Travel mornings are always the same. Have your suitcases outside your rooms at (say) 7am ready for collection by the hotel porters and meet in the foyer after you’ve had your breakfast and vacated your room at 7:50. We identify our luggage before it’s placed in the bus, then we board and hit the road.
It’s a shame we didn’t get to see the shrines in the marble mountains but we stopped for a while at a factory/showroom where artisans worked with marble and other stones. It’s well worth reading a little about the mountains and their history and certainly the pieces on display in the showroom were dazzling. These days the stone is sourced from elsewhere to preserve the mountains here.
We drove from Hoi An to Da Nang in daylight and stopped briefly at what the US Forces called China Beach. This was a popular place for R&R and also the name of a TV series in the eighties which centred around a nurse in a military hospital and an orderly in the morgue. Every time I watched it I’d end in tears and ask myself why I watched the bloody show. But I did anyway.
Far across the bay there’s a sixty-seven-meter-high statue of a Lady Buddha (see more here). Long told us that there had been a lot of fighting in this area and the buddha offered peace to restless souls. It’s open for visits but not on this trip. We crossed over the Dragon Bridge before heading for the the mountain pass into northern Vietnam. A tunnel has been built through the mountains. It’s quicker, but the views are ordinary.
Our bus shared the road with many other vehicles and any pull-over point was packed with sight-seers. Long pointed out that he’d seen many motorbikes with Hanoi registration and speculated that a lot of people were going home for the up-coming Tet celebrations. Family is important to the Vietnamese – to the extent they’d throw in their jobs to be home for Tet.
We noticed many, many eucalypts on the hillsides. They were a clear marker that these areas had been decimated with Agent Orange. Scientists discovered that not only are gum trees fast-growing, they provide an important source of lumber.  So there’s more than a little bit of Oz in Vietnam.
We squeezed into a lay-by for one photo opportunity at a place overlooking a picturesque village nestled on a river beside a bridge. We were told to avoid the locals trying to sell us their photos, taken on brighter, prettier days.
One of the most important aspects of long-distance bus touring is finding suitable rest stops with what is called in Vietnam a ‘happy house’. So called because you come out of there greatly relieved and VERY happy. Apart from that, of course, the driver needs to take regular breaks. With only ten of us on the bus, finding suitable locations wasn’t quite so difficult as it would be with, say, fifty passengers. The bus pulled into a hotel area beside an inlet under the mountains. Those of us in need went and did their stuff and we all went to take photos while the driver had his break. Vietnam, like many Asia countries, doesn’t do much about litter except in the big cities. This place was no exception. Such a shame.
Lunch was enjoyed at a beautiful restaurant in a lovely tropical garden setting and then we were off to Vietnam’s equivalent of Beijing’s Forbidden City – the Citadel. This site tells you all about it.
The complex was built by the Nguyen dynasty which ruled Vietnam from 1802. I was constantly reminded of China’s Forbidden City in layout, decoration, and lifestyle – which is hardly surprising since China ruled Vietnam for a thousand years. The Citadel was badly damaged in a major battle in 1968  during which the city of Hue was virtually destroyed. Thousands were killed. After the war, the site was left to stagnate until it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993. Money has been poured in to rebuild many of structures and repair the art work. As well as restoring the buildings and gardens, the Government has provided a little more context to life here with performances of ceremonies conducted in the past. The colourfully-dressed performers added a touch of realism to what would otherwise be a series of museums.
The citadel was clearly one of Long’s favourite places. He told us so much that it’s hard to remember everything. But one part that resonated for me was the concubines. As was usual with royalty everywhere, marriages were arranged for political purposes, so the Emperor had wives, of course. But he also had hundreds of concubines. These were well-born women – children, really since they were taken to the court at the age of fourteen or fifteen. They were selected by the emperor’s mandarins and looked after by eunuchs. This fascinating article gives an insight into the structure of the royal family and the concubines. Have a look at this one, too.
The sheer size of the site meant we did a *lot* of walking, including stairs, and by the end some of us were fairly tuckered out. But we had one more place to visit before we went to our hotel in Hue – the Tien Mu Pagoda, at 7 storeys high, the tallest pagoda in Vietnam. We had to negotiate a lot of stairs to reach the pagoda where it rose above the Perfume River (the name comes from cinnamon). The monk who self-immolated in Saigon came from here and the car he used to drive to Saigon is on display.
That evening our group was treated to an Emperor’s Feast in the dining room at our hotel. Peter and Gloria got to be royalty for the night, while the rest of the group were mandarins – high ranking officials.
I didn’t attend. I developed a sore throat on the previous day and after all the exertion at the Citadel and the Pagoda I wasn’t hungry and just wanted to sleep. I heard all the commotion from the stadium next door, though, both times somebody scored a goal.
Anyway, this is what I missed.
Tomorrow we’d be flying from Hue to Hanoi.