared Hue’s second iconic landmark. Its most famous resident, a monk named Thich Quang Duc, had famously burned himself to death in protest to the restrictions imposed on Buddhist and Catholic Vietnamese in the 60’s. Fifty years on, a sheath of mist lingered over it like a troubled spirit refusing to be exorcised. Or perhaps it was an omen that our romance would conclude here.
‘This isn’t goodbye – ‘It’s ‘See you later’, my American friend assured me later as we drifted back towards the city.The shores had come alive now; vendors were lined along the banks with bouquets of flowers; cyclo drivers were now suddenly poets, thrusting poetry translated in several languages at passing lovers… The romance of Hue held so much promise.
Deep down though, I understood that the longevity of holiday romances become just fleeting moments in our lives. And I was OK with that, because as with my sentiment of traveling… “To focus on the journey, not the destination, joy can be found not in finishing an activity, but in doing it.” Greg Anderson