It was hot in Hue. Really hot. Hotter than that Big Day Out you remember when water seemed so scarce and the beads of sweat collected on your forehead. And yet here we were, choosing not to lie in air conditioned comfort with a cheap bottle of local beer, choosing instead to ride bicycles to explore the outskirts of the ancient town.
Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam, seemed such an extraordinary place before we even arrived. Looking at a map of the city, beside the river was an almighty block, a square grid of streets which dwarfed the city proper. This was the Imperial City, majestic, moated and walled, within which was the Citadel, the place of ruling for the old emperors of Hue, location of grand temples and fortifications, and the setting for one of the fiercest fights of the Vietnam War (The American War, as it’s known here).
Setting out from the bicycle rental shop, following a vague route plotted by our map, it was only a matter of minutes before we were lost. Shops selling Red Bull, noodle soup and incense sticks were hours lost in our dust as we pedalled down a long gravel road, and through a narrow muddy path between the rice fields, as women in conical bamboo hats tended the fields. The mountain bikes were a wise choice, the sunscreen wiser.
The sun, absent for over a week during our stay in Vietnam, was making up for its absense with a vengeance, and we pulled over at a crossroads to try and determine our whereabouts. Frustrated with the heat and tired from thirst, I insisted we backtrack to a shop selling water. After a long drink, we started up a small hill we had previously missed. It was Bunker Hill, an American outlook over the scenic Perfume River, dotted with pillboxes. Further down the road, we visited the tomb of the emperor Tu Duc, a lavishly decorated paved and castled mini-city where his 104 wives resided during his life, and where the great ostentatious man lay after death.
During lunch at a roadside restaurant, sitting awkwardly on the kiddie chairs, we met Dong, a Vietnamese man of about sixty with a long, curling moustache, shaggy brown hair, blackened teeth and a talent for the English language. Sensing an opportunity, he offered to help us back to the road to Hue. Before that, however, he led us to his farm, and as guests we shared watermelon, bananas and sugar whiskey on an outdoor table, as his son played with his pet dog, and the chickens pecked the soil.
That was two days ago. Yesterday we paid a visit to Hue’s Citadel, admiring the monolithic gates, the bullet-riddled fortress walls, the Imperial Palace of a time long ago; and the captured war machines from America, from a time not so long ago, on display. We arrived in Hoi An today. Hoi An, the sleepy, colourful, riverside town of a thousand tailors. One of my favourite towns in the world. As our first day in Hoi An ended, we shared beers with two tattooed New Yorkers at friendly, fun Cafe 43, cheapest beers in the world. Try and beat 14 cents a glass!
(Everything’s special in Hoi An – from a waitress after we asked what the specials were at the restaurant)