Bewildered we stumbled into the light and immediately book our tickets to Lao. We decided to skip out on Viet Nam early, feeling we had had our fill. That was before we were bundled on to the back of a motorbike or two, giant bags cuddled close. Our hotel loomed and we were hassled with a smile. The man was happy, Lak (pronounced Luck) was happy. Our Vietnam experience was about to become more interesting as that afternoon we would be taken to see the sights of Hue, this time without the bags. Although nothing to do with sports, our hotel was oddly named Sports 1 and was spacious and comfortable this time. Although still heckled we had relaxed and were ready to see some more of Vietnam. Soon we were on the back of the bikes again, whizzing through the beautiful city of Hue, temples, rivers and hills surrounding the large sprawl of the historic old capital, as Hue was the city of Kings and the centre of the Vietnam world in its time. We were dropped at the ancient citadel after some patter from Lak and his assistant Yum, as they were strained to be heard over the rushing of the wind. A huge ancient palace complex with incredible gardens was before us. Dragons, concubines, eunuchs quarters and magical ponds overgrown with ivy. Stories of generations of kings past, wars, devastating weather and princesses. The citadel was a magical place. Huge areas devoted to temples, the queen, the king’s mother. Areas where no men, only eunuchs, were permitted to roam to preserve the princess and the concubines of the King. Ascending the private entrance of the king and only the king we surveyed the kingdom and restrained the urge to ring the giant gongs.
The Thiên Mụ pagoda awaits and we are told of a special buddhist ceremony taking place that day. The temple is a land mark in Vietnamese iconography, the grounds full of young monks in bright orange and grey robes and is peaceful and simple if you can block out the tourists. A young monk sat in the central temples, (where silence was asked for) while a man with a camera got right in his face and took photos of him from less than a metre as he tried to maintain a meditative look. Further on the monks were more playful, posing for a picture or maintaining the grounds.
Flying past rivers, forests, temples and rice paddies we began to love the landscapes of Vietnam and wish that we had hurried into the north earlier. As the rain began we donned poncho’s of incredible beauty and workmanship, lovely plastic pokadots. We saw the making of incense and poetic conical hats, watching the rain as it created a curtain protecting us from the outside world. Next stop the tomb of Tú Ðúc, one of many grandiose tombs of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. Stepping through a large stone wall we are greeted by a beautiful curved lake, a boathouse and a gigantic compound. Tú Ðúc had designed and built this tomb well before he died, his poetry is inscribed throughout, and apparently he spent some time here and for good reason. The gardens are made to be tranquil and romantic with beautiful hills, lakes and palaces. The tombs of he and his wife reside on the edges of the compound and are huge walled structures themselves.
The next day is filled with sunshine and being thankful once again that we live in a first world country. In an attempt to procure more anti-malarials we journey to the hospital, figuring that it will have the best pharmaceutical supplies. After being ignored and shunned by staff in the pharmacy we are ushered by a security guard into the ‘foreigners’ wing. An uncaring doctor advises us to go to a pharmacy as he doesn’t have anything to do with medications. The hospital is overcrowded, dirty and relatively frightening. After successfully providing entertainment to some pharmacists we are back on the bikes for Lak’s next tour. Lak himself is a happy man, referring often to himself as the “happy buddha”. In his late fifties he has lived in the region his whole life and is a wealth of stories as he rides. We go further afield this time into the countryside of quant villages and rice-paddies. We cross the river in a remote spot to see the temple of the Cham people’s goddess. A beautifully jungly spot perched on a hill above the river. Our next journey snakes through tiny paths heavily forested, small footpaths of villages to a tree-lined lane. A young Vietnamese girl serves us amazing noodle concoctions made by her mother all neatly wrapped in banana leaves followed by sticky rice and fruit.
We meander down the lane to another tomb, almost as grand as the first. Designed, we were told by the girl, to represent the king Minh Mang with the tomb at his head, the temple at his heart and the quarters of his concubines and family to the left and right representing his outstretched hands. Unable to see the tomb itself as it’s encased behind a huge ancient wall that’s only opened on ceremony, there are stories that his body is placed in an underground city beneath the tomb.
Keeping with the theme of royal tombs, next on the agenda was the tomb of King Khai Dinh. A modern ruler of the early 20th century his palace like tomb has an influence of both Asian and European architecture. Emm, who was becoming obsessed with the ongoing dragon motifs, was especially in awe of the dragons running down the steps of this tomb. Lak commented that if you like these dragons you are going to love the huge dragons running along the steps of the next temple we were to visit.
The most beautiful of all the temples we had seen thus far, Huyen Tran temple is a large cultural complex of gardens, surrounding forests and mountains. There are multiple temples and shrines for worshiping the various Kings, Princesses and Buddhas, libraries to do research on Buddhism and gorgeous places to sit amongst the foliage that encourage the composition of poems or relax and absorb the magnificent surroundings. The statues, shrines and furniture are all amazingly detailed artworks. The mosaics being particularly beautiful especially when looking up close and viewing the different patterns and pictures of the porcelain that make up the 3 dimensional dragons. And just as Lak promised the most impressive pair of dragons running up the long staircase to the temple of a Monk King. Ooooo, Ahhhh.
Walking through the forests of Huyen Tran our path crossed a giant white laughing buddha, so white and huge he stands out like a shining light amongst the trees. A prayer of happiness is given before we moved onto the winding staircase that finally brings us to the top of the mountain. Out of breath we surveyed the valley of the Perfumed River as a monk rings the giant peace bell made of pure copper, 2.16m high and 1.6 tonnes in weight, booming out across the whole landscape and leaving our bones ringing from the vibrations. We are offered a turn at donging the bell, with the inscription “For a peaceful world, for a happy mankind” carved around its edge.
Time moves to the end of our cultural journey with Lak and Yum and we part with warm smiles of goodbye and thanks. Promising ourselves that “next time we’ll see more of northern Viet Nam” we anxiously anticipate the 24 hour bus journey into Laos.