There’s a gay German couple in the hotel breakfast room. One of them clocks me and K, and immediately starts trying to transmit the Secret Gay Signal. At breakfast? I ask you. How wearing!
K and I have several comedy alter-egos. One of our favourites: the two jaded Northern queens.
– Just look at ‘er! Madam in the check shirt and glasses!
– She’s a one, int’ she? Radar Eyes, or what?
– She’s never off duty, is that one.
– Well, she’s not fookin gerrin’ any, that’s for sure.
– Too right she’s fookin not!
– Don’t look, you’ll only encourage her.
Around our group, the rice wine hangovers are kicking in, big time. None of us had factored in the sheer strength of the brew – although in retrospect, the fact that it was poured out from a plastic water bottle might have been some sort of clue.
As a result, we are not in the best condition for a lengthy morning tour of the Hué Citadel, with one of those earnest local guides who insist on giving you the precise facts and figures for everything. We are a shockingly reluctant and inattentive group, almost to the point of embarrassment (“Poor man! What must he think of us all!”).
Right in the middle of the Citadel complex, we come to the Forbidden City. Modelled on its Beijing equivalent, this sumptuous palace used to house the emperors of Vietnam. In what is known locally as “The American War”, 95% of the Forbidden City was destroyed by the US forces in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive in 1968. It is a shocking discovery.
The Citadel complex has now been designated a UNESCO world heritage site, and there are plans to rebuild the Forbidden City in its entirety. In the meantime, rice and vegetables are being farmed on the waste ground. This sticks in my mind as one of the best metaphors for the character of the nation:
Tragedy. Beautiful, historic buildings are destroyed in a bloody conflict.
Stoicism. The Vietnamese shrug their shoulders, and set about rebuilding them from scratch.
Practicality. But in the meantime, as there’s no point in letting perfectly good land go to waste, they’ll grow rice and vegetables.
At the Tu Duc mausoleum, we spot the German couple again. The one in the glasses clocks us, and immediately recommences transmission.
– I’ve got a name for her now.
– What’s that then?
– It’s German for Miss Thing.
– What’s that then?
– Fraulein Dings-Bums.
– Love it…
In the afternoon, my absolute highlight of the entire trip. Mr. Hoài has arranged a motorbike trip for the whole group, through the fields and villages surrounding Hué. I’ve never been on the back of a motorbike before, so there is an element of overcoming fear to be factored into the experience – this only serves to heighten the sense of exhilaration. Our drivers weave us in and out of the city traffic, and out into the villages, where kids line the roads, shouting Hello at us and high-fiving us as we scoot past. We are seeing Vietnamese life as it really is. I am ecstatic with delight.