Huế by Motorbike
The bus from Hội An to Huế took roughly three hours and included one of the most breathtaking scenes one can ever hope to see. I snapped the picture below from inside the bus, but if you ever saw the Top Gear Vietnam Special, you may remember that this place featured quite prominently. Jeremy Clarkson said in the episode, “That image really is a metaphor for Vietnam; the mountains, the coastline, the big new engineering project and the traditional fishing scene…” He went on to say, “It is a fabulous country, it really is,” and he couldn’t have been more right.
Once off the Hải Vân Mountain Pass, where the clouds had been so thick that visibility had been no more than 20 feet, it was a straight drive to Huế. The rest of the day was dedicated to a motorbike tour of the city, each of us with our own personal driver, none of whom, we soon realised, spoke one word of English. Huế is situated a few miles inland from the South China Sea on the banks of the Perfume River, and so it was necessary to wrap up a bit warmer for the trip. We drove away from our hotel and opted to have a late lunch instead of waiting four hours for an early dinner.
Once copious amounts of Phở had been consumed, we were back on our bikes and whisked down busy roads, narrow tracks between paddy fields and through tiny villages to get to Thủy Thanh Commune, a small village dependant on rice cultivation, complete with its very own Japanese style Thanh Toan Bridge. (I must stress that taking photos from the back of a rapidly swaying motorbike is not easy, so please excuse the blur!)
We met our guide here, a soft spoken Huế local with an impressive grasp on English. He explained to us that the river rises to dangerous levels, wiping out months of hard farming work and rendering 99% of the village people even poorer than normal for the rest of the year. Only a small fraction of the residences are more than one storey, so quite often a house will be completely submerged under flood water.
We went inside the small museum, where a completely batty but incredibly sweet old lady demonstrated for us how the farming tools worked. She showed us how rice is cultivated from stem to individual grain, beating off the husks with a swift blow from her pestle before separating them by chucking the whole lot in the air and catching the grains before the empty shells could float down.
Leaving Thủy Thanh Commune, we had a short ride to the village of Thuong Ba, the final resting place of Emperor Tự Đức. A pavilion overlooks a bare courtyard with two rows of stone statuettes facing each other, rather like a chess board. On the other side of the pavilion, men fished for their supper, throwing their catch into the boat they’d make their way home in.
Our guide explained that the Emperor was struck by smallpox and became impotent, fathering no children. His Nguyễn army had fought against France, but were no match for their superior tactics and fire power. France had become victorious and were seen as the rulers of the region once more. The last Emperor to rule Vietnam independently, Tự Đức died at the age of 53, cursing the French with his final breath.
We departed, and soon arrived at a roadside shop that sold brightly coloured incense sticks by the thousands. We were sat down individually and given the opportunity to roll our own stick. I must have done OK, because I got a thumbs-up and a grin from the main maker. We were told afterwards that she can make upwards of 5,000 sticks a day, which made me feel a little inferior…
Another short ride later, passing a group of grinning village children waving enthusiastically, we were standing outside an abandoned battle stadium; Hổ Quyền. No ordinary battles had taken place here, though. Not human versus human or even human versus tiger, but tiger versus elephant, an incredibly cruel sport where two animals, one with the advantage of speed and one with the advantage of weight, were pitched against each other. We weren’t told which would most likely win.
Our last stop of the gradually greying day was at the Thiên Mụ Pagoda. This place was going to be more significant to me than I had first thought. At school, I had learned of a monk named Thich Quang Duc who had performed the act of self-immolation in Hồ Chí Minh City. There is a famous picture taken by Malcolm Browne of the event (below). As we came to the end of our tour of the Thiên Mụ Pagoda, we were shown a car; the exact car that took Thich Quang Duc to his death that day.
Once back at the hotel, Rod told us that there was only one place in Huế worth going for a night out, so we walked down to the Brown Eyes club for an evening of pure cheese: Jenga, music choices that included the Grease Medley and very questionable dancing. It was great fun, and Huế had proved itself as a place worth stopping, even if just for a day.
The next afternoon we were to get our longest sleeper train yet (16 hours) to Hạ Long Bay. This is what I’d been looking forward to for many, many months…