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Day 15: Hue, Vietnam (9th cruise day)

Hue, Vietnam

Day 15: Saturday, December 26th, 2009

9th cruise day: Hue, Vietnam

Our first day in Vietnam! We pulled into port before 6:30am and passed by many small fishing boats in the harbor. The view was beautiful as there were beautiful, tall, green mountains near the pier, which we later learned were the mountains separating Vietnam and Laos. The captain said they were late docking because the pilot boat met them late, but they quickly got immigration officials on board to clear us. Hunter and I ran into two of them in the hallway and they were SCARY! They were dressed in their green military uniforms and looked ominous as they weren't smiling. We grabbed a quick breakfast and then packed up for the day for our tour of Hue and the Perfume River Cruise. We met in the Cabaret Lounge and were released for the bus 10 min early.

We were in the B2 tour group that had less than 40 people. Our shuffleboard partner-in-crime, Jim, was on board, and we finally introduced ourselves as we keep running into each other throughout the cruise ship. We had a very pleasant tour guide who spoke a lot of English, but was difficult to understand sometimes as she couldn't pronounce “c” or “r” in her words. She was a petite young woman, probably no more than 30-ish and was originally from Saigon before moving to Hue. She told us a lot of interesting facts about Hue and the Vietnamese and proved the benefit of taking an organized tour instead of going off on your own.

Our tour started with a bumpy bus ride to Hue. The guide said the ride would take one hour, but it was more like 1 ½ hours each way. The main road leading out of the pier was a dirt road and we passed by more scary looking police at booth stations exiting the pier. The bus ride to Hue took us past many small villages, which were really just one road with shanty tin-roof houses (with sand bags holding down the roofs) . There were small boxes that looked like oversized open-faced mailboxes that were shrines where family members would pray for deceased parents and grandparents. Then each village had multiple large shrines which were places to worship 3rd and 4th generation ancestors. Only 2 generations of family members could be worshiped in the home. It is difficult to know who is related to who across all these villages, so once a year in the beginning of the new year, all relatives make a pilgrimage to the large family shrine, at which point you look around to see who you are related to, so that, as our tour guide said, “you don't fall in love with your relative,” The villages were very rundown and looked very 3rd world. In between villages were acres and acres of rice paddie fields with workers plowing the field. Even though a few rich farmers can afford motorized plows, most of the farmers we passed on the journey were literally plowing their fields with a wooden plow pulled by 2 water buffalo. The water buffalo were everywhere! We don't know how the farmers keep track of them as they wander into the roads and munch on grass growing in the cemeteries. The bus stopped once off the side of the road so everyone could get out and take pictures of the rice farmers plowing nearby. There was a small boy on the road, balancing on one foot on top of a water buffalo, hand outstretched for money. Another little boy in a ragged t-shirt walked up to people, poking them, begging for money. We saw little kids everywhere, and so many of them! Our tour guide later told us that 5 and 9 are very lucky numbers to the Vietnamese and each farming family tries to have 5 or 9 children. Only 20% of children go to school and the rest help their families on the rice paddies. We also think the parents exploit the children for money and we saw several mothers parading their babies and young children in front of tourists begging for money. It was very sad.

We also passed eucalyptus trees in the fields and learned that eucalyptus oil is a very popular remedy for pregnant women. The rub it on their bellies all during pregnancy and for three years after the birth of the child. Kem never said what it was for, (prevents stretch marks or promotes fertility!) but said the men hate the smell but the women wear it anyway. I'll have to look for a big bottle to take home for Liz! We also learned that the Vietnamese want at least 1 son with their huge family and if after 9 children they don't get any sons, they blame the wife and the husband is allowed to go out and have an extramarital affair with another woman to try to produce a son. Nice thought – after giving birth to 9 children you still have to watch your husband dally with another woman!

The mountain range was so beautiful and a great backdrop to the wide murky rivers carrying the motorized dragon boats and fishing boats and sand boats. The trees were tall and green, although we weren't in the “jungle” area that you hear about when talking about the jungle warfare of the Vietnam war. However, Vietnam was exactly like what we pictured and we don't think much changed in the 40 or so years since the start of the Vietnam War. There is a lot of road construction being done on the route to Hue, and even in the city, but instead of Caterpillar bulldozers and forklifts, the construction is predominantly done by men with shovels and pointed hats – and sometimes working barefoot! At this rate, the construction will never be done! Our tour guide told us that one of the fancy hotels in Hue took 10 years to complete because the sponsors kept pulling out and the government delayed the project many times in hope of finally getting financial aid from Unesco and other agencies. The hotel opened just 1 month ago and looked very nice – it had a lot of French architectural influences to it, which could be seen in many buildings in Hue. Kem also talked about corruption and said it is EVERYWHERE. Each time we crossed a bridge, we were stopped by policeman who made the driver turn over $10 or $20 USD as “payment” for crossing the bridge because we were a large van with many passengers. That money, Kem said, goes straight into their pockets. The chairman of the city makes only $500 USD per month on his government salary but takes home a total of $10,000 USD per month when you factor in all the bribes and special payments he receives from his dominant position in the city. The average city resident (60% of the Hue city residents work in the tourism industry) take home on average $300 per month. Government employees take home an average of $500/month while rice farmers earn only $50-$100/month.

The bus ride pulled into the city of Hue, and we thought it was more like a larger town than an actual city, but it is the 3rd largest city in Vietnam behind Saigon and Hanoi. Hue maintained its pro-US sentiments and the tour guide made many disparaging remarks about the NVA and talked about the heroics of the US soldiers during the fighting in Hue. We passed several markets and street vendors selling scarfs and ceramics and china and touristy items like t-shirts and pointed hats.

Our first stop was at an embroidery factory next to the Century Hotel that later served us lunch. We were ushered into stuffy rooms where very young woman in long beautiful silk gowns were hunched over sheets of silk, embroidering patterns by hand. They encouraged us to take pictures, which made them seem like the workers themselves were on display. Throughout this whole trip, we felt bad taking pictures as every place we went, the tour operators treated the locals like items in a zoo, there for our amusement and picture taking. More on that later....the embroidery was gorgeous and so inexpensive! We would have loved to buy a framed print but have limited room. We later saw many much simpler patterns being sold in the markets for $1-$5 USD. We picked up the Perfume Riverboat cruise at the pier near the embroidery shops. On board, older women and men were eagerly ready to sell us silk pajamas, robes, and embroidery prints. Our tour guide passed around a binder that contained old photos of the wartime in Hue in 1968 and we saw American soldiers rescuing local people, wounded soldiers being helped to safety, and other pictures of the city of Hue during the war.

The riverboat cruise lasted only 30 minutes but gave us great views of the tourist dragon boats and of the canoes paddled by the locals. We also passed several sandboats, which were large flat motorboats with holes in the bottom from which a worker would shovel out heaps of sand from the bottom of the river. We learned that after they pay off the policeman guarding the river banks, a boat operator can sell a boatload of sand to construction companies for $10-$50 per boat. Unfortunately, this drains the river of the rich sand that allows the microorganisms to survive and which used to give the river its fragrant perfume smell. Now the river is just murky and smelly in a not-so-good way.

As we pulled in to the dock to end our tour, we passed a canoe boat with a very old woman, hunched over, covered in wrinkles, wearing a pointed hat, just like you would see in the old pictures of Vietnam. She paddled right up to the side of our boat and tried to squeeze in between our boat and another dragon boat, as the passengers on our boat shouted “look out, you are going to crush her!” She then tried to leap from her boat onto our boat, trying to get up so she could see us and beg for money. Our boat driver kind of just pushed her boat aside, preventing her from climbing up. She was so desperate for money she was willing to crush her boat!

The perfume river boat stopped at the Thien Mu Pagoda, also known as the Temple of the Heavenly Lady Pagoda. We got a lot of good history on it and then proceeded further into the temple area to see the monks. Each family tries to send one son to the temple to become a monk, either for financial reasons as they can't support all their children, or because they think it is lucky to have a religious son. The monks start as early as 10 years old and get special haircuts to show they are novice monks until they pass all exams. Our tour guide pulled over one novice monk and made him answer questions for us and pose for pictures. Again, we felt like we were at a zoo gawking at unusual things and felt very bad for the monks who were trying to go about their day, interrupted by picture-snapping people.

We continued the tour by driving back across a white bridge that had its own lane for motorcycles as EVERYONE rode motorcycles instead of bikes. We then went back to the Century hotel for a big buffet lunch of lots of kinds of rice and noodles, beef satays, pork and different shrimp dishes, with a few cakes and fruits as desserts. They basically ran out of food once our tour group got there – the last one out of many Princess tours that stopped there – and we got the bottom of the barrel. Surprisingly the food was good and luckily didn't make us sick! We had free soft drinks, waters and beers, and the waters all came with protective plastic wrap over the top so you know it was unopened. I kept flashing back to the movie Slumdog Millionaire where the restaurant waiters refilled plastic water bottles with tap water and then resealed the caps with glue. I felt much safer that there was unbroken plastic seal covering the main plastic seal. There was a wedding going on in the hotel with a beautiful young bride and the guests were all dressed in fancy outfits.

We were supposed to have an hour and a half for lunch and more shopping at the embroidery factory, but most people finished their shopping early and so we headed out by 2pm, a half hour ahead of schedule. This gave us time to stop at the busiest food market in Hue, which was unbelievable. We passed by market stalls selling fully chopped up pigs – they sold platters of giant pig ears and calfs with the black hoof still on the foot/leg! We also saw pig intestines, pig hearts and so many kinds of fish, all chopped up and sliced open so you could see the insides. You should see the kinds of photos we got – it was truly disgusting from our point of view, as we would never buy food like that – just sitting out exposed to the air for all those hours – and the food parts were so unbutchered and distinguishable that you felt as though you were buying an actual body part of the pig. But these are delicacies to the Vietnamese and they were buying this stuff in bag-fulls!

After the eye-opening trip to the market we drove to the Royal Ruins to see the tomb of the second king of the last Vietnamese Dynasty. We couldn't see the actual tomb as the stone wall that enclosed it was locked since a fire broke out there several years ago as a result of teenager negligence lighting a camp fire nearby. But we saw the beautiful imperial grounds with waterways for the king's canoe. The lush park-lake hectare was a great contrast to the dusty impoverished streets of Hue. On the walk from the bus to the imperial grounds, we had to walk down a dirt road which was bordered to the left by a barbed wire fence. There were mothers and children on the other side and the little boys climbed through holes in the barbed wire with platters of bananas singing “have a banana. Won't you buy our bananas?” and the mothers held up their babies with distended bellies begging us to buy the bananas to help their babies. Everything was on sale for one dollar – as soon as you got off the bus there were old 70-ish year old women selling coins on a chain for $1 dollar. We again had that impression we were walking through a zoo just gawking at people. It was not a pleasant feeling.

The sightseeing aspect of the tour ended at 3:45pm and we started our bus ride back, which didn't take an hour as the tour guide planned, but more like 1 ½ hours. We avoided collisions with wooden log-bearing trucks more than once although Hunter didn't think we would make it home alive. There was constant horn honking as our bus driver swerved into the on-coming traffic lane in order to pass the truck or motorbike in front of him. It was a ride to remember! We got back to the ship with 10 minutes to spare and were the last tour bus.

We are glad we did the Princess tour as our guide was very informative about Vietnamese life and we got some basic sightseeing in. The city of Hue is not impressive and we really weren't interested in the pagoda or imperial tomb, but the drive through the small towns, and seeing the boats on the wide murky rivers surrounded by the mountain range was worth the trip. Vietnam has not changed very much in 40 years and we can't wait to see what Saigon looks like!

The rest of the night was uneventful. We quickly showered and attended the entertainment show, which was scheduled tonight before dinner at 7pm. It was the comedian, Mike Newman from Ireland, who was probably in his early 70s and did a basic comedy routine with some raunchy humor but mostly puns. We then ate dinner with Connie and Tony and had beef short ribs, before heading to the Tahitian Lounge for Wii Sports night with Chantal and Ian. Only our new friend Jim was there playing (playing Wii for the first time!) and so Hunter got to play a lot of rounds of Mario Kart. Everyone was having such a great time that we past the ending time and other cruise passengers had to send over a waiter to ask Chantal when they were finishing so the dancing could begin! I was wiped out and hit the pillow as soon as we got back to the room.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 26, 2009 from Hue, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia, Vietnam and Cruise

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As an American born chinese person, seeing the pigs in the open market, I would be immediately turned off by this scene. But, I would still enjoy eating the many parts of the pig, mainly the intestines and pigs feet.

I grew up during world war II, when my family was lucky to have food. Hence, I had to eat all the food prepared by my mother. I am glad for the experience. Now I would
most likely eat anything.

permalink written by  Clayton Eng on February 13, 2010

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At the time I am writing this bio (Jan 2010), I, Meredith, am a 28-year old woman living in Virginia Beach, VA with my husband of almost 6 years, who works in New York 4 days a week. We are both avid travelers and beach lovers and I enjoy writing and reading. I am also a fastidious recorder of...

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