Sunset Soldier

A World War One Anzac sculpture stands in the main street of Invercargill, the soldier’s silhouette rises above the street, back turned to the May sunset. I turn to admire the decaying facade of a Victorian building along the main street and hope that a benefactor will come to its rescue. As I contemplate the fate of this building, I see him again – the soldier mirrored in the windows.

Decaying Victorian Buildings, Invercargill, New Zealand
Decaying Victorian Buildings, Invercargill, New Zealand
Sunset Soldier, War Memorial, Invercargill, New Zealand
Sunset Soldier, War Memorial, Invercargill, New Zealand

Almost Vietnamese

Before travelling to Vietnam, my vocabulary was limited to phở, that famous Vietnamese bowl full of slurping goodness, and Nguyen, the 13th most common name in the Australian phone book and soon to become the top family name in the urban areas of Melbourne and Sydney. Not a lot to go on you might say.

Another day, another phở This one with noodles or bún ( pronounced boon) with tofu ( pronounced dậu hũ ), and prawn or tôm( pronounced with almost a d)
Another day, another phở, pronounced fer. This one with noodles or bún (pronounced boon),  tofu ( pronounced dậu hũ ), and prawn or tôm ( pronounced with almost a d)

The locals around Hue (pronounced hway) are keen to teach the language and correct your pronunciation: they write things down, demonstrate the tonal stresses, ask you to repeat the sounds and urge you to practice. This is good language teaching in action. Although the phonology is difficult to master, at least you get to read the language (unlike with Thai or Mandarin for example) and the diacritical marks give you some indication of the tones. I am constantly being corrected and that’s good. Words are coming fast, but today I need to practise cài baò càrôt, before heading off to the huge market across the Perfume River to begin my hunt for those magic graters.

Prising open the doors of language.
Prising open the doors of language.

As it turns out, my other well-known word, the name Nguyen, pronounced nwen, turns out to be quite handy in Vietnam. It is estimated that around 30 million Vietnamese, or 30 percent of the population, have this family name. Hue is the home of the Nguyen Dynasty. Established as the capital of unified Vietnam in 1802, Hue was not only the political but also the cultural and religious centre under the Nguyen dynasty until 1945. In that year, the last Nguyen emperor Bao Dai abdicated the throne and transferred power to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh.

Inside Minh Mans palace
Inside Minh Mang’s palace

A tour of Hue’s monuments, because of their spread throughout the countryside, is most easily taken with a tour. A bus tour, taking in the tombs of the Nguyen emperors Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, and Tu Doc as well as the Citadel, Royal Palace and the Thien Miu Pagoda, takes around 8 hours. The trip includes a Vietnamese banquet lunch and concludes with a forty minute cruise down the Perfume River. Most importantly, it includes the service of a well-informed tour guide. The tour costs 255 VND /AU$15. Entry tickets to the various monuments is an extra 360,000 VND /AU21.23. You will walk around 8 kilometers during the round trip and climb many stairs. To survive, you need comfortable footwear, a good sunhat and lots of water. Our tour guide remained cool, calm and totally charming in her apricot polyester Ao Dai and 6 inch high wedged sandals. The temperature reached 36ºC on the day of our tour and I noticed that the price of cold water increased along the way.

Our tour guide takes a short break in the summer gardens of t
Our tour guide takes a short break in the summer gardens of Emperor Tu Doc.

As mentioned in a comment by Maree in an earlier post, the Vietnamese are very forgiving people, though around Hue, one of the hardest hit cities during the French colonial period and the American War which followed, they still harbour some distrust of the foreigner, at least at the official level, when it comes to preserving their heritage. In 1885, French forces stormed the Royal Palace, burning the imperial library and removing every single object of value. This was followed by the American bombing and napalming of the ancient complex of the Purple City. Only 20 of the original 148 buildings survived. The diorama on display inside the second palace representing the Royal Complex in the past, enables one to imagine its former grandeur. The Royal Purple City of 500 hectares was dotted with ornate buildings, moats, lakes and walls before the area was severely damaged. One could say that it was comparable to the palace and gardens of Versailles.

Yellow walls around tu Doc;s tomb. Yellow is associated with Royalty in Vietnam.
Yellow walls around Tu Doc’s tomb. Yellow is associated with royalty in Vietnam. Now the colour can be worn by anyone.

The city of Hue became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993. The estimated cost of restoring or rebuilding the Purple City is around US$35 million. Consequently the project is very slow as funds are short. I have a few suggestions as to who should pay.

More mosaics on walls of xx
More mosaics on the walls of Tu Doc’s summer palace, Hue.

For Mark M, lover of Hue city.

Our tour was organised by MotorVina Travel, near 42 Nguyen Cong Tru st, Hue.

The Town that Turned Retro

The main thing you will notice when strolling down the main street of the small village of Chiang Khan, Northern Thailand, is that the town has turned retro! The street running parallel to the Mekong River, is lined with teak buildings that have been beautifully restored, and most of these – shops, guest houses, restaurants and tea houses- proudly display an eclectic collection of retro decor. The era is mostly 60s and totally kitsch. Open any of the photos below and delight in retro madness.

The municipality won the year 2010 architectural conservation award from Architect Council of Thailand. Since that year, more than 2000 old teak houses and shops along the main road, Thanon Chai Khong and nearby lanes, have been registered with the municipality’s architectural campaign, with over 600 receiving grants to renovate. This, in the era of the uniform concrete block house, is delightful to see. The young and well-heeled from Bangkok swarm here on the weekends, to stay in ‘original’ old houses with matching decor. The young are embracing Thai architectural history they barely remember, the old teak house, which is now missing from big cities.

Original guesthouse facing onto the Mekong river at Chiang Khan, Thailand.
Original guesthouse facing onto the Mekong river at Chiang Khan, Thailand.

During the day, the town is sleepy, with only a few restaurants and coffee houses open for business. In the late afternoon, the main street transforms into a walking market, although the number of stalls vastly increases on Friday and Saturday nights when the young city folk arrive in mini buses from down south.

The other welcome feature is that the main street and series of  20 or so perpendicular lanes, are devoid of through traffic. Here the bicycle rules and has become the town logo.

You won’t find backpacker travellers here or westernised food, no pancakes or pizzas, and very little spoken English. If you go, take your Thai phrase book. There are a couple of great restaurants in town that do offer a menu in English, the best being Faikam, which does wonderful versions of most Thai favourites. The average cost for a double room, with aircon and bathroom, facing the Mekong River starts at around 600 Baht per night ( AU $24.00).

How to get there. Fly into Loei, with Air Asia, from various big cities in Thailand, then take a mini van from the airport to Chiang Khan. Or, go, as we did, along the Mekong river by car, from Nong Khai to Chiang Khan, one of the great road trips of Asia.

Chiang Khan or Inner city Melbourne?
Chiang Khan or Inner city Melbourne?