We are now in Hue -- the former imperial city. Arrived yesterday afternoon, after what turned out to be a fairly uneventful train ride (once we got ourselves to the train station and got ourselves onto the train.) The guidebook said the trip from Hoi An to Hue could be anywhere from 2.5 hours to 6 hours -- ours was about 3, thank goodness -- 6 would be more eventful than I think I'd be up for. The trains seem to be not used so widely by travelers (generally more adventurous backpackers who want to save money, or more seasoned international travellers who see the train as a way to see the country from a different perspective). In the train station in Danang, there were only a few other westerners waiting for the train -- one was a young couple from Ireland who've been traveling in South America and Southeast Asia since February (!).
Getting from Hoi An to Hue on the soft seat train (meaning the seats have some padding, and the cars are air conditioned) was only about $6 each. Hiring a private car for the same trip is possible for about $60, but the road follows a more inland route, and we had heard the views from the train (the train tracks hug the coast) are spectacular. Plus, we wanted to take the train at least once during the trip, to see what it was like, and I'm glad we did, because it was a memorable experience -- we briefly considered taking an overnight train for one of the longer legs, but in the end, decided for the "3 hour tour" from Hoi An to Hue. The weather did not cooperate completely (though to be fair, we've been so lucky with the weather so far... very comfortable temperatures -- not too hot or too cold -- and only a little rain, really just sprinkles); the spectacular views were pretty socked in by fog, but it was still a beautiful trip. More on the train later, as I have some photos I'd like to post to go along with the stories.
I can tell already that Hue is going to be different from Hoi An. The guidebook even makes a point of saying that while Hue also has a lot of tourism, it's dedicated to preserving the way of life of the city. Both Hoi An and Hue have amazing histories and a lot of cultural things to see, but the culture and everyday life in Hoi An have become eclipsed almost completely by tourism, at least on the surface, which was a little jarring at first -- the vendors in the markets are extremely agressive in Hoi An, which wore on us. At one point, I was accosted by a girl who wanted me to come to her stall and have my eyebrows and legs "threaded" -- a traditional Asian form of hair removal, like waxing -- basically two pieces of thread twisted are rubbed over the hairy body part, and the thread grabs and pulls out the hair -- kind of like if you have a rubber band on your wrist and it grabs your arm hair and pulls it out. She came up to us while we were at a stall buying some chopsticks and trinkets, and before we completely realized what was going on, she had her thread out and was doing one of my eyebrows right there in the street. We managed to get her to stop before I was too uneven (because it was clear she was only going to do one for free...), but then she started rubbing one of my legs and told me I was too hairy, and needed to come to her stall (OK, so I'm travelling and not shaving every day...). Eventually we got her to give up and go find another victim. I might have been imagining it, but I think the vendor we were buying the chopsticks from subtly motioned me to zip up my purse (my camera was showing on top) while the eyebrow girl was attacking me. Most of the vendors and shops we dealt with seemed to be quite honest -- they just wanted us to come in and buy stuff and were persistant and vocal about it. Eyebrow girl was not the norm.
In Hoi An, everyday life was going on, but it's like it was behind a screen. Really, not at all unlike the riverwalk versus the rest of San Antonio, or Waikiki versus the rest of Oahu. It took us a few days before we started to notice things like that in the late evenings, the shopkeeper's kids would show up in their pajamas, maybe brought by an older sibling, maybe walking by themselves, to hang out with mom and dad for the last few hours that the shops were open. We started using various alleys and side streets to get around (the main streets dump you directly into the markets), and saw further glimpses of people going about their lives, despite the fact that many of their lives revolve around catering to the large number of visitors. Not to say that I did not care for Hoi An, because I did. It just took me a few days to see through the show that's being put on for the tourists, and see the real Hoi An.
Hue doesn't seem to be like that -- in Hoi An, with the exception of the times we ventured into the food market and were buying from produce stalls or eating noodles at a market stall, almost everyone we talked to spoke English, most quite well, others maybe just enough to talk to us about what they were selling, convert currency, etc. I'm realizing now that the wide prevalence of English speaking was due to the large number of visitors from Australia, NZ and Europe. In Hue, while our hotel and driver spoke English, the servers we've met up with at restaurants and bars we've gone to so far didn't speak any English at all -- we've gotten by with pointing. Some of the cyclo drivers have been a little agressive (cyclo - kind of like a pedicab, but you ride in the front), but otherwise, we've been able to walk by shops without the constant yelling of "Come, you look my shop!" that was commonplace in Hoi An.
So, today, we start exploring Hue. We have 2 full days here before moving on to Hanoi (by plane). More photos to come of the train trip later. Below are some photos of Hoi An -- again, a beautiful town once you get past the commercialization:
Silk lantern shop by night:
Silk lantern shop by night:
And by day (lanterns being made):
Hoi An generally floods annually during monsoon season, and is humid in between -- a lot of the buildings are covered with moss like this one.
Banana fritters are my new favorite food:
Beer delivery, Vietnam style -- Tiger is from Singapore and seems to be available nationwide. Bia Saigon is also available nationwide. LaRue, our favorite local Vietnamese beer so far, is from Hoi An and not widely available in the rest of the country. The brewery is 130+ years old:
Exploring the market:
Cao Lau are the regional noodles. We ate at one of these stalls in the market:
Actually, this one:
Some views of the market from the river:
Some locals riding a ferry across the river. Vietnamese women are very conscious of getting too much sun (pale skin is more desirable); notice the long sleeves, hats, and face masks (worn more for filtering motorbike exhaust):
Our hotel was on a relative quiet part of the street. Here are some typical historic Hoi An buildings, near where were stayed:
Here's the alley we started using to skirt the market and get back to our hotel. Love the decrepit/mossy stucco and bricks.