A different kind of travelogue. As an avid young traveller I often wondered what would it would be like when I got older, gathered commitments, created children and accrued debt. This is what it's like.
Looking out. Looking in.
There are temples, there are graves. There are boats, there are waves.
My daughter, Aoife, and I left the rest of the family behind for a change. We skipped down to the wharf at Hue where there are a fleet of tour boats. We were following a young woman and what we didn’t realise was that we were going to visit her home.
We had travelled on the overnight train from Hanoi to Hue, a former seat of the kings of Vietnam. We had planned our arrival such that we alighted at 10 am. We hoped to be sufficiently rested and spend the day walking around the Citadel. The history around Hue is pretty intense, even by Vietnam standards. Hue was chosen as the seat of the monarchy in an attempt to join the north and south kingdoms by the Nguyen Dynasty. Given Vietnams turbulent past this was to become the site of a number of massacres, atrocities, sackings. The french had a go and reputedly carried out everything of value in the palace down to the cutlery and toothpicks. During the TET offensive in the American War the Peoples Army and Viet Cong captured it unexpectedly and proceeded to execute thousands of of people they called pro-government/monarchy “sympathisers”. In truth it seems many were just people that they didn’t like; bureaucrats, academics, intelligentsia etc. In response the Americans fought their way back in. The end game was centred on the Citadel and the Royal Enclosure. The ensuing bombardment killed many more civilians from above than the Viet Cong blood letting had. Explosives in populated areas; never good. What both sides had in common is that they killed or murdered more civilians than combatants. Much more.
The Palace was very sad and very interesting but as usual it was a curious aside that tickled me most. There was a very dry display about the documents of the court. The documents showed the complicated Chinese influenced script used by the court and the mandarins of the King. The complexity of the caligraphy essentially made any attempt to improve literacy across Vietnam an awful lot more challenging. The act of writing was monopoloised by a select group of scholars and scribes.
The creation of the modern “Romanised” Vietnamese script was a very recent event. The motivation for this, it was claimed, was to facilitate the national literacy programs promoted by Ho Chi Minh and Co.
I wont remember Hue for the Citadel, for the remnants of royalty and excess or for the echoes of cruelty, colonialism and cold war paranoia. I will remember it for the river.
The young woman leapt onto a boat about 60 foot long and 10 foot wide. There was room for 30 people in the front. Aoife and I were the only occupants. I had arranged the boat through the hotel due to our having little time in Hue mixed with a new found acceptance of organised tours founded upon our Street Food Fun in Hanoi. (See GT 21)
I was on the Perfume River. It was hot. The sky was dotted with white clouds and the water reflected the green river banks and the blue and white skyscape. I was happy. Aoife was happy.
Our hosts were a family that lived and worked out of the boat; the youngest son remained with his parents while his siblings had moved on to other work. He helped his parents with multiple tasks but without barely a word being spoken. It was all second nature to them. The young boatman ran through his day; push off, ropes, barge poles, bilge pumps, breakfast, wash up, ropes, guests off, prepare midday meal, guests back on, schoolwork, relieve father at tiller, ropes, guests off again, guests on again, ropes barge poles, eat lunch, ropes, guests off again, set up table for guests, guests back on, push off, ropes, serve lunch and then a siesta above the engine with his mum on the wooden deck.
It doesn’t take a lot of river life to have me fascinated and the home of this young man stirred up the romantic in me. I sat and talked about life on a river with my daughter. We talked about when I lived on the canals and rivers in England and where her grandfather lives on the rivers and lakes in Ireland. We talked about a life outside normal schooling, a life where you learn a trade and maybe inherit your parents business. We talked about how you might marry into a boating life or marry yourself out of it. We talked about the reasons our hosts slept on the boat; about security, about weather, about tides and floods and currents. We talked about rats and leaks and toilets. We talked. Talking has become our default school experience.
Our boat design was typical of the local vessels. The tourist boats were essentially the local cargo boats with superstructures instead of cargo holds. The family home was tucked right back to maximise cargo space. Many boats with similar hulls motored by; put put put put went the exhausts, the stones or sand piled high, the river water up over the gunwales.
I enjoyed staring at the working boats on this living river. I took more pleasure in that than visiting the temples and the shrines. I was more fascinated by the workings of our hosts than the deities and the altars. These were alien to me.
Little english was spoken. Smiles and frowns were largely enough. I sensed that the family on the boat were very keen to sell us some of the souvenirs on board, souvenirs we were totally disinterested in and we politely declined. I felt that they were a little disappointed that we didn’t want much in the way of lunch; being vegetarian we expected difficulties. We had asked the guys in the hotel to tell the tour boat that we wouldn’t eat and we brought a pack lunch. They wouldn’t take no for an answer and we had some fried spring rolls.
As we ate the mother and son slept and later the father and mother swapped places.
I wondered how much of the $25 dollars we paid to the hotel actually ended up with our river family. Maybe they were completely dependent on passengers buying food and trinkets. We followed the river folks lead and had an afternoon nap on the floor of the all but empty boat. As I drifted off I wondered again about this whole tour business.