One overnight train later and we reached Hue (pronounced H-way), once of huge political importance in Vietnam through the 19th Century to the beginning of the second world war. Jumping on the back of a moped, we proceed to have one of the best tours of the trips. Starting our visit with the Citadel, the Imperial Palace modelled on Beijing’s Forbidden City, we raced through Hue traffic feeling totally at ease with our skilled drivers who all seemed to have that Vietnamese trait of amazing special awareness. As with most historical and religious sights in Vietnam, the Citadel was practically destroyed in the Vietnam War, bullet holes visible throughout the site. With great comedic gestures, our guide did his best to rebuild and redecorate the palace in our imaginations. Great emphasis was placed on the number of concubines the former Nguyen emperors had and their life with the Forbidden Purple City, hidden away from prying eyes.
A five minute ride later we visited Thien Mu Pagoda, a Buddhist structure, place of worship and monastery. In Vietnam, Mahayana Buddhism is practised, differing from Theravada as practised in neighbouring Cambodia and Thailand. The first boy in the Vietnamese Buddhist family can be sent to the monastery as a child, living there to receive a religious upbringing although they do attend the local school. At 18, the boy will decide whether to continue monastic life, a choice for the rest of his life. Quite a discussion ensued as to whether it was right or wrong to guide a child in such direction at a young age and whether this is still regarded as normal practise by a family. Another case of needing to stay longer in the country to really understand; I’m somewhat devoid of an opinion.
The Pagoda is a quiet reflective place decorated with well cared for Bonsai trees and another beautifully adorned temple area. The monastery was home to Thich Quang Duc, the infamous monk who in 1963 doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire in protest of the policies by the then president. The image was reproduced throughout the West. Remaining at the Podoga is his old car, acting as a reminder of the event: quick, cameras out everyone! Then back to our trip, I guess without truly understanding what we’ve seen.
With the wind in our hair, rain pricking our skin, our mopeds sped into the countryside surrounding Hue. Within minutes, after skating across a dodgy bridge built especially for mopeds, we hurtled down small brick paths through rice paddy fields, past grazing water buffalos and lone fishermen. I was probably gripping the back of the bike a little tightly at this point. We made a few stops to see an old arena built for the Emperor’s Elephant vs Tiger matches (the elephant was undoubtedly always the winner), a street of ‘workshops’ selling the usual selection of souvenirs with added demonstrations of cone-hat making and incense sticks, more temple ruins, and on to a lookout point over the Perfume river. At one point the narrow path we rode was the only visible solid land in the flooded plains, an exhilarating view of water seamlessly meeting the sky. As the light of day faded, we rode past roadside stalls cooking up evening delights, weaving in and out of other moped drivers eager to get out of the persistent rain. We arrived back soaked, excited and full of tales of things our driver did and things we saw.