Vietnam is a large country and after our time in Hanoi and Cát Bà, we only had nine days left until our reservation on Koh Rong Island in Southern Cambodia for our 25th-anniversary celebration. Before moving on to Hue, we needed to do a little time compression. There are a few ways to do this, A.) knock stops off the list B.) fly to the next destination or C.) use overnight transportation to make ground while we would otherwise be sleeping. As it turns out, we did a little of each.
First the Phong Nha Caves noted for their “garish lighting” came off the list. I think I was the only one interested anyway — I mean “garish,” who can resist? We also eliminated any time allotted for Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as they still call it here. Next, we added a flight from Danang to HCMC where we arranged for a bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Unfortunately, flights from Danang directly to Cambodia were too expensive.
We also used the overnight train from Hanoi to Hue, Vietnam. What a cool experience. We’d never been in a sleeper car before and were still traveling with another couple, so we were able to book a whole cabin for the four of us. Pat was excited at the thought of eating on linen-clad tables in the dining car and sipping on a scotch in a crystal glass served by waiters in livery at a mahogany bar. Once the train got rolling, Pat set off to find this train car of the gods.
After searching through a few cars, he finally asked someone official-looking, “Where is the dining car?” The guy told Pat “Car Zero” and to go back to his cabin and wait. Wait? For what? It was after 8pm. Weren’t they ready to feed us dinner? Couldn’t they plop a couple of ice cubes in a glass and splash a little scotch over them?
Pat returned with the less than informative news and we waited… and waited a little longer. Finally Car Zero found us. It was a food and beverage trolley, not exactly what we had in mind; no linen, no livery, and no crystal glasses or scotch. There were, however, five-gallon buckets of steamed rice, weenies, and mystery meat… and a surly cart-wench who ran the operation. It was awful, cold food, but at least it was expensive. Oh, and warm beers were available at a premium, too. We forewent those and cracked into our scotch stash instead to wash down “dinner.” (Author’s note: So as to keep the reader from worrying unnecessarily, “dinner” was not fatal.)
With the evening sustenance activities complete and 10pm quickly approaching, it was time to turn in for the night. The arrangement was comfortable and consisted of two bunk beds. We sat on the lower beds while socializing, but for sleeping the girls took the uppers and the boys took the lowers. The door could be locked from the inside, and there was ample room for our bags. The mattresses were firm, but I slept well enough and think the others did too.
Very early the next morning the PA system came alive with a sound much like that of a cat trying to climb out of a meat grinder. The “music” continued for a good 10 minutes, and then an unintelligible announcement was made. At least it was a human voice and the cat was out of its misery. About five minutes after that we arrived at a station. By our estimates, our stop, Hue, Vietnam, was two more cat wailings down the line. As expected, the cat-grinding occurred a couple more times, and then eventually the train arrived at our station
Pancakes and Martial Arts
Hue was a quaint and relaxing city, much smaller than Hanoi. We only had a day and a half to explore it so we toured the Forbidden Palace and made sure we found a place that served Banh Khoai. Banh Khoai were called pancakes, but they were unlike any pancakes I had ever eaten. The woman who made them had a 3-burner stove set up right on the sidewalk so passers-by could get a whiff of the addictive delights. Her father, whom we think was a deaf-mute, took the orders and delivered the pancakes and beers.
To say he “delivered beers” is an understatement. He set our four beers on the table and then produced a small plank of wood with a bolt sticking out near one end. He hooked the bolt over the lip of one of the bottle caps, made some silent martial arts moves and then gave the plank a karate whack. The cap and the plank flew into the air and then he caught the plank in one fluid motion. He gave it a few ninja twirls and then attacked the remaining three beers in a similar fashion. We all smiled and clapped. His face filled with a smile and he gave us a big thumbs-up.
When the pancakes arrived, he mimed how to properly eat them. First, you put some mixed greens; lettuce, basil, mint, into your bowl. Next, you break up a bit of the crispy pancake filled with bean sprouts, pork, and shrimp and toss it in on top of the greens. Finally, you drizzle the whole thing with an amazingly rich peanut sauce. We polished them off in no time! While we were waiting for our bill, the father was busily building two more beer openers. He wrote the name of the restaurant and the date and gave them to us and our friends as gifts. Very cool!
Hmmm, I talk too much about food, don’t I? I was going to mention the fried dumpling with an Asian-seasoned pork meatball inside that we found that evening, but I should probably skip that…
Our visit to Hue was very short. The next day we had a 1:30pm bus to Hoi An to catch, so we had time to do a little computer work, find an ATM, and have lunch. Take a guess at what we chose for lunch! Both daughter and father greeted us like regulars as we walked into their restaurant for more of those wonderfully crispy, peanut-sauce-covered, pork- and shrimp-filled pancakes of bliss. What a great last taste to have in your mouth as you leave Hue.
Hike Drink Live Laugh
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