|I got up early this morning to write to try and remember as much as I can. Our guide, who’s name I never caught, was of very slight build, handsome in a more cosmopolitan was than the first two, and clearly very educated. He spoke softly and had a very sophisticated, somewhat formal use of English, but still I could only understand about 75% of what he said.
Our first stop was The Imperial City, the main reason people come to Hue. It is a huge, beautiful walled city where the imperial family lived until 1945 when Ho Chi Minh took over . It was built between 1804 and 1833. The architecture, carvings, mosaic work and gardens have an overall effect that is stunning (see pictures). The city is made up of different sections, a formal area where the emperor would meet with visitors and his magistrate, the woman's quarters housing 100- 500 concubines supervised by eunuchs, the imperial mothers quarters, the emperor’s quarters, the dining hall and the temple. There are monks quarters which are currently in use. Anyone is welcome to study as a monk and adhere to the strict regime of study and prayer posted on the wall and can stay from a few days to their whole lives. Vietnamese Buddhist monks have shaved heads and wear long brown robes that cover them completely. They are fed vegetarian meals at the monastery and welcome both guests and donations. Cambodian Bubbhist monks wear orange robes with no sleeves and walk through the community with their food bowls. I know ther are a number of differences in beliefs and practices but our guide did not explain those.
All temples are red and gold, red for luck and gold for prosperity. They have an alter with burning incense and many offerings of food, fruit and money. They house various personifications of the Buddha. In the center of this temple is a large gold Buddha, very fat with a huge smile and an outstretched hand. He invites you to tell him your troubles and he holds them for you in his large belly. I thought this was a great metaphor for a therapist.
The emperors traditionally are raised in the palace and spend their lives there. They are totally cut off from the world and the people they are supposed to govern. It is no wonder they did nothing to benefit the people. When the French came and controlled Indochina, it suited them perfectly to have a ruler who was out of touch. They kept him fat and happy and he became their puppet.
Next we visited the local market. The Hue market is a very large indoor market. Apparently women shop, not once, but twice a day, to carry what they need for each meal and the staples they need. They have stalls of housewares, hardware, towels, clothes, shoes, underwater, toys, pretty much anything you would get at Walmart.
Some items are unique. Vietnamese honor their ancestors and want them to have everything they need in the afterlife. Most families have a family alter that is a ceramic house, maybe 2ft by 21/2 ft that is on a stand and kept in front of their house. On the first and 15th of the month they fill it with food and flowers as an offering. Many families also burn a symbolic offering of all the things they want their ancestors to have in the afterlife. So there are stalls that sell big packages of toy money, shoes, cars, motor schoolers, houses, all made out of paper to burn.
Most families do not have beds or tables. They use woven straw mats to sleep and eat on. Those are sold at the market as well as mats made from woven bamboo tiles that, our guide informed us, are much cooler to sleep on in the summer. The market also sold some 3 inch high mattresses but they are also very hard. No Sealy or Serta.
We took a rickshaw ride through the countryside to have lunch in the village. Except for feeling bad for the rickshaw drivers strenuous job, it was a lot of fun. The late was lush and green, with rice fields, peanuts, banana , bamboo and various other trees. The village seemed prosperous as the houses were colorful, in good repair and many flowers in their front yards. We stopped at an elephant burial monument and our guide told us a great story. Elephants and tigers were both plentiful in the old times. There are many stories of the army using elephants successfully for battle. ( they were tried out in the fields, but the results were not very successful!) in the local coliseum fights between an elephant and a tiger wee held for the people’s entertainment. The elephant was symbolic of empirical strength and planning, and the tiger was the symbol of untamed anger. The tiger, who had been caged for days, came out angry and ready to attack. Because his sharp claws had been removed, he would jump on the elephant and slide down. After a few frustrating rounds of this, the elephant would corner the tiger against the wall and crush it. This was meant to be a cautionary tale for the emperor’s subjects.
Our home stay lunch was a bit disappointing as it felt more staged than interactive. The home was of a wealthy family who had lived there for 7 generations. The wooden carved formal receiving area had been restored with the help of the government. An older,regal looking gentleman in traditional black brocade long jacket sat with us for tea and answered our questions translated by our guide. Then we atea tradition lunch of stir fry, rice, vegetable soup and bananas for dessert. The eating area and open are kitchen were surrounded by a lush garden, hanging orchids and banana and mango trees.
We returned to our hotel in the late afternoon. Pilgrim Village is a luxury complex with two restaurants, two pools with poolside bars, and many peaceful outdoor sitting areas. All of this in a lush, manicured, garden environment. All the staffer are gracious and even the custodial and housekeeping staff say”xi chao” when they pass. I had a wonderful swim, my only regret being that we did not have more time to just relax in paradise.
In the evening I went on a street food tour with our guide (Steven stayed back to enjoy some peaceful solitude). Our first stop was a hip- casual restaurant for a drink and delicious spring rolls. This 3 block area pedestrian area was created for tourist night life, with lots of bright lights, restaurants, English, bars and stores. And lots of tourists.
Our next stop was a local Vietnamese filled with families. There I tried a variety of local dishes. The atmosphere and service was very causal and serviceable, without a greeting or smile. A trip to the bathroom revealed a open air kitchen that would not have passed inspection; staff crouching on wet floor slicing and chopping and wrapping vegetables into baskets, open garbage, dogs licking water out of the large plastic dolls used for cleaning the food. The food was good and fresh, but not memorable. A taste of real Viet Nam. We have seen in many tourist areas one set of restaurants geared to tourists and another set, usually in back alleys out on the street, for the locals
I learned a bit about the guides life. He is the youngest of six and the only one to go to university. He spoke roundly of his older siblings raising him. His parents are farmers and only had money for his schooling because they had saved over years. It is very difficult for young people to get a job that uses their education. It is very competitive, and being South Vietnamese, he did not have a “good background”. Vietnamese are very entrepreneurial and the best wat to get ahead is to have a small shop or business. He worked in an hotel for 3 yrs which paid poorly but had regular hours. He has been a guide for 7. I asked if being a tour guide was a good job. He seemed surprised by the question and said it is neither good nor bad. During the dry season he works all the time and misses out on family celebrations and during the rainy season he works very little. When he works he is always moving from place to place and doing the same things over and over.
The third stop was a neighborhood cafe in a more middle class- ish area. Residents were teachers, factory workers, shop owners. We had fried rice pancakes, doubled over like a taco that were filled with shrimp and you added greens, veggies and a wonderful sauce. Very yummy.
And finally I got to sit in one of the little plastic chair and table sets! Our last stop was a little roadside stand beside a little park. This is another purely local affair visited by young groups of friends and families. The table, lit by a street lamp displays 10 or so large bowls of fruit in syrup; lychee, banana, coconut, mixed fruit, etc. You choose your flavor and it is put in a small glass with or without ice. It is a family business; the adult woman service the fruit, while off to the side teen girls chisel a block of ice into shavings and wash the glasses in a big plastic bowl.
After my return Steven and I went to the beautiful restaurant at the hotel, he for a light dinner, me for a drink, while I recounted my foodie adventure.