CURRENT LOCATION: HANOI, VIETNAM
As Zev said, we arrived in Hue after a perfectly reasonable 4 hour bus ride from Hoi An, so we were raring to go once we checked in to the hotel and had showers (or in my case, a looooong bath). We decided to hit the street, and made our way to a pizza joint for a quick lunch. It was hot. HOOOOT. Hot like we hadn't yet experienced in South East Asia. Is was 37° with a heat index of 44°. The heat really has a physical presence. It feels like you're wading through it, and it drains the life out of you. From the pizza shop, it was about a 3km walk to the imperial citadel, our destination for the afternoon. Hue is situated along the banks of The Perfume River, and is the former imperial capital of Vietnam. The walk along the waterfront was stunning, but of course punctuated every few steps by somebody coming up to try to convince us to take a boat ride, and that it's way too far to walk to the walled imperial city. As usual, we declined, ignored their advice, and bottled on through the heat. I have to say, I think we would've been drier if we'd swum across the river, rather than walking. There is a reference photo on Flickr of a few days later, which illustrates exactly how sweaty we got. Just think sauna, but without any opportunity to get out when you overheat!
We crossed over the river and wandered along until we reached a large rampart (I think that's what it's called) with a huge Vietnamese flag on top, which was incredibly striking. We made our way across the moat, and paid our entry fee. The imperial city is a walled fortress and palace, with an innermost enclosure reserved for the Nguyen imperial family. Many of the buildings were damaged in the Tet Offensive in 1968, and only 10 major sites remain out of the original 168. It was deemed a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993, and the remaining buildings are being preserved and restored. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the late afternoon, wandering round in the dreamy low light. It was a very relaxing and peaceful place to be, and there weren't very many people around to spoil the atmosphere. We wandered back to the hotel to have another shower before heading our for a delicious curry for dinner.
After the previous day's intense heat, we decided to have a lazy day the following day. We had a sleep in, watched some TV (current TV shows: The Knick, The Newsroom season 2), ate our leftover curry, and generally appreciated the comfy bed and air conditioning. As the afternoon wore on, we decided to brave the heat again, and head out in search of a couple of pagodas on the other side of the river. We wandered for around an hour, enjoying the city's atmosphere, but unable to find the pagodas. We found something that might have ben a pagoda, but it might also have just been an active Buddhist temple.
We headed back to the riverfront, and enjoyed a cold drink and a bit of a chat with a local. He was at the park with two of his children, who were 7 and 5. His English wasn't great (but it was much better than our non-existent Vietnamese), so it was a fun conversation that took place largely with our hands!
We crossed back to our side of the river and found a bar to grab a beer to toast my Mum's birthday, and play a couple of games of pool. Amazingly, I seem to have gotten worse, rather than better. I didn't think it was possible. We made the mistake of heading to a cheesy touristy restaurant for dinner, where I ordered pasta. What turned up was essentially Kraft Mac n Cheese, which I think is probably the most disgusting thing in the world (I know! I eat so much other crap, you'd think I'd love it! But it appears that even I have limits). Zev had a disappointing sandwich, and we spent some time feeling sorry for ourselves. On our way back to the hotel, we detoured to the riverfront to check out the Blood Moon. Sadly, it was obviously hanging out with the two pagodas from earlier in the day, because we couldn't find the moon either. Not a terribly successful day!
We awoke the next morning full of beans, and hired bikes to ride into the countryside to looks at the Royal Tombs. Between 3 and 14kms out of Hue, along the banks of the Perfume River are scattered the tombs of the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). We read the instructions for how to cycle there, which basically said "Get on this road, keep cycling, and look for signs". Pretty straightforward right?! Except there were no signs. This was our first experience on bikes in South East Asia (other than our guided tour in Battambang), and it was really nice to be out and about. Even though it was seriously hot, you get a bit of a breeze, and it's nice to feel genuinely independent for a change.
We must have looked more lost than we thought, because a woman on a scooter next to me at the traffic lights said, "Hello, where are you from?", followed closely by, "Are you looking for Minh Mang's tomb?". When I said yes, she said, "Turn left, I'll show you!". So off we went. And so we had a new friend, who told us that she had been working in the market in the morning, and was now heading home. She lived very close to the tomb, and would show us the way. I'm sure you all know where this is going, and since we're not idiots, so did we. We wanted so badly to believe that she was just being nice, but again, alarm bells were ringing. Eventually we pulled over to stop for a drink, and she said "We're nearly there, come to my house and buy some fruit, and then I'll show you the way." And there it is. We explained that we don't have much money, but we would buy some mango. Reluctantly we cycled up to her house. I was fuming. You'll hear more about that later. She began slicing our (unripe, rock hard, sour) mango. We asked how much. "I have five children and I need to buy them school books." We can't afford to help you, how much for the mango. "One school book is 100,000 Vietnamese dong (~$5USD)." Oh for god's sake. Fine. Take our money. Again, we'll come back to this later, but I was livid. $5 for an unripe mango? We can get that in Auckland.
We hit the road with some vague instructions to the tomb, and a sick feeling in our stomachs (thanks mango). We managed to find a sign (the first since leaving Hue) pointing in the direction of the tomb. Every driveway we passed, someone would yell out, "Hey! Tomb this way!", but I was not falling for that!!! Finally, we saw a massive home made sign that said "Minh Mang's tomb 200m this way. Park here!". I ignored it and kept riding, determined not to be ripped off twice in one day. Eventually, I had to admit defeat, when it became clear that we had definitely missed the turn off. We returned to the hand made sign. The man assured us we could park our bikes, and all we had to do was buy a drink on the way out. Fine, it was hot, and we would probably have bought one anyway.
We headed down the path, through a field, following alongside a large brick wall. Eventually, we came to the ticket booth, and the 'real' carpark. Obviously we had missed the turn off somewhere along the way, and had ended up on the wrong side of the tomb. Ah well, what can you do. Again, we paid our entry fee, and wandered in.
Minh Mang was the second emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, and work on his tomb began in September 1840, while he was still alive. He died in January 1841, and construction was completed by his successor Thieu Tri. Set in peaceful parkland, the tomb is a lovely place to wander and enjoy some respite from the craziness of the rest of the country! It's also a nice spot to find some shade and enjoy a cold drink. The kind woman at the concession stand also gave us a chunk of ice, which we gratefully used to cool down our heads and necks! After about an hour we hit the (very hot) road, but not before buying our obligatory drink from our bike minder.
We intended to stop off at two other well known tombs on the way back into the city, but a lack of signage meant that, surprise surprise, we couldn't find them! So we called it quits, and headed back to the hotel to enjoy a little air conditioning before dinner. Sadly that evening it was my turn to be sick, with the heat turning out to be too much for me to manage. I ended up spending the rest of the day in bed with a horrible headache. Zev ventured out for dinner, and brought me back some goodies, but I was not up to the challenge!
We had another admin day the following day, sorting out our onward travel, blogging, skyping, and planning. And yet another lazy day the day after! More on this in a bit... That night though, we caught up with our friends Andy and Fiona from Dalat again, which was nice.
On our last day in Hue, we hired the bikes again, and headed to Thien Mu pagoda, about 4kms out of town. It is the tallest religious building in Vietnam. As an added bonus, it has a small troop of bunnies which let you pat them (if you're willing to climb through a hedge, and lean over a fence, which of course I am). Thien Mu is also home to the Austin in which Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon, before setting myself on fire in a busy intersection in 1963, in protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. We cycled back into town for lunch and played some pool to kill time. We had checked out of the hotel, but our train wasn't leaving until 9.30pm, so we had to find a way to pass the day! After lunch we headed to the park to lie in the sun and read books (okay, I was reading my book). Soon, two girls appeared, explained that they were students, learning English, and asked if they could practice by talking to us. They were very nice, and their English was pretty good. They were both 19 and studying at the same school, and were from out of town. We talked to them for about 45 minutes, and it was really nice. About 10 minutes after they left, two boys came over with the same request. These two were medical students (one in second year, one in fourth), and the more talkative of the two had excellent English. We had a great time to them about medical school and the way that it works over here (they declare a major from the beginning of their training, so they specialise from the beginning), and the differences with New Zealand. He offered to take us on a tour of the hospital the next day, but since our train was leaving that night, we sadly had to decline.
After saying goodbye to the boys, we returned the bikes to the hotel. We grabbed a drink since we were still super full from lunch, then got some take away fried rice, plus other snacks for the train, and headed back to the hotel to grab a cab to the train station.
Our train pulled up and we found our sleeper cabin. Each cabin consists of two sets of bunks (so four beds), and we had booked the two bottom bunks in a "soft sleeper" cabin - so the beds have mattresses. We opened the door to find two Vietnamese girls asleep in our beds. It was pretty obvious that they didn't have tickets for this cabin, and they were just trying their luck, hoping it wasn't booked. They got up and left, and we settled in. It was pretty nice, with enough room to sit up on the bottom bunks, and room under the bed for our bags. The room had air conditioning, a table, and power points. Soon enough, the girls were back, but this time there were three of them. It then became clear that the ticket checker was either a friend of theirs, or thought they were pretty easy on the eye, because the three of them got up on the top bunks and got comfy (one got a bunk to herself, and the other two got to top and tail). Every five or so minutes, one of the conductors would come by to 'check on them', which meant lots of loud conversations, giggling, and eyelash batting. Gross. Eventually, the girls went to sleep while Zev and I watched a TV show (we're on to season one of The Americans now), but that didn't stop the conductors from swinging by to have a good gawk. It started to get a little creepy, so we shut the door. I got into my sleeping bag liner, and inflated my pillow, and Zev snuggled up with the provided bedding. The provided bedding looked very plush, but I had doubts about its cleanliness, so opted to give it a miss. Sharing pillows with strangers.... Ew.
Some time in the middle of the night, we lost our friends, and when I woke up at around 8am, Zev and I had the cabin to ourselves. So it remained for the rest of the journey into Hanoi. This was definitely the most comfortable travel we've done in our 2 months in South East Asia! Our train pulled in to Hanoi station bang on time, walked a few blocks away from the train station, and jumped in a cab.
While in Hanoi, we're staying with Brendan, who played frisbee in NZ with Zev's team Magon 2013-2014. He has kindly offered us a room in the house that he shares with his wife and two cats. Of course, our taxi driver couldn't find it, and after walking up and down his street for 20 minutes we finally managed to call him and find it. The house is beautiful, right on the water, and has incredible views, all these cool staircases, and did I mention he has two cats? Skippy is super friendly, and has been following us around since we arrived, and Mao Mao has been hiding. You win some, you lose some. We're spending the night here tonight, before heading off to Halong Bay for a two night cruise early tomorrow morning (thanks Rob and Sati!! You'll get your own blog post!), then coming back for a few days before moving on.
So - the things I alluded to earlier, and the reason for the title of our post. As you know, we were in Hoi An before Hue, which was one of the most beautiful places I've even been. We both fell madly in love with it, and were sad to leave. But we were excited to get to Hue, which we also read was very beautiful, and had lots of hiking and national parks nearby.
Not so much. Hue was nice, but nothing compared Hoi An, so that was a little disappointing. The national parks were all a couple of hours drive away, and logistically, needed to be visited on an organised tour. So here we were, stuck in a place that was okay, but not great. Which really got us started talking about money. Now we knew realistically before we left New Zealand that with a laundry list of things to do as long as our arm, we were very unlikely to be able to do it all, especially given the amount of money we managed to save. We did our best, but we had a big year last year, with, among many other things, a 6 week trip to Italy, and a (completely awesome) wedding. But now, we've reached the point in our trip where we've started to get the money jitters. All our pre-trip research says this is really common. You look at your bank account, and it just keeps dropping. You're not earning any money. And everything you do costs money. That's part of the reason we got so frustrated in Hue. We're so spoilt in New Zealand. Some of the world's best hikes and scenery are available unguided, and many of them are free. You forget that going to the beach is only free because you have transport to get there. Here, we are slaves to package tours, or taxi drivers, poor signage, non-existent public transport, and scams. Unlike in Cambodia, where people were genuinely helpful and friendly, we've had very few positive experiences in Vietnam that weren't with people that we were in some way paying. Don't get me wrong - the hosts at all of our accommodation have been friendly, welcoming, and helpful, as have our tour guides, and of course the students we talked to were very genuine. But on the whole, everyone who has been nice to us has had a good reason to be. Pretty much everyone else has tried to rip us off.
In Hue, all of that frustration came to a head, and we were left feeling pretty unhappy. We have definitely spent more money than we'd hoped, it felt like all we're doing is spending money (which is true of course!), we feel a little trapped by needing to do tours all the time, and we're really REALLY sick of feeling ripped off. So that's why we spent a few days laying low in the hotel room, re-grouping.
With that in mind, we're thinking of changing up our plan a bit. From Hanoi, we intended to head north to Laos, then cross into the North of Thailand, making our way down to Bangkok, fly into Myanmar, continue down into the South of Thailand, into Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. So we still had quite a bit to do here. Then from there, we were heading to Nepal, India and Sri Lanka.
Our first change of plans is the decision to fly from Hanoi to Phuket next week to meet up with Zev's best man Will and his family. From there we'll head south to tackle a thinned itinerary with only our most desirable locations in Malaysia and Indonesia, before flying back to Bangkok to complete Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.
From there, we're toying with the idea of heading straight to the US, to have a bit of a break from developing countries (and I'll be honest, the cheeseburgers are a pretty big draw card!), enjoy some landmine free nature, and if Zev managed to do a little work to bolster the travel fund, well that wouldn't be all bad. Sadly the US government is not interested in my assistance, so I might have to settle for being a kept woman if that pans out - how awful...
So that, ladies and gentlemen, is where we're at. I've been reading and thinking about social media etc recently, and how easy it is to envy people's lives based on what they choose to show - nobody is logging on to Facebook to tell you that they didn't really do anything today, or anything else mundane. Even while on the trip of a life time with my wonderful husband after an amazing wedding, I find myself looking at Facebook and thinking, "Oh, she bought a house? I'm so jealous!". Yes, I know, it's ridiculous. But I wanted to share our "crisis of confidence" for that reason - nobody's life, no matter how awesome, is awesome all the time.
I read another interesting blog, written by a mother of two young children. She talked about the fact that every time she complains about something to do with her children (eg, I'm so tired, they didn't sleep last night), she gets hit with waves of, "Oh, you should be grateful, there are so many people out there who want children and can't have them!", or, "Enjoy it while it lasts, they'll be grown up before you know it!". She points out that this does nothing but make her feel bad for what she's feeling - it doesn't stop her feeling it. She points out that you can be grateful AND tired. I think that's how I feel too. I am having the time of my life, and there's nowhere I'd rather be, and no one I'd rather be with, but I also feel tired and frustrated and disillusioned. It reminds me of another anecdote I read somewhere. People always say "You should be happy, there's always someone worse off than you". But that's just as pointless as saying, "You shouldn't be happy, there's always someone better off than you". Without getting too new age on you all, you're entitled to feel whatever you like, and denying yourself that is not going to make you any happier.
Also, I think that stuff like this is what makes trips like ours so interesting. Anyone can come to South East Asia and have a $500,000 holiday, no problems. But it's the hard stuff that makes it memorable.
I think that's enough waffling for one day! We're very excited about our Halong Bay cruise tomorrow, so on that note, we'll finish our packing and hit the hay!
Lots of love,
S & Z
(Original post date: 9th April 2015)