8-21 April 2008
Day 5

Day 5 begins abruptly for Paul, who finds himself wrested from sleep into a disorienting world. An official stands at the door and speaks in Vietnamese: "something-something-something-uay." "Hue?" Paul asks, but the man walks down the hall. Paul jumps off his bunk onto the floor of the train. April is in a different cabin - the result of buying tickets at the last minute. Outside the window, pretty rice paddies continue to rush past.

Paul briefly considers asking his cabin-mates where the train is, but he's confident that they thoroughly dislike him. The previous night, Paul tried to get into the same cabin as April by arranging a trade of bunks. After half an hour of broken Vietnamese and wild gestures, we learned that our offer was impolite because our upper bunks were cheaper than the lower ones we wanted in return. We apologized, but by then one of our companions was visibly angry.


Now the next morning, Paul hurries out to see if we've reached Hue, our destination. But before he reaches April's cabin, the train official comes back and hands him a cup of coffee. Still groggy, Paul pays him, and then realizes that the man was selling "Ca-fey." It turns out that it's six in the morning, and Hue is still a few hours off.

All this leaves us a bit frazzled and dispirited, but the journey still has lessons left to teach us. After a while, the man who was angriest the night before comes by and offers each of us a cup of coffee with a smile, making us feel enormously relieved. As we get off of the train, he shakes our hands and seems to wish us good luck.

Day 5

Trademark protection being what it is in Vietnam, finding a popular restaurant is often made trickier by copy-cat eateries that adopt the same name to lure in unsuspecting tourists. In Hue, our hotel staff takes this to the next level, by trying to convince us that the restaurant we're aiming for has moved to a new location. Tauruses that we are, we fortunately ignore this advice and have a delicious meal in the original Bo De.


An hour later, our sightseeing is off to a rocky start. We've rented bicycles and are following the pagoda tour suggested in our Let's Go. The problem is that for each tourist on this circuit today, there are five to ten solicitors waiting for them along the route, hoping to make a living by selling drinks, begging, or charging dubious fees. We'd be hard-pressed to find a more vivid demonstration of the income gap. The tucked-away pagodas are really nice, and we even stumble onto a group of chanting monks, but between the hawkers and the beating sun, we're losing our enthusiasm. We decide to head home.

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It seems like the day's ending and we'll soon have to admit that Hue just isn't our favorite city in Vietnam. Then a navigational error changes everything. Since there's just one river on our Let's Go map, Paul figures we can just follow it all the way home. As the miles roll by and nothing looks familiar, we get a bit worried, but there's no other river we could plausibly be following on the map, so we power on as the sun descends.

In the meantime, the people we meet have become very friendly. We have our first Vietnamese sandwich on the side of the road, and the lady seems thrilled when we go back for seconds. The crowd cheers Paul on as he tries to thank her in rudimentary Vietnamese.


Later, it finally dawns on us that we need help, but we're still anxious about asking a stranger for directions. We carefully choose a friendly-looking young man to accost with our map. As he's trying to decipher it, though, four or five others walk across the street to help us (it so happens that none of them speak English, so most of the support they give is moral, but we're quite grateful for it). We soon discover that wherever we stop, people are eager to talk to us and make us feel welcome. This is an entirely different Hue, with crowded IMG_1911 markets, quiet river banks, and bright city streets. This is also where Paul finally captures the elusive four-people-on-a-motorcycle photo, while pedaling hard to keep up on his bike.

At night, we have a really nice walk among the colorful shops and eateries.

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Future travelers to Hue: Don't wait to get lost the way we did. Just throw your map away immediately and ride a bike in any direction for half an hour. Odds are you'll really like this place.