The bus goes dark. Looking out the window of our top bunk, we’re surrounded by the interior tiles of an unlit tunnel. We’re driving from Hoi An to Hue, the imperial capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945. The tunnel we’re passing through is the Hai Van. It’s the longest in Southeast Asia, stretching just over 6km, and we’re pleased at the decision to sacrifice coastal views on the windy mountain pass for the much faster route and ten minutes of complete darkness. As the small beam of light from the tunnel’s end grows larger and larger, we’re finally released in to some of the most beautiful and unique scenery we’ve witnessed in Vietnam. Heading north up Vietnam’s Highway 1, we pass lush mountains cascading into the sea on our right, sunlit rice fields plowed by men guiding water buffalo on our left. It’s enough to make the dirty and broken bus that we’re in (a realization of the expression “you get what you pay for”) melt away.
Hue is a mix of the ancient and modern. The imperial city, or citadel, on the north banks of the Perfume river was once inhabited by emperors and their concubines. On the river’s south side, a web of narrow streets and alleyways is filled with hotels, coffee shops, video game cafes, and a surprising amount of Italian restaurants (okay, so we may have gotten pizza one night, but let’s be real, it’s pizza). Our stopover is brief and, with only one full day to explore, we start with a stroll to the train station to book our tickets for the following day’s journey.
Covered by a gray, hazy sky, the city’s landscape feels muted. Narrow parks straddle the wide, lazy river on both sides, the headache inducing roar of cicadas envelops the trees above. A few kilometers down the road and the pink colonial rail station approaches. We cross the green hued river on a four lane bridge to see the west wall of the citadel. On this side of the Perfume RIver, it’s quiet, with only a few street vendors slinging banh mi and sugarcane juice. For the first time in Vietnam, we opt for the latter and watch as the street vendor hand-cranks the press to flatten the long rods of sugarcane. Her strength is impressive as she squeezes every last drop of juice into the bottom of the cup. We happily continue down the riverside, passing the sweet, honey-colored liquid back and forth, racing against the questionable ice melting, the perfect afternoon stopover in Hue.
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