On Monday morning, after a breakfast of pancakes and eggs at our hotel in Hoi An, we got on the bus to Hue, Vietnam’s ancient imperial city. This was a trial-run on a sleeper bus, with bunk-bed-like reclined seats staggered throughout, for this short 4-hour ride ($4 each). We arrived around 12:30 and walked the 15 minutes to our hotel (even with the heavy packs on our back, there was no way we were going to be ripped off by those guys who met the bus with their fake taxis). After dropping off our stuff at the “Friendly Hotel” ($17/night), it was time to feed Jordan, so we set off in search of lunch. We wound up at Hot Tuna, and it’s a good thing we did!
There, Felix who was in a gameshow host mood, decided to poll the other patrons (three other young tourist couples about our age) as to their opinions about taking an organized tour. We wound up chatting with a very nice British couple, Kim and Oli, whose table we eventually joined. It turned out that they are on a very similar trip as we are and we became fast friends. Happy to have doubled our bargaining power, we walked over to riverfront to book a Dragon Boat for the next day, and skip the organized tour. We enjoyed comparing travel stories and discovering similarities (like how the boys are a human SatNav/GPS and the girls are directionally challenged), and bargaining together for the boat which was a success – two hours to the Thien Mu Pagoda and back plus two beers for $10 per couple. We parted ways supposedly until the next day, went to check out a nearby cafe which looked like a giant Vietnamese hat, but ultimately settled on “Kem NZ”, or New Zealand Ice Cream. Jordan chose taro and Felix chose chocolate-banana ice cream ($1 each).
We set out to search for dinner, and to our surprise (or maybe not), spotted Kim & Oli seated at the restaurant we liked. So, once again, we joined their table and enjoyed hanging out over dinner ($7 for tomatoes and tofu, spring rolls and drinks). Kim and Jordan found a few more similarities which surfaced over dinner – a love of newly-discovered coconut water, champagne over beer, obsession with avocados, and really needing a massage. But alas, the 5-year age difference surfaced when after dinner we headed back to our hotel, and Kim & Oli, like good Brits, headed over to the local bar.
The hotel breakfast was pretty good with eggs made to order and the usual fruits and goodies. At 10:30, we met Kim & Oli back at the boat dock and set off for our boat ride. The Dragon Boats are family-owned and operated, with the boats doubling as their homes and their livelihoods. Our boat, the smaller of two models in use, was operated by a lovely young couple, who were extremely friendly. We got to see their wedding album and photos of their 3 year old son, and Felix even got to steer the boat for a few minutes! We hopped off the boat and spent about 45 minutes walking around the pagoda and it’s grounds. The pagoda itself was a tower situated atop a hill overlooking the Perfume River (not sure which perfume they were imagining, but it might attract the wrong type, i.e. flies), but the most impressive thing there was the deafening noise of cicadas congregating in the trees. Oh, and a photo-op with a large stone turtle monument – always a sign of a good day.
Two beers later, the boat dropped us off on the opposite bank of the river, where we crossed two moats and guard towers to enter the Imperial Citadel ($4 each). There, we saw a reconstructed palace, the seat of the last Vietnamese Emperor, whose dynasty ended in 1945, and a really good video of a computer 3D reconstruction of the entire complex. We learned that the palace has a unique crap-shaped roof – not sure what that means but the two of us couldn’t stop cracking up. It was that kind of day. The four of us wandered around the rest of the complex, which was mostly completely ruined and uninteresting, with the exception of the Imperial Tennis Court that looked like it belonged in an American suburb’s elementary school.
Ready for lunch, we hailed a taxi ($1 per couple) and returned to the touristy area, where we found a decent lunch spot ($5 for noodles with tofu and a Vietnamese rice pancake). Not yet ready to say goodbye, Jordan suggested we use our collective bargaining power to get massages. Kim, of course, readily agreed, and off we went. After the first few places wouldn’t offer us a “special price”, we found one that would. Oli and Felix got head and neck massages, while Kim and Jordan opted for foot massages (40 minutes, $5 each). So relaxed we couldn’t move, and enjoying hanging out, we collapsed on the waiting room couches for another half hour, before saying goodbye with hopes that we might see each other when our routes perhaps cross again in Thailand.
At this point, we had just enough time to return to our hotel and grab dinner at a nice restaurant next door. Bloom Cafe is run by a non-profit which seeks to help disadvantaged youths. We had pizza and tofu with green top (a version of spinach) along with a chocolate tart ($8). At 7:15, we collected our bags from the hotel lobby, where they spent the day, and took a taxi ($2.50) to the train station for our overnight train to Hanoi ($99 for two soft-sleeper berths). Anxious about who would be sharing our 4-person cabin, we waited for the train to arrive. Once onboard, we were relieved to meet Harriet & Tom, an English couple, with whom we enjoyed hanging out throughout the trip. They weren’t Kim & Oli, but their accents were familiar, so they were easy to like. We watched an episode of Breaking Bad together (we’ve been watching on the iPad for a few weeks now – thank you Ori for the iTunes gift card!) and shared a beer while chatting, before turning off the lights at around 11pm. The ride was surprisingly comfortable, although bunk beds aren’t really our style, and we were excited to wake up in a new part of the country, where we would be once again thrown into the hustle and bustle of a big city.