TIO Vietnam: No Hue, Out!
Boots on the ground: nothing trumps local knowledge when we are planning an itinerary.
The resounding success of our first trip to Thailand was thanks to help from our friends, Telluride locals who also live part-time in that country: Sunny Griffin and Steve Eiche, Esther White and Jeff Badger (owner, Telluride’s Siam and Talay).
With every intention to follow the advice of Wendy Brooks (founder of the Telluride Academy and of the Women’s Travel Company) to the letter, we fully expected the next two weeks of our trip, our time in Vietnam, would be equally rich.
Wendy’s first recommendation about where to stay in Hue was unqualified, leaving no doubt.
“If you only stay one (relatively) expensive place on the trip, let it be the Saigon Morin Hotel. Others will say you should stay at the new French hotel on the river – which is fine for 3x the money and enables you not to be in Vietnam, but rather in some generic five-star world with other people taking themselves too seriously. So you will stay at the Morin. It’s my favorite hotel in the world BTW. Beg for a room overlooking the Perfume River, but otherwise any room there is ok cause the downstairs outdoor dining is so stupendous (free fabulous breakfasts) and the pool is nice and the location beats all. You are right across from Rainbow Bridge, made famous when the Americans repeatedly bombed it into oblivion and the VN rebuilt it, finally capping it with the rainbow lights.”
Built in the sunset of the Victorian era, in 1901, by a French businessmen, the Saigon Morin was the first major hotel in Central Vietnam. After suffering heavy damage in the typhoon of 1904, it transferred ownership. By 1907, the Morin brothers took over the luxury property, enlarging and upgrading the facility to its present quiet elegance.
We checked into our room at 2 a.m., Thursday, November 7, ready for a nap and then an easy day on campus.
After a leisurely lunch, massages at the hotel spa, and a walk around the ‘hood, we asked the concierge, Ni, to make a dinner reservation at one of Wendy’s favorite restaurants, La Carambole, which serves Vietnamese food in a French colonial ambiance.
Our guests that evening would be two Hue locals with ties to the Telluride Academy’s Mudd Butts International (The theatre camp visited Hue in 2010) and Global Mountain Theatre (an outgrowth of Mudd Butts International): Tran Phan, a 24-year-old college professor and TV news reporter and Quang Nguyen, also 24, who works for an Idaho-based NGO, with plans to start his own tourist company.
No big surprise, the non-stop banter was as satisfying as the feast at our table on the restaurant’s second-floor terrace – overheard by the couple at the next table. The woman, Ronnie, came over to ask if we knew Marki Knopp. Apparently they became friends when Marki sold them their house in Connecticut.
All roads inevitably lead to Telluride.
We said our good-byes for the evening with plans to reunite on Saturday, accompanied by Quang’s father, one of the top tour guides (per Wendy) in Hue, who specializes in The War.
Friday morning we set out with Ni’s pick, a smart, energetic guide named Tien, to do what we always do when we arrive in any new town: tick off the top hits from a list of sites that appear to be everyone’s bucket list. And Hue turns out to be of the most significant cultural and historical centers in the country with lots to see and do. From 1802 – 1945, the city was the imperial capital of the Vietnam’s last dynasty, Nguyen.
At the top of Tien’s list (everyone’s list), The Citadel, designated a World Heritage Site in 1993 and Vietnam’s answer to Beijing’s Forbidden City. The huge fortress complex covers about 1560 acres and contains three concentric enclosures: Civic, Imperial and Forbidden Purple Cities. Despite the pounding the site took during the Indochina Wars, recent (and ongoing) restoration has re-imagined much of its lost grandeur.
We powered on to view three more principal sites: Thien Mu Pagoda (Pagoda of the Heavenly Lady), with its seven stories, the tallest temple in Vietnam; Mausoleum of King Minh Mang on the banks of the Perfume River; and the Mausoleum of King Khai Dinh, a blend of East meets West, which took 11 years (and a small fortune) to build for an unpopular king who was likely gay (he had only seven concubines and one child) and definitely a salaried employee of the French government.
Apart from the ruins – and not included in travel guides – Tien dished a few theories about how the “Perfume River” might have gotten its name.
Could have been the spices sold up and down the river, cinnamon and sandalwood. Its other name is The River of Incense.
Or it could be from a Mandarin saying: “Good mom, cook and wife.” Apparently men came to Hue to find wives of that description., daughters raised there, i.e. the good perfume, sought-after throughout the country for their excellent training and great beauty.
Back home for a late lunch, reality bit. The subject line of Wendy’s email sent Thursday, November 7 (with the time change, Friday in Vietnam) said it all: Rats. Take this seriously.
“Now Super Typhoon Haiyan (cat 5) is heading to Vietnam just above Danang, 35 km from Hoi An. When the windfield start reaching the coast of Vietnam it is till expected to be a cat 4 typhoon and when making landfall a cat 3! This would be serious bad within 3 days!”
Clint is a retired pilot, as comfortable with weather maps as he was in the cockpit of the 747. No ifs, ands or buts about it: we were cutting our losses and heading back to the States pronto.
With the help of Ni and the rest of the gracious staff at the Saigon Morin, we had plane tickets lined up for that night and all other reservations in Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong Bay, where we were to sail with the incomparable Indochine Junk, cancelled and refunded, no questions asked.
We landed in Seattle on Saturday at 7 a.m., headed to our daughter’s home in Bellevue and turned on the news. In the end, following the debacle in the Philippines, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had to be evacuated from coastal towns we had planned to visit.
We are still awaiting news from Tran and Quang.
With Hue now in the rear view mirror, we reflected upon what we had learned, all good. Turns out you will go for the historic sites, and savory smells from the countless great restaurants in the city are simply the gravy. You will want to stay for Hue’s people.
Outside our window, the pace was mellow, with nearly everyone riding cyclos, motorbikes and bicycles. Few cars meant little traffic – and pollution. Everyone we met, Tran and Quang, exceptional young people in any culture; the hotel staff, especially our concierge Ni, but also the desk staff and our driver Uyen; Tien, all appeared intelligent, humble, caring, and warm.
It is tempting to say everyone treated us, Americans, as if the war never happened. But in truth, there appeared to be little denial – or resentment. Like Thailand, Vietnam is predominantly a Buddhist country: Change in Hue (and we assume, everywhere else in the country) is embraced as a fact of life.
We will return to Vietnam to complete Wendy’s itinerary as soon as possible – and add stops in Cambodia and Laos.
Just not in the rainy season.
Note: To find Tien, email email@example.com or call 84-914-042-119 or go through Ni at the Saigon Morin.