Hue, Day 2

I nudged Susan awake at 6 AM with the promise of a café suah—dark roast coffee slowly dripped onto a glass containing condensed milk—and we enjoyed a misty, pre-dawn walk to Hue’s main market, across the river from our hotel. We passed numerous artfully painted boats, one of which we’d rent for our own jaunt down the river later, and saw our first jogger, an American who wished us a good morning. We crossed the wide river about a half mile away and entered the market, which was just waking up. We walked through the fish and meat sections and then wandered around other stalls. Many people were perched on the ubiquitous tiny stools, enjoying their morning bowl of Pho. I had a sandwich from a woman who sliced ground meat that was pressed around a large piece of bamboo, which had been grilled. She sliced a biscotti-sized piece off and placed it in a baguette with chili oil, which soon warmed me up.

What followed was an exciting day of boats and motor scooters and scenery.

The group rented a colorful pontoon boat which took us down the Perfume River. It stopped first at the Thien Mu Pagoda, a beautiful temple that sits a hundred feet above the river, about 2 miles from Hue. It affords beautiful views of the river valley, and has a particularly lovely 7-story tower. The monk who famously immolated himself in 1963 to protest South Vietnam’s political policies came from this temple.

Lining the valley south from the city is a series of Royal Tombs. Many of the emperors, we were told, enjoyed living there for years before their deaths. (Actually, to avoid desecration, the emperors were buried by a team of volunteers secretly within the grounds. The volunteers were then killed, knowingly, to protect the secret. Emperors’ bodies are still hidden.)

We visited the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc. The large, walled compound was very serene, surrounded by a moat, lovingly landscaped, and filled with various temples. Not a bad place to spend eternity.

Next, we all boarded the backs of scooters for a drive through central Vietnam’s lush countryside. We stopped first on the high overlook of the Perfume River, a former US Army station which afforded splendid views. We then drove, over rough conditions, hanging on for dear life, to a monastery for a vegetarian lunch. We were forced to nap for 15 minutes after, lying down next to each other on straw mats. This was decidedly odd, as we’d been segregated by sex, and the proximity was a bit closer than we were used to.

It was raining, heavily at times, and our drivers provided us with thick plastic ponchos. We stopped at various places: a souvenir stall, to see incense (jos) sticks being rolled; at an ornate covered bridge, complete with its own English-speaking fortune teller, a woman who had been married to a US officer during the war; and at a large coliseum-like arena, where emperors delighted in watching elephants fight tigers to the death. (The elephants, the symbol of royalty, always won. This was guaranteed by particularly horrible means.) We drove through quiet towns that few tourists would frequent, and across wide fields of rice on narrow, muddy paths.

Everywhere smiles and industrious people selling, selling, selling.

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