After the first day of my bike tour, I found myself 110 kilometers down the highway from Da Nang in Vietnam’s old imperial capital city of Hue. Hue is a lovely city situated about 15 kilometers inland from the South China Sea along the banks of the Perfume River. And while there are several interesting things to see within the city, I was interested in doing something a little off the beaten track. So, on the suggestion of a blogging friend’s blogging friend I contacted Mr. Lam about taking a countryside motorbike tour.
I called Lam shortly after dinner time and was pleased to discover that he was available for the next morning. We discussed a start time and the price and we were set. It was obvious, even from our brief conversation, that he was an engaging, easygoing, and friendly fellow.
The next morning, I awoke early, washed, and headed off in search of breakfast under the glorious glow of an early morning sun. At 9 a.m. sharp I met Lam in front of the glorious hotel that housed my $6 room with no exterior window. I had asked for a private room but there were several guests hanging out in the bathroom when I checked in. I was a little concerned that the small lizard and the three long, squiggly, many-legged millipedes in the sink would cost me extra, but nobody mentioned anything about having extra guests in the room, so I thought it best not to breach the matter with my less than doting hosts. Meh, what do you expect for 6 bucks, I guess.
After a warm hello and a brief discussion of the itinerary for the day, Lam and I were set to go. He asked if there were anything in particular I had in mind that I wanted to see? In response I inquired of what the typical tour consisted? He laid it out for me, it sounded exactly like what I was looking for, I hopped on the back of the bike and away we went.
By this time, I had been in Vietnam for a week, but any sign of the sun had been only a passing fancy. To be riding out into the beautiful Vietnamese countryside, under pristine skies, and brilliant morning sun felt like heaven. As we slipped by, watching the men seed their rice fields by hand in the traditional way, I could feel my batteries recharging, soaking in as much of the blessed rays as they were capable. At some point in every trip I take I have a moment where I get a cold shiver and feel a little emotional at the realization of the great fortune that I enjoy to be able to take journey’s such as these. Usually it happens when I am on the bike, but in this case it happened while riding on back of a motorbike through endless seas of rice fields that seemed to stretch to the edges of the wide flat earth, racing with the skies to far off horizons.
Our first stop on the tour was at a little village called Than Toan. Here at Than Toan, the local people are doing their part to keep alive the history of the farming traditions that have been in use here for many an age. There is a small museum that contains many old-fashioned farming implements, including the long flat boats that farmers use to slip through flooded rice fields. Also in the small museum is a smiling and endearing 76-year-old woman who will take you through the process of making rice flour. Outside the museum you can watch people play the centuries old game of Bai Choi. Bai Choi is a game with cards stuck on short bamboo sticks. Women dressed in quintessential Vietnamese costume passed out cards to 10 players sitting in small bamboo huts. After cards were passed out there was much animated talking and even some singing until someone’s card was called and they reacted with great joy at their victory. Prizes are small, traditionally a lantern. The real joy is found in the winning itself as opposed to the prize. From the game you can cross the small river via an old-style bridge to the town market where the women are selling all manner of fish and fowl, meat, and fruits and vegetables. After this it was back to the road and off to the Tomb of Tu Duc.
Tu Doc was the longest reigning emperor of the Nguyen dynasty that ruled from Hue. It is said that he had as many as 100 wives and concubines but was unable to father a son for an heir. It is believed that he became sterile after suffering an attack of small pox. He may have had no luck in producing an heir but he sure did know how to build a legacy. The tomb is an extensive array of beautiful buildings, monuments, and temples, each more lovely than the last, with a silken lake fronting the landscape from just inside the front gate. Across the lake you can see Xung Khiem Pavillion, where the Emperor would sit with his concubines composing or reciting poetry. After finishing my rounds at the tomb it was time for a bite of lunch and then a trip to Bunker Hill.
Bunker Hill is a site on the banks of the Perfume River containing several eponymous U.S. bunkers left over from the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War. This place was once the scene of intense fighting but now it is a peaceful and idyllic place over-looking the gentle river through the stalks of tall trees that cast refreshing shadows over the meadows that thrive there. It is a place where people go to enjoy some tranquility on a relaxing stroll, families go to picnic, and young lovers seek to sneak away for a moment of solitude… and shyly race off on their motorbike when the hulking foreigner with the camera invades their neck of the woods disturbing any hoped for tryst. Oops. “Sorry about that!”
From that little moment of awkwardness, we were off to a little shop where the women working there made incense and the traditional Vietnamese conical hats. I tried my hand at making a couple of sticks of the pungent mixture of cinnamon powder and paste and purchased a sample before heading off to the final stop on our tour, the Thien Mu Pagoda. Thien Mu is consider to be the unofficial symbol of the former imperial capital. Although the imperial capital is long gone the pagoda is still home to many monks and is an important holy site visited by many people everyday.
Thien Mu brought us to the end of our tour. From there it was a short ride back to my palace where despite the visitors in the bathroom and lack of a window I decided to stay a second night. I can’t say enough good about Lam. He was engaging and informative every step of the way. I went to him based on the suggestion of others and I was not disappointed. He gave me everything I had hoped for on the tour and more. If you are ever in Hue and looking to do something off the usual backpacker trail, call Lam. You will be happy you did. (Lam does not have a website but you can call him locally at 0939062892)vietnam