beginning of watermelon flower
After breakfast on the boat, the chef came up and gave us a demonstration on how to make flowers out of watermelon, and the infamous carrot fishing net from last night’s dinner. It was pretty amazing how he did it!
Flower takes shape
Carrot fishing net
The trip back to Hanoi was enlivened by a stop at a Humanities Centre, which is where a number of people with disabilities are employed to make handicrafts. They do embroidery pictures, copying paintings and lacquerware. This place was basically a huge shop, with “silk” clothes (that would be rayon or polyester for the most part, but there was some silk) stone carvings, jewellery, as well as the lacquerware, paintings and embroidery made in the centre. We bought a small lacquer rice server and a couple of pressies for people back home :)
Back in Hanoi we had a couple of hours before heading out to catch the Reunification Express to Hue that night. A bunch of people used the time to fit in another museum (apparently the Women’s Museum is worthwhile) but the other half focused on getting snacks for the train ride, having a fabulous time buying up big on prawn crackers, chips, fruit and Vietnamese vodka (!) The search for chocolate was a little harder, but we eventually tracked down a couple of Snickers bars to assuage the craving.
Since we still had an hour before leaving, we whiled away the time in the beer hall next to the hotel. I don’t like beer, but I had a couple of sips of the fresh “daily” beer and it was quite light. Everyone else said it was pretty good, and at about 40c/glass, I think you can’t really go past that!
At the train station
The train was a bit of an experience. We had the “soft sleepers” in an air-conditioned carriage, with only four berths to a compartment. Not a lot of room, but we did manage to fit all thirteen of us into one for a photo!
The whole group
The evening was filled with raucous laughter which only became more raucous as the level in the Vietnamese vodka bottles drew lower. T, our leader, contributed a bottle of rice wine (is it still called wine at 37%?) which had the taste and smell of paint stripper. *shudder*
We fell into bed around 10.30, after a hilarious game of charades, and dare, which involved S selling a packet of prawn crackers to the Canadians down the carriage, and R taking a selfie in the compartment of some other guy who was already asleep (somehow). His girlfriend was apparently singularly unimpressed!
The train was relatively comfortable, but I don’t think it’s my favourite form of night transport. The bunk beds were narrow, but had a pillow and doona, and the aircon worked. The train had an alarming sway to it which felt even more alarming when lying horizontal, which made various doors and windows rattle and bang all night, impeding sleep for many of us. However, morning came eventually and we’d all managed at least an hour of sleep sometime during the night…
It was a bleary lot who fell out of the train at Hue, and we all appreciated our breakfast of noodle soup, Bun Bo. This is a central Vietnamese dish which is spicier than the bland Pho from the north, and has beef and maybe a bit of crab in it, as well as a lot of lemongrass and some chilli.
R made a name for himself putting a large spoonful of the chilli paste into his, which according to T was more than most Vietnamese would try! The chilli certainly helped to wake us up a bit, and the Vietnamese coffee (with condensed milk, of course) put a bounce in our step, even if temporarily.
We stopped at the hotel briefly to dump our bags and have a quick shower, removing some of the creases from the train, before heading out for our motorbike tour of Hue. This was pretty amazing, and I’m glad we were riding them in a “small” town like Hue rather than the frantic traffic of Hanoi! We weren’t driving, at least, but were perched on the back of the motorbikes with some very experienced drivers doing the hard work. It was a really humid and hot day, so the breeze generated by riding on the bikes was very welcome!
My expert motorbike driver, Dat, and me.
Our first taste was just 10 minutes down to the river to take a riverboat to the first stop, a pagoda and temple where there is a memorial to the monk who immolated himself in protest in 1963. His car is there, and also a photo of his heart, which apparently did not burn.
The monk’s car
The next step was a longer motorbike tour of the countryside around Hue. We saw lemongrass plantations, many, many rice fields, and lots of people drying the just-harvested grains on the roads.
We also stopped at another monument, a a tomb for one of the past kings, which was situated next to a lake with ducks. Beautiful, but we were all a little too hot and bothered to appreciate it.
As we were on our way to lunch, one of the girls, S, had a bit of a spill on her bike. A local guy came speeding out of a side track right in front of her, and their bike didn’t stop on the gravel, but slid over. All okay, apart from a few grazes, but we were all a bit shaken up, and rode very very carefully afterwards!
Lunch was at a nunnery, which meant that we ate vegetarian, almost vegan. It was lovely, fresh and well cooked, and even though it was all vegie, there was still a lot of variety. Soup, dumplings, rice with vegetables, salads and a sticky rice square with coconut and sesame seeds for dessert.
The rain started as soon as we arrived, after some pretty impressive thunder and lightning. Towards the end of the meal, the electricity was turned off, as the storm was directly overhead with some amazing lightning displays, and loud cracks of thunder!
We had to stay there for a while longer, as it was too stormy and wet to ride. It was lovely to just sit and watch the rain! A lizard popped out of the garden to catch the moths that were divebombing into the water, and we watched the lightning and the rain.
Eventually we had to move though, and some of us were a little apprehensive about motorbiking in the rain along the slippery paths we’d been taking. No further mishaps though, and at least the rain had damped down the dust.
Our next stop was the Citadel to visit more of the kings’ temples and memorials. This section was receiving much more of the restoration budget, so there were sections that were beautifully done, with lots of red and gold lacquer.
Unfortunately we were all really tired by this point, and were happy to just see the main areas rather than exploring the whole complex. I did have another celebrity moment when another tourist asked to have a photo with me. I should start charging a fee I think!
Thankfully, we headed back to the hotel after that, joining the throng of mopeds in rush hour. Even though we were gaining confidence, this was pretty hair-raising!
After a quick dip in the pool to refresh, we met for dinner at a local restaurant, Ushi, which had some really good food. I tried the crispy rice pancake for entree, which was nice, and then had the lemongrass and chilli squid for mains. This was delicious, although the chillis varied a lot in heat – I was able to have most of them without issue, but the last one had my eyes watering and my throat burning all the way down to my stomach!
R continued to build his reputation of the chilli man (earning his new sobriquet of “Scotch Bonnet”) by eagerly taking half a pickled chilli offered by T. Sweat popped out on his forehead, his skin turned red and he gulped down all the water he could get! Turns out, this inoffensive-looking pale green chilli is one of the hottest ones, and is only ever eaten in very small pieces mixed with food, not gulped down by itself in large doses!
After this, an early night was definitely in order.