It continued grey, and with a steady drizzle, as the bus turned corners before dropping me off at Hue’s Backpacker Hostel in the heart of the Guest area. This once-capital city, before it changed to Hanoi in 1945, was where several imperial emperors lived.
I checked in and claimed my half-price dorm bed. A young woman assistant led me up several flights of narrow stairs before reaching the room. Having plunked my rucksack on the floor, filtering out anything I needed, I went to have a shower. Alas, no hot water streamed out. The hot water switch was off, quite sensibly. However, letting the impact of cold water enter my system was a bad idea – it led to a cold.
What also led to a cold was a wet 20-minute walk to the citadel crossing one of two close-to bridges. Hue actually straddles the wide Perfume River. It is also the only conspicuous feature about the whole city: market, old palace on the opposite side; a few fine buildings that linger on this side, are the rest. A bit of a park or a stroll area lines the river near the tourist guest area.
The wet weather made me leave my camera behind, deciding there was not much point in taking pictures. The front of the palace – more aptly the gate to what was once a Forbidden City – appeared cheerless as I lingered. The only other landmark of note, and opposite the Palace, is a dreary coke-colored plateau holding a gigantic fluttering Vietnam flag: the citadel itself that looks more like a gateway down to a dungeon.
I resisted attempts by the usual tricycle chauffeurs and the odd motorbike rider to journey back to the hostel with them, although there is not much outstanding in Hue to set one’s eyes on, so I decided to leave tomorrow afternoon after visiting the Palace. The only other relic of note is the infamous Tombs where the emperors are buried. I decided to press on with the journey instead of making a visit. To think Hue had an arty historical past and because it lies on the apex between the north and the south of the country, played a crucial role in the Vietnam War. Today it is just a characterless Asian city, made duller by the inclement weather.
I was, by this time, becoming fazed by notices outside every nearby tourist agency that quite easily arrange stop-offs at the next tourist destination – or is it town – en route. So far it has been Hanoi, Hue; the next place is Hoi An, and if you want to go further, no problem. Just follow everyone else, even so far as hiring a motor or push bike. So much for independent travel. Remove the ‘in’ and change the last ‘e’ to an ‘a,’ and there you have it.
‘I’d like to go to Hoi An tomorrow,” I told the Vietnamese hostel assistant. “What’s there?”
“Hoi An is one of our oldest towns. I think you will find it interesting.”
This just made me feel that it is overrated and over-popular.
“Where is there to stay?”
“Here’s a place I’d recommend.” She took out a small card with the words,’Hoa My’ Hotel written on the front. A street map of the old town is printed on the back.
“Our hostel has an arrangement with this hotel and will drop you here.”
I was not sure if I wanted to stay anywhere other than at a hostel. She saw my doubtful expression.
I paid the bus fare.
‘The bus will come here at one o clock tomorrow.”
I lingered outside and scanned a menu board standing at the front of a nearby restaurant.
It was deserted, as I ordered marinated bits of beef with lettuce and a small plate of sticky rice with a beer. By nightfall, I tried a bowl of nutritious chicken and onions swimming among noodle soup. The street side server was courteous and polite as she also put down a plate of crisp bean sprouts and healthy herb leaves. Her return with the 30,000 change from a 50,000 Dong note was more like a presentation.
I window-shopped around the closely confined streets, wondering at what some of the lighted stores were selling and resisted the temptation to buy DVDs and CDs. Persistent badgering by roaming tricycle riders with: “do you want massage?” got a bit of a nuisance.
“With whom?” I naively play-acted. “Sorry, I can’t afford it.” I also wondered at how they have got the gall to ask.
I watched a huddled craftsman cocooned inside his attractively decorated workshop gently engraving a silver barge-like model.
The balcony area outside the dormitory, which looks onto the street, has vacant deck chairs on an attractive wooden slatted floor; more suited to sunny weather as puddles of rainwater oozed onto the floor.
Inside, sleeping in dorm-room accommodation, apart from penny-pinching and economy of availability if all the other rooms are taken, is distinctly unattractive unless you are not fussy about crashing anywhere.
Firstly, you have to suffer the inconvenience of someone else putting the lights on once you have settled underneath your duvet to get to sleep.
Secondly, there is the ‘little’ noise syndrome. Do you rustle plastic bags, which can be irritating?
The female, occupying the bunk above mine gave me a couple of glances, hesitated, then quickly got the noise over with. I lay there, silently amused by her tactics.
Thirdly, it is better to use the bathroom if it is communal before anyone else.
Fourthly, getting in someone else’s way usually means squeezing past each other and stepping on people’s belongings, particularly if the dorm is small.
Fifthly, the snoring. Sometimes not one but two sleepers are doing it.
Finally, watching and locking your valuables away. It is difficult to know who to trust, although I’ve never had anything I’ve left on the bed taken.
So, which would you choose – your own room or a dorm room?