Traveling on Two Wheels


On this trip I’ve travelled by planes, buses, trains, boats, bicycle and foot. The only mode of transportation I hadn’t tried was a motorcycle. In a country of 90 million people and 40 million motorbikes, it seemed like something I should do. But given the traffic situation and the lack of good road maps, I though I’d make a better passenger than driver, so I hired a local English-speaking Vietnamese guide to drive me to some of the sites outside the city of Hue on his “very good” motorbike. Turns out his English was not so good and his motorbike only so-so, but his driving skills were very good.

At 9am, I climbed on the back of Lu’s (my driver’s) motorcycle and headed out of the city. We left the town behind and began climbing the hills. I looked around and realized, “Holy (blank), I’m on the back of a motorcycle in Vietnam with a complete stranger and I have no idea where I’m going.” I had a brief moment of panic and then decided, Lu had done this before, he was recommended by my hotel and sometimes that has to be enough. I took a deep breath and a long look around at the scenery flying by. It was pretty amazing. I’m not sure there was a better way to see it.

I wanted to visit some of the imperial tombs that were located along the river around the city. These were no ordinary burial sites. The emperors began building their tombs almost as soon as they ascended to the throne. In some cases, they would take regular visits to these sites to check on progress. In other cases, they became second cities, and they would govern from the site of their tomb, building residences, and theaters and later the ritual burial site. Some even built residences for their eunuchs and concubines to live in after their death to watch over them and their tomb.

The burial sites are guarded by stone statues representing the emperor’s military and civilian leaders. Several temple buildings lead up to the burial site, and finally, usually at the top of a mountain, a huge circular enclosure with a stone building to house the remains. One emperor had an underground channel built to ferry his remains to the mountain. After his death the channel was destroyed and has remained sealed ever since.

What struck me was that most of these sites were relatively new. The last one was finished in 1924…less than one hundred years ago. I was trying to imagine something as elaborate as these places being built in the U.S. with the sole purpose of honoring and paying on-going tribute to a leader. Maybe the closest we come is a presidential library, but they pale in comparison to these complexes.

Lu and I drove from one tomb to the next, only got stuck in the mud once and had no near misses with on coming cars (even when he was driving on the what I would guess was the wrong side of the road). After five hours and despite my earlier trepidation, he dropped me at my hotel. I guess today (against the advice of my mother) trusting a complete a stranger was the right thing to do.

Seeing What's in Front of Me

“No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace.” ― John Ruskin

I’ve been traveling now for almost two weeks. I can tell. Packing and unpacking, figuring out what to see, how to get there…I’m not complaining, but as I got to the city of Hue, I decided instead of knowing what I wanted to see, I would let the city decide what I should see. Hue is the former political and cultural capital of Vietnam, located in the center of the country and set along the banks of the Perfume River. The Nguyen emperors united north and south by building the capital here. Before the war I can imagine how beautiful, almost European it might have been.

I headed in the direction of the old citadel across the river from my hotel (leaving my map in my bag). I stopped at a small pagoda complex that was completely deserted except for some monks studying and tending orchids. It was quiet, cool and the infamous horn honking of southeast Asia faded into the background. As I came out of the pagoda, I saw the ancient walls of the citadel. The citadel is surrounded by brick walls on four sides, each almost a mile long and inside the citadel in another walled fortress - the old imperial city - also surrounded by a moat. I wandered through the citadels narrow streets, finally stumbling upon the entrance to the imperial palace late in the afternoon. The sun was lower, the tour busses and crowds were gone. I paid my entry fee and wandered inside. The palace area used to include almost 150 buildings, about 20 remain (the palace was heavily bombed during the war). The street noise once again faded, and a I walked the grounds…the ceremonial palace, the house for the emperors’s mother, the royal theater, the spot where the forbidden city once stood, I saw only a handful of people.

As I was leaving the citadel, I met a Vietnamese man who showed me where the citadel’s walls had been bombed. He explained that his father had fought with the Americans (the first question everyone asks, “Where you from?”). He said that his father was shot by Vietnamese and lost both his legs for his treason. In this small country, everyone was affected by the war.

I made it back to my hotel and in the spirit of not having an agenda, I showered, changed and headed out to find a spot for dinner. I stopped at a cafe that was run by two Italians. I ordered a beer and a pizza marguerite. It was delicious! My American palette (and my Wisconsin dairy-addiction) was craving something other than rice, noodles or spring rolls. An Australian guy sitting next to me had the same idea, as he sheepishly order a pepperoni pizza, saying he needed some “real” food. We talked about where he had been, what I should see in Saigon and his travels around the world.

I’m not sure that I did everything I was “supposed” to do in the citadel of Hue, but I saw what was in front of me and I feel ready for the next leg of the journey. Tomorrow…a motorcycle tour outside the city.