We leapt onto our bus with great delight (not) and said farewell to Ha Long bay. We stopped halfway into our journey back to Hanoi to have a quick tour round a ceramics workshop. Our guide assures us that Vietnam is famous for its pottery. We saw the clay being made into huge vases and watering can-sized jugs (for rice wine, naturally) using giant moulds, which were then varnished, kilned and sold in the shop. The kilns were pretty cool (or hot). They put all the vases inside, brick up the entrance bar a hole at the top, and light the fire inside. I wanted to buy something to bring back with me, but it’s so delicate I couldn’t guarantee that it’d get back to the UK in one piece.
After being pestered by the shop assistants, we quickly made our escape and clustered together for safety outside the bus while we waited for the driver to open the doors. Another three hours and we were back in Hanoi for an early dinner before the overnight train to Hue. I was running out of space on my camera so I scooted round to a local shop for an extra 4Gb of memory. My camera tells me that I can now take another 1200 photos on top of the 300 I’ve already taken! Saying that, one girl had taken 2000 photos after the first 4 days, so I’m nowhere near the worst. At 6pm we were gathered in the hotel lobby and transferred to the station.
This time we were on a state-owned train, which was a bit more basic than the privately-owned trains we took to and from Sa Pa. The beds were rock hard, but it was still clean. Once the train got moving, we again found the bar carriage after walking through the different classes of carriage. Ours were four berth cabins, and we saw a lot of more basic six berth cabins and even more basic seating areas. Our guide insisted that the train was only a year old but it looked more 80! We got some more cans of beer and our tour guide ordered a local ‘delicacy’ of duck foetuses. They boil eggs which are 20 days old (bearing in mind they hatch after 28) and eat the egg, feathers and all, with a plate of bamboo shoots and noodles. One man was brave enough to give it a try – his reaction was enough to stop us all from having a go! The bar closed at 10pm (!!) so we had another beer in one of the cabins before tootling off to bed.
Even though the bed was hard, I slept really well. We were woken up at a respectable 8am, bundled off the train and transferred to our hotel in Hue. After breakfast, we had a row of mopeds outside the hotel waiting to take us on a tour of the city. We each had our own driver and rode in convoy through tiny roads, markets and narrow paths to see the city and the countryside around Hue. It was amazing!! We stopped at a little market with a bridge over the river and learnt about growing and harvesting rice. Then we drove on to a house in another village to see a one-armed lady making poem hats. They’re conical hats with paper designs sandwiched in between the layers so that when you hold them up to the light, you can see the patterns through the hat. A couple of girls bought them but how they’re going to get them home, I have no idea! We then drove on to a Buddhist nunnery for a vegetarian lunch. We lit incense sticks for Mr Buddha man (a bit like lighting a candle in church) and were told to sit on a mat to meditate (!). We sat around looking pretty awkward for a few minutes, and then our guide thankfully ushered us back out to our motorbikes.
So that our drivers could get some lunch, we then had an hour-long tour around a tomb built for emperor Tu Duc. I say tomb, it was the size of a small town! It was built 16 years before he died so he used the buildings to run his administration and often fished in the lake. There’s a tomb-looking structure in the centre of the complex, but because he was buried with lots of his valuable possessions, his body resides elsewhere. In fact, they got prisoners who were sentenced to death to dig a maze of underground tunnels, bury him somewhere inside and fill the tunnels back in. So nobody knows where he’s buried! The whole place is very grey and depressing though, so we finished our tour feeling a bit sombre. The motorbikes were there to whisk us off to the next stop, which was to see incense sticks being made. Then we saw an old Colosseum which was built for tiger and elephant fights. The emperor always wanted the elephant to win, so they would remove the claws and teeth from the tiger before the battle. We then zoomed on once more to take a dragon boat along the Perfume River to the pagoda. There were lots of Buddhist monks there, aged 5ish upwards, praying in one of the buildings. The little trainee monks only had part of their heads shaved and wore grey robes, whereas the adult monks had fully shaven heads and wore bright yellow robes. After this final part of the tour, we zoomed back on our bikes to the hotel for a very welcome shower!
For dinner we got taxis to a restaurant for a ‘royal banquet’! We had to choose a king and queen (the ‘Hollywood couple’ were nominated) who got dressed up in super colourful embroidered robes and fancy bejewelled hats. The rest of us dressed up in slightly less fancy (but no less colourful) robes and matching hats. We looked like right wallies! We then walked in pairs behind the royal couple and entered the banquet hall. There was a traditional Vietnamese band playing with a master of ceremonies who told us all about each of the instruments. There was a sort of fiddle, a pipe, a single-stringed harp thing and a couple of singers who also had some clacky percussion instruments. It was really interesting to hear oriental-style music, though I don’t think I could listen to it at home. We were served lots of crazy dishes – the food was OK but the presentation was amazing! They had styled the food to look like love birds and peacocks, all made out of vegetables. When the banquet finished, we piled back into taxis to return to the hotel for a early night. Our guide wants us up and ready to go before 8am tomorrow (ouch!) to tour Hue citadel and leave for Hoi An before Typhoon Nari hits tomorrow night. Should be exciting!