Last night, over a couple of beers and a delicious plate of fried noodles with beef at Taboo Bar, I looked into cycling in Hue, and found that several biking tours can be done around the city and to the royal tombs that are scattered around the countryside to the south west of Hue. I decide that I don’t need a tour, and that I will ask my hotel if they have bikes and take one myself. It looks pretty easy on the map – bike west along the Perfume river until it twists sharply to the south, follow the path down to the Tomb of Minh Mang and from then cross the river and go up to Tu Duc and back to town, stopping at any other relics I might pass by.
Many come to Hue with a double-pronged plan of attack: see the Citadel one day, go to the tombs the next day. Hue itself is nothing special aside from these two things to do. It’s kind of just a city. In fact, one of the Hue travel guides I read says that if you ask a Vietnamese person what they think of Hue, they will say it is a “sad and sleepy city” given its war-torn past.
Happily, my hotel has mountain bikes, and even more happily they have several that will be big enough for me. No matter how hard I’ve tried in Korea, it has been impossible to get a bike with a larger frame – even Giant, a worldwide bike chain, refused to order one of the larger frames for me. It’s funny how in countries that are lower down the food chain compared to Korea seem to be able to get them – not only in Vietnam, but also in Myanmar I’ve had a bike in my size, and in Myanmar it was even the exact same model that I have in Korea.
I set my plan. I’m not going to try and get to all seven of the royal tombs, as that is hard to do even on a tour or in a car on one day. I’m going to cycle along the north bank of the Perfume river to the Thien Mu pagoda, the tallest in all of Vietnam, and then down to Minh Mang before lunch.
I push off. It should be simple: a left turn onto Le Loi, cross the bridge and turn left again and a straight road down to the pagoda. Although there is more traffic here in Hue than in Hoi An, the riding actually seems simpler as the streets are wider. When I get to the bridge it is crowded with scooters and I’m unsure if push bikes can go on, so I dismount and walk along the pedestrian path.
The pagoda is nice. There is a marketplace around the entrance, and I am approached a couple of times by people asking me if I want to take their dragon boat – they’ll take my bike on too. I politely decline.
It’s a seven-storey structure and it stands on a gentle curve of the river. One of the most notable things about it is the old Austin car that is housed there. It’s a bit humid this morning and I am now sweating, as are several other people, but when riding on the bike it’s quite nice. Rain has been forecast for later, and I have slathered sunscreen all over myself once again, but the clouds are fairly clear here. I wander around the grounds, taking some pictures and reading the signs. An older American woman poses by an incense cauldron as I wait for her husband to take her photo so I can take one without her in it, but he is struggling with the iPhone and she gets increasingly frustrated as he repeatedly fails to take her picture. It’s quite funny to listen to her berate him and then fume at his incompetence with the phone. I guess she really wanted that photo.
Argumentative Americans not pictured
Back out to get the bike. I’m approached by the same guy who asked me before if I want to take his boat. I decline, and he slinks away. As I’m waiting to cross the road, I begin to wonder if it might be worth it to get down to Ming Manh. I walk back to him and ask for the price. He wants 700,000 dong, which quickly drops to 500,000 when I decline, or just 100,000 to go to the other side of the river. He tells me it’s very far away and it’d be better to go to Tu Duc. Given that I only paid 80,000 for my train ticket from Hue to Da Nang I decide against taking the boat and wish him a good day. I have read that the Vietnamese are extremely auspicious about the first deal of the day, and if it goes badly they take it as an omen of a bad day to come. I hope I’m not an harbinger for him.
I head past the pagoda – all the tour buses and traffic are leaving back the way I came – and head out into the open countryside. There is not much traffic and it’s peaceful and calm. A few people stare a little at me, but I’m left alone. I get to a small town and then continue out on the road, following the map. It quickly dawns on me that the next turn I’m looking to take is actually a highway, and I’m pretty sure that bikes aren’t supposed to be on there.
I pull up, look at the map and take a snap of some people working the field. A voice behind me startles me. I look around and an old woman is standing right next to me. She’s talking and smiling, and I have no idea what she is saying. I smile and nod along. She asks me something. I intimate that I don’t know what she means. She keeps talking and asking me things.
Then her phone rings. I take this as a chance to leave. I turn back and take a right. A little further along I pull over. I’m next to some banana trees, and all around me filling in the air is the sound of a pounding disco beat and monks chanting. It’s quite surreal.
I plough on. It’s taken me about an hour to this point. The road runs parallel to the highway, so at least I know I’m going the right direction. But after a couple of kilometres the road just stops. Literally no more concrete. It’s a rubble track going ahead. I carry on down it unperturbed. I’m right next to the riverfront. I keep going. I see a sign outside a house and it looks like a cafe. As I ride past, I hear a voice yell out, “Hello? Where are you riding?” I nod at them, and a few metres later decide to pull up and get coffee.
The end of the road
I ride up the small driveway. There is laughter and giggles. I ask “Coffee?” They nod. “Yes, coffee.” More laughter. There are three guys, and old man and an old woman and a young girl sitting around a table outside a small house. It appears to be a restaurant. I sit down at the end of the table. They’re eating some chicken and rice. Flies buzz around it. It doesn’t look very appealing. The guy who yelled out suddenly doesn’t speak English, but he offers me some Huda. I politely decline. The grandmother hands me my coffee smiling. There is more laughter and giggles.
I take my first sip. I begin to think of something. This suddenly doesn’t seem like a restaurant. There are no signs or menus. There’s only one table. Everyone looks similar. They try to talk to me but I don’t know what they’re saying.
Very quickly the penny drops. This is not a restaurant at all. This is a family’s house, and I have just gatecrashed their lunch.
I quickly slug down the coffee before they decide to offer me some food. I ask how much and pay 10,000 dong. I wave goodbye and make my escape, feeling rather silly.
Soon I see what must be the Tu Duc temple on the other side of the river. A couple of dragon boats are chugging by, presumably coming up from Ming Manh. I’m on the right track.
A few kilometers down the road there is a man sitting on a wooden fence. The track has become narrow and pitted, and now goes down into a little dip. The man looks up. He points down the track and then at my bike and says no. I dismiss him. He probably just wants me to take a boat to the other side of the river. I dismount and walk the bike down the track, since he keeps saying no when I ride it. And then I come to some steps and a gate. No more road. I guess he was right.
I guess I have to go back and ask him if he’ll take me across the river. The man at the pagoda said 100,000 to go to the other side. I figure it will be the same here. I figure that as I am probably not going to make it to Ming Manh I can spend the entry fee on getting a boat. I approach the man. He asks for 150,000. (We communicate by him going into his house and coming back with the money to show me his price.) I tell him 100,000. He accepts.
Out of nowhere, a woman appears (his wife?) and scrambles into the boat. He picks up my bike and she directs me to the seat in front of her. Not a word is spoken. We quickly set off, and in a couple of minutes we’re on the other side of the river. He takes my bike up the bank, and as soon as I’ve scrambled out of the boat and up the bank they’re back in the water and on their way.
Ming Manh is now off the table. I check the map again and head for Tu Duc, climbing through a park (thank God for gears), passing a cemetery and suddenly coming to a row of shops. I’d seen someone’s blog about the incense shops so I stop to take a look at some spools that are on display. A wily shopkeeper notices me, and I’m corralled into her shop. She’s outside sitting at a workstation where she’s making the incense sticks. She directs me to take photos.
The incense is in a big ball that likes like cookie dough. You put a stick on the table and roll the incense across it and flatten it with a pallette. I’m corralled into having a go. She commandeers my camera and takes photos of me. I resign myself to probably having to buy some. She makes sandalwood, cinnamon and lemongrass varieties. An old woman who is presumably her mother waves a big hand fan at me. “Very hot” she says, over and over again.
I have a go and fail at making a good stick. The woman tells me the prices. One hundred thousand dong for a bag of about 50 sticks. I ask if she sells a variety pack, but that is 200,000. I only brought out enough money for entrance fees to the tombs and food, so I decline but I get a pack of lemongrass from her and take some photos.
I stop for lunch at the tombs. It begins to rain. I get out my rain jacket and the old woman at the restaurant kindly gives me an umbrella.
I enter the Tu Duc (100,000 dong entrance fee). We come in at the south east side of the complex. There is a pond and a moat and a few buildings. I wander around them, feeling like I did at the Citadel, in that I’ll probably just mooch around without really getting a sense of the place. However, as I get around the back of the complex there are signs that tell more about it, and when you get to the burial chamber it suddenly gets more interesting.
There are warrier statues outside, and you can get up to the tomb. A bowl of incense is outside, burning sweetly. It’s all quite reverential.
As I wander away, I decide to follow the moat around and come to the empress’s tomb complex. For some reason I find this one a bit more interesting. Her incense has been put out by the rain, so I try to re-light it, but it’s too wet and won’t take light.
I leave and cycle back through the paddies and down into the town. It’s an easy ride – about five kilometres of a straight road and one turn onto Le Loi, the street that runs parallel to the river. Having the gears certainly helps, as there is much more traffic than in Hoi An and I have to stop and start a lot due to bikes swinging out, people suddenly crossing and traffic lights.
I’m hot and I’m tired when I get back to the hotel. It’s about 4.30 pm and there’s no one in the pool so I get my gear and go for a swim. I spend the rest of the evening back in Taboo Bar around the corner. The waiter comes and sits with me as I have a coffee and then a beer and then wait for the food. He also discusses learning English with me when he hears that I teach at a university. For many Vietnamese people, he tells me, to go to any other country they need a high IELTS score, but it is so expensive to take the test. I have never taught IELTS, but I know about it. He tells me Vietnam could be a big potential market for me as a teacher. He also learns from YouTube videos and also is happy for the chance to communicate with foreigners in the bar.
I have been reflecting on this since I ate at Faifoo restaurant in Hoi An a few nights ago. In Vietnam, the waiters and hotel staff are all very friendly, and they like to sit with and talk to their customers. I have seen several parties in restaurants being warmly greeted again by staff or having photos with their favourite waitstaff in places they have enjoyed. In Korea, it’s very rare for this to happen. They mainly just take an order and leave you alone and never seem to want to interact with customers, and, it seems to me, particularly not with foreign customers, unless they’ve lived abroad or are bilingual. I feel a lot more comfortable sitting on my own in bars in Vietnam than I do in Korea, and I think it’s because the staff are more welcoming.
So I didn’t achieve my plan for the day, but I had a couple of misadventures that more than make up for it, and at least I can say I got to see one of the seven royal tombs of Hue, and one out of seven ain’t bad.
I go back to the hotel to pack. My last full day in Vietnam is over, and I’m off to Singapore tomorrow.