26 June, 2010
Hue, Vietnam

Hue and Hoi An are the two biggest tourist draws in central Vietnam, so I was sort of subconsciously expecting Hue to be like Hoi An: a pleasant little town, quiet and unhurried, brimming with old buildings and history and beauty. This was further enhanced by looking at the Lonely Planet map of Hue, which shows most of the city enclosed by the thick walls of an ancient citadel. I imagined that citadel to be quite… dominant.

It’s not. Hue is largely indistinguishable from any other South-East Asian city. Walk for a little while and you do eventually find the citadel walls, surrounded by moats.

On the other side of the walls is just more Vietnamese city. Walk through it long enough and you come across an inner citadel, called the Imperial City. We reached the edge of these thick stone walls, set on a shadeless green plain of dry grass, and started walking around it to look for an entrance.

The circumference of the city walls span ten kilometres. This was in 37 degree heat and about 80% humidity. We ended up walking around nearly the entire city, before finding the entrance was not far from where we’d started. At this point we were sweaty, dehydrated wrecks and not in the mood for anything. This is what I looked like:

Of course, we didn’t come all that way for nothing, so we shelled out 50,000 dong to go inside and look at all the stupid history and shit.

I feel obligated to visit these places when we come across them – which is always, in Asia – but I don’t like them. I prefer it when the history is unsullied by admission fees and velvet ropes and information plaques and hordes of other tourists. I like places like Hoi An or Kyoto, where nobody is making a big fuss about it: it’s just there, part of the city, still being lived in.

We wandered about for a bit, snapped some photos, sat in the shade and bought overpriced coffee. For the reasons I explained above, I didn’t find it particularly appealing, and was rapidly recalculating the amount of time I wanted to spend in Hue. Chris was already keen to leave tomorrow, and I’m with him – particularly given that this city seems to shit itself when it comes to electricity even more than any other coastal Vietnamese town. I went out drinking with Max and Jess last night, so I slept relatively soundly through this morning’s fuck-ups, but I’ll let Chris explain them:

The power went off yesterday. I asked them when we got to this hotel if it was going to go off and, reluctantly, they said yes it was going to go off at 6 am. They failed to mention that it was going to go off today as well. We have been paying $13 US a night for this room and the power has been off as long as it has been on. So at 6 am I woke up because it was fucking hot and went downstairs.

“Why is the power off again? It was off yesterday, why is it off again today?”
The hotelier just smiled at me, not understanding my fury. “It off yesterday and off today too.”
“Yes, I know that now. Why is it off today? I am not paying you money to have no power and not sleep.”
“Sorry, I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you tell us that it would be off again today?”
“Umm, sorry.”

By this stage I had only had two hours of sleep. I fell under at 4 am and the power went off at 6 am. I stormed back up the stairs to our room and prepared myself for another sweltering morning of half-sleep. Just as I put my head down on the pillow the hammers started, or at least what I thought were hammers. After about ten minutes of relentless banging I couldn’t take it any more. I went downstairs again and followed the echoes and the vibrations of each impact of whatever it was being struck. Turns out it was the cook smashing her meat cleaver over some chives. Seething with rage, I approached the hotelier again.

“Why is she doing that now? It is 6 am.”
“She is cooking,” he said with that same innocent smile.
“Again, it is 6 am, could she not do that at any other time?”
“Ummm, sorry.”

I swear I would have killed him had reality not taken hold of me. I wanted to slam his head into the reception desk until he died.

I visited the cook.

“Could you please stop that noise for now please?”
“Oh sorry, I finish now. Sorry.” Same smile as her co-worker.
“It’s ok… it’s fine”

Stinking hot, ears pounding, I climbed the stairs once again to our decrepit cell. Two minutes after she told me she was done, BANG FUCKING BANG!

I have never, ever felt anger and frustration as I did this morning. I did not fall back asleep until the power was, for some reason, turned back on at 11am.

Fuck this city, and fuck this country and its people and its inability to handle itself.

I was thinking about Vietnam yesterday while crossing the bridge over the river, and decided that it’s a beautiful country tainted by the nation-state that occupies it. If every Vietnamese person vanished it would be a lovely place. In the mountains, at least. When it’s not pouring with rain.

The electricity issues are immensely frustrating. Dealing with the Vietnamese – with their scams and their hustles and their lies, or, one step below, their ineptitude and their hopelessness – is even more frustrating. Customer service here is nonexistent. Simple things like paying a bill or receiving change are hassles every single time. This applies to South-East Asia in general, but Vietnam in particular. Here are some choice moments:

1. At a restaurant in Hoi An, which did great food but had surly staff, Max ordered a cheeseburger which arrived without any cheese. He informed a waiter, who returned ten minutes later, said “Here is you cheese, sir,” and handed him a slice of Kraft cheese in its plastic slip. (This made me laugh for days and days and days).

2. At the same restaurant, and many others, getting change takes about ten minutes. They take your note, disappear out the back of the restaurant, and eventually re-emerge with your change. For fuck’s sake, keep the cash register at front of house. It’s called front of house for a reason.

3. At a restaurant in Kon Tum, Chris ordered noodles as a side dish. When his main came out, he asked “Do I have some noodles coming?” The reply was, “Maybe.”

You can chalk all this up as spoilt Western whining if you want, but I challenge anyone to travel cheaply in Vietnam for a month and not come across at least one moment where they want to slam their head in frustration against the wall. I love riding a bike through this country, but I am growing very tired of the country itself, and I’ll be glad to be shot of it.

Unfortunately (with regards to that growing disdain, at least) Kristie and Elisha are flying up to Hanoi on the 7th of July to visit us for two weeks. So we’re here until at least the 21st of July. Whether we keep the bikes or not is something of an issue. I tried riding Max’s bike the other day while his and Jess’ packs were still strapped to it, and it was a nightmare. Wobbled all over the place and I nearly dropped it. I don’t know how he manages to ride just with those packs, let alone Jess. There’s also the fact that while I may be willing to risk my life and limbs in the boiling cauldron that is Vietnamese traffic, I’m not sure I’m willing to risk Kristie’s.

Oh well. I suppose we’ll decide in Hanoi. We have until the 7th to get there, which gives us more time than road, so we’ll have to find a more pleasant place than Hue to spend a few days. The area around Ninh Binh is supposed to be quite nice.

We’re also going to be riding alone from now on, since Max and Jess are on a tighter schedule than us and are taking their bike up to Hanoi on the train. We’ve been travelling with them for nearly a full month now, and we connected with them so well it feels like we’ve known them a lot longer. We may briefly meet up with them in Hanoi around the 8th or 9th, but otherwise it’s a grand farewell until we meet again in England… because that’s where we’re bound, now.

I’ve forgotten to mention how that’s been going. The improvement of the trip is something of an illusion, directly related to the people we’re travelling with and the fact that we’re on motorcycles. Take those things away and it will be Thailand territory again. Well, actually, hopefully a lot better than that, but still not something Chris is keen on. We’re both still doing China and Mongolia, but the Africa leg has been discarded and the Americas will now be done on motorcycles, at some hazy point in the future. In the meantime I’m headed for Europe, since my citizenship means I can work there; Chris is also becoming more keen on the idea of Europe over Canada for living/working, so we’ll probably do the Trans-Siberian leg as well.

As for the American motorcycle trip, the plan is to ride from north to south. We were originally intending to ride from Murchison Promontory (the absolute northern tip of North America) to Cape Froward (the absolute southern tip of South America). This has since been discarded as impractical, since Murchison Promontory is at the arse-end of the world; a freezing Arctic peninsula with literally thousands of kilometres of tundra and forest between it and the nearest road. It might be theoretically possible in the next ten or twenty years, when they actually build some roads in Nunavut, but even then you’d need an expensive support team with helicopters and fuel drops and that sort of thing, which is just a mite out of our price range. So we’ve instead set our sights on Alaska; maybe the edge of the peninsula there, or Prudhoe Bay, which actually has roads leading to it. Or a road. A mine-haul road. I’ve read about a guy doing it on a cruiser, so it’s certainly possible, which is more than can be said for Murchison.

It’s a long way away. We’ll need expensive bikes and a hell of a lot more riding experience. Chris is more gung-ho about it than me, already looking up the kinds of bikes he wants to buy, which I don’t really care about. I enjoy riding a motorcycle, but I enjoy going places and seeing things more. The bike itself is a means to an end, albeit a very fun means to an end. Chris would be quite happy to ride every single day, both here and in America. I prefer to have days off, even if there’s nothing around to see or do, just to give my spine and my ass a break.

I’m also more focused on the here and now; not just riding bikes in Vietnam, or even just the rest of this trip, but living and working in Europe for a while. I definitely do want to ride across the Americas, but it is in the future, and there’s other things I want to do as well. I’ve been saving up for this trip for a very long time, and I am still committed to it, and when I eventually do reach Europe I would like to once again have disposable income and stop carefully squirelling away every penny, so I can actually enjoy my static life, at least for a little while. My vision of life involves travelling across the rest of Eurasia, then living (and owning a motorbike) for a while in the U.K. or Ireland, and then riding across the Americas. Timeframes are purely theoretical. Ideally I’ll land a job that actually makes use of my degree, so I can earn a decent amount of money, and both enjoy life while also saving.

All this writing about Europe is making me think about how wonderful it will be to return to a first-world country with a chilly climate. Where people know how to fucking get things done.

Anyway, enough about that. Before I go off to buy an icecream, I want to note that I’m rapidly approaching the upload limit for my free Flickr account. A pro account costs $25 a year. If somebody can reccommend a good alternative, I’d like to hear it. I tried Picasa but it’s needlessly complex and is one of those bitchy pieces of software that moves into your computer and declares itself the new king, setting itself as the default program for virtually everything. In the end I’ll probably suck up and pay the money to Flickr anyway, since I’ve already tinkered with Greasemonkey to make it show HTML scripts so I can post photos on the blog. If all you enraptured readers want to chip in a dollar to buy me a Pro account we’ll be up and running in no time!