So, we decided to take a bus to Huế, on the recommendation of a friend of Olivier’s. She was also going, for the festival, and knew a cheap place to stay. Oh wait, it isn’t cheap anymore. Oh wait, it’s full. No, I can’t meet you at the station, I’m doing something with my friends. I’m not sure at what end the miscommunication lay, but either way, it was exceptionally frustrating. The bus ride was 4 hours of hell: packed into the rear of the bus, mosquitos coming out of the seat cushions, poor A/C, an in-flight movie of a bunch of half-nude chicks at raves set to horrible, horrible Vietnamese(?) techno. Then, disembarkation and a bunch of motorbike drivers, “You want motorbike? You want motorbike?” No, for God’s sake, no! I will walk my legs off, so help me!
Ended up taking a taxi to a street recommended by the “friend” for it’s abundance of guesthouses. Oh, they’re all full? What a surprise! It’s really too bad we relied on the word of a flakey young miss rather than booking in advance. (It’s weeks later, as I write this, and I’m still mad, as you can see.) We had a disconsolate cold-coffee conference, and booked at a cheapish hostel, Stay Hostel. It appeared to be just a hop, skip, and jump from where we were located, directly across from the Imperial Palace walls.
An exasperating 45 minutes later, we rolled up on foot. Room was $12 per night, but at $6 each it didn’t even out so bad. It had hot water and A/C, so I was happy. We had wanted to be back to the festival grounds (about 20 feet from where we started) by 8PM, but at 7:45 gave it up as a bad job. We asked at the front desk for motorbikes or bicycles to rent. Don’t have ’em, was the reply, try next door. Next door had a great time being completely rude about my attempts to use Vietnamese, as none of them spoke English, and we ended up not renting there either. Straggled over to a restaurant, where it took 5 minutes for me to get my dish (noodles), and 35 for Olivier to get his (fried rice). Maybe they had to cook more rice?
Luck was with us, and we located a bakery on the way home. I bought one of those delicious sweet rolls lined with pork floss that always come in twos. Then blissful sleep.
The next day, we got up early to try to find a means of transportation. Walked the whole way back to the center of town without finding anything, after a huge breakfast of co’m binh danh (broken rice). Also, found a xoi seller I could not for the life of me find again. Delicious and cheap! Oh, it so happened that our hostel was outside the walls of ancient Huế, which means that we had to pass through a narrow, twenty-foot tunnel, and across two bridges. It was pretty cool, unless it was directly after the festival proceedings ended, in which case it was a terrifying nightmare.
Ended up back at No. 64 on what I’m pretty sure is Trần Huy Liệu, but I’ll try to verify, for some more cold coffee from a woman like my grandmother. The coffee was so strong, it looked like black oil, and you had to drink it with a spoon, or be overcome by it’s poignancy. She asked each time, “More sugar? I’ll bring more sugar.” It was a cool $0.75 for each mini-tumbler, but she had a spot right on the moat, and it was peaceful for contemplating where one was going to retain vehicular services. After that pleasing interlude, we walked on and on, following the directions of one person after another, thinking all the while of how far we’d have to walk home after we returned whatever we rented.
After arriving at what appeared to be a hostelry for bikes, we were rudely informed that it was for tourists, but not us. I suppose everyone is fed up with tourists in Huế at this time, but there’s no need to be so nasty. We ended up walking to Nguyễn Tri Phương and renting a motorbike from a woman on the corner. Haggled her down to $6 per day, quite reasonable considering the other rates around town. Such a relief to be motile!
On the way, I had dragged Olivier through a street market, buying two dragonfruits and a selection of mangos. Markets are the best. I wish I could have spent more time in this one.
“Market” in Vietnamese is Chợ, and they are generally all marked, so if you’re wondering what that mass of people and stalls is, it’s a market. Go!
I also saw: 1 dragon dance, 1 Polish marching orchestra, a kite exhibition, 12 stiltwalkers (stiltists?), and an open-air calligraphy show-down. The Huế festival attracts multicultural entertainers.
We were determined to attend the nocturnal festivities that night, so I quickly showered and donned my “half-off” ai dai. It didn’t look half-bad (ar, ar, ar) with my new nón lá. Then we skedaddled via xe may, hooting at Next Door. We paid the 100,000 VND at the gates of the Imperial Palace and then we were in!
The place was lit up like Disneyland on Halloween. Brilliant lights doused everything in surreal color, while lanterns glimmered and gleamed across lawns and pools. We had arrived just in time for the fashion show! Each Asiatic country was represented either in traditional garb, or in some avant-garde confection. Thailand and Viet Nam were the most daring, with China’s being the most beautiful overall, in my opinion.
It was packed to the gills, so I quickly mounted a nearby plumeria for a better vantage. Whether it was the charmant effect of the green light focused upon the tree, or whether it was because a huge foreigner in a skanky ao dai in a tree is a talking point for Viets everywhere, I was soon the source of no small photographic activity. My feet got tired of standing in the notch before the flashes stopped twinkling in the green haze, and after I descended, I was approached by first one, and then another, news network for an interview.
After the show, I was approached by dozens of people asking for photos, and passing me babies and children. It was certainly an experience to swell the head. And I felt somewhat relieved about my ao dai after two venerable grandmas gently patted my arms and said, “Dep, dep”. I gave my interviews, perfunctory as they were, and we rushed to the next spot. There we saw some wonderful folk dancing. I didn’t know there were multiple events occurring at one time, or I would have ditched the end of the fashion show.
The dancing included male gymnasts and fake(?) martial maneuvers. There were female fan dancers, as well as “long-sleeve” dancers, the which were thrown out and hastily gathered into the hands whilst in the air. Then we hurried through the ancient gallery, which looked as wondrous as ever, still deep red with gold detailing, somber and majestic, past fairy-lighted gazebos filled with laughing men. We came upon a silent garden full of huge metal lotuses and empty, flower-framed stages. For the fashion beauties before the catwalk? I wondered, but did not discover. We strove through a field high with dewy grass to an amphitheater featuring some European band who seemed to like jokes, which we quickly abandoned. And that was that!
On the way home, I begged to stop by my new favorite haunt, the fresh yaourt seller. This tiny family business operates by making and selling yogurt in little cups kept cold and semi-solid in a popsicle-type freezer. They also sell flan. I’m not lying to you when I tell you, each bite of this yogurt (it’s called yaourt here) is a bite of Nirvana. It’s sweet, creamy, and ever-so-slightly tart. It’s got umami for sure. They probably do put MSG in it. Alls I know is, it’s 5,000 dong a go, and I need at least a dollar’s worth for premium satisfaction. That means 4. It’s towards the end of Yet Kieu, near the aforementioned tunnel. The exterior is teal, and features one small freezer with a faded mountain on it. You will see people eating at small red tables and looking blissful. Please do go.
The next day was an absolute runaround. Don’t do it. By the way, there’s a Big C in Huế, if you’re planning on getting food for your last-minute train ride. Then, night train to Hanoi.