Ben woke up momentarily during the last hour of our sleeper bus ride from Hoi An to Hue.
It was just enough time to snap a few pics before he went back to sleep.
We were only going to stay one day in Hue so we decided to make it a big one by booking a full day boat/bus tour of the temples, pagodas, and elaborately decorated tombs outside the city limits along the Song Huong River, also known as the “Perfume River”. When we rose bright and early to start the tour it was raining – bummer. Not to be discouraged we threw on our rain gear and muscled up for the long day. Two motos arrived at our hotel to give us rides to the dock where a fleet of dragon boats awaited us.
Our dragon boat had a nice front deck overhang so we could see the river without having to get wet.
Our dragon boat was also equipped for making mutineers walk the plant.
We personally witnessed two tourists forced to make this dreaded walk, one for taking one too many pictures, the other for not buying enough syrupy flat-tasting overpriced coffee on the boat. The plank also served the side purpose of helping us walk onto shore whenever we stopped.
The boat ride to our first destination was a long one – about 90 minutes. During the ride Ben and I watched from the front deck as the rain came down and the two dragons led us forward. Here’s a video of part of our ride.
The river was full of interesting passing boats, including this one loaded with…chairs?
Our first river stop was at the Thien Mu Pagoda.
This pagoda was built during Emperor Theiu Tri’s reign in 1944 and each of its seven stories is dedicated to a manushi-buddha, a Buddha that appeared in human form.
A permanent guard warned Ben to be quiet and respectful. Here’s a video of the guard that quieted him and the surrounding courtyard and pagoda.
Meanwhile in the main courtyard the rain flooded the walkway.
Ben and I explored a little and found a massive turtle-tombstone relaxing under a shelter from the rain.
The prettiest courtyard was the one the farthest from the river.
It also had a small pretty pagoda.
At this point we boarded the boat again and continued on down the Perfume River. The cattle grazing along the river didn’t seem to mind the rain as much as we did.
By the time we had reached the next temple Ben and I had lost interest in the tour because our guide’s English was impossible to understand. I snapped another quick picture of a decorated guard only because the guard’s beard seemed to be made of real hair, which was disgusting…
While the rest of the tour group continued into another temple Ben and I wandered down to the riverside where we heard strange music coming from one of the boats. We peered curiously into the boat and could see what looked like someone dancing…with an oar?
At some point someone came off the boat and giving us a smile, motioned for us to come on. We obliged, taking our shoes off at the front of the boat and then stepped into one of the most bizarre religious ceremonies I’ve ever been witness to. There was colorful attire, a massive spread of food, and interesting music playing. They smiled at us when we joined, happy to have us be a part of their celebration.
Everyone had special clothing on but the focus of the ceremony was on the man dressed in black – I will explain why this was a little later. When we first entered the ceremony he was paddling an actual oar through the air while the music played and looking around and smiling at everyone while they clapped along. We were happy to be there to and joined in the clapping and when we did we were offered a small bowl of rice to eat.
At some point the song stopped and the main guy put down the oar. The participants then began handing him stacks of small bills (Vietnamese Dong) that he would either count out or write on with a pen – click here for a video of this. I now think he was blessing some of the bills to make the money lucky – money to be kept in the wallet, not spent.
All of a sudden they grabbed a live crab whose claws had been bound up and cut the bindings to free the crab. While they were doing this one of the women took some of the bills that had been blessed and gave them to my brother and I – lucky money – heyo! When I looked back the crab was scuttling across the floor until one of the male participants brushed it back to the center with a feathered broom. Seconds later and just ten seconds after freeing the crab, a man from outside the inner circle came with a dustpan to scoop up the crab and then throw it out the window of the boat. Again, I got a video of this which you can view here.
Moments later the man dressed in black leading the ceremony was back at the dance but this time instead of using an actual oar he was executing a sweet air-oar solo, again with music and clapping to aid him. A video of this here.
We stayed and watched the ceremony for about another ten minutes and at one point the participants changed the main guy from a black robe to a white one.
While Ben and I were observing and clapping along with this strange ceremony we had absolutely no idea what we were witnessing but we left feeling very inspired. After learning more about Vietnamese religious beliefs at the Vietnamese Woman’s museum in Hanoi I now believe we witnessed a ritual Mother Goddess ceremony.
The different costumes represent the different incarnations of the Mother Goddess and each incarnation represents a different form of the Mother Goddess.
One of the incarnations, the “sixth dame”, takes money, or “loc”, and blesses it and give it to the participants to give them luck – I think this is why Ben and I were handed money as you saw in the video.
The musical players in the background were just doing a “gig” – these musicians are trained especially to play in Mother Goddess Ceremonies.
A family or person hires them and can spend lots of money putting on one of the ceremonies Ben and I witnessed.
These are my favorite types of experiences, ones that you can’t get through a guidebook or a tour agency. Truly authentic.
After getting some loc Ben and I needed to make it back to our tour boat so we said our goodbyes and made our way back to our boat.
The next stop was the Tomb of Minh Mang. The main gate has not been opened since the early 1800s.
The rain continued as we made our way through the tomb.
The tomb’s structure was massive – terrace after terrace after terrace.
Ben and I were thankful for our rain gear during this tour.
The tomb’s structure was surrounded by lakes and forest – very pretty.
Nearby some cow herders tried to coax their cattle across a bridge.
After the tomb we switched to a bus and drove to the tomb of Khai Dinh. Massive dragons adored the steps leading up to the gates.
Ben and I were a bit tired of the rain so we relaxed in the bus while the tour group shuffled through.
I jumped out to check out our final stop, the tomb of Tu Doc. This first picture was the place where the emperor’s servants would sleep.
It was another nice structure with a winding river built right into it.
Cute leafless trees were all over the structure.
And of course your obligatory statutes.
Massive tombstones were all over these structures. Each of them were covered in ornate micro-inscriptions.
I’m not sure what this fruit was but it was growing all over this structure.
When we got back to Hue that night I took a stroll out near the intersection near the bridge.
On my way back I walked by this lady who I see all over Vietnam – she creeps me out every time – always looking at me regardless of where I am on the street.
Ben went to bed early that night so I wandered out on the streets to find a place to get a beer while I wrote. As I passed the first corner near our hotel a moto driver came up and pestered me. I have become so jaded with these pushy scammers that as always I brushed him away and told him to leave me alone. But he was persistent, this time not to take me on a moto ride, but to have me come share some rice wine with him and his moto buddies. I let him lead me over to the corner where two of his moto friends were passing around a bottle of rice wine (tastes like vodka, a little less strong). They had me join the circle and their ritual. One person would take a shot of rice wine and then pour the next shot and pass it to the fellow to his left. During this process I asked each of them, with their limited English, what their name was, how old they were, whether they were married, and how long they had been in Hue. All three of them were happy to share that they had lived in Hue their whole life and two of them were married with kids.
We also exchanged some basic language. They told me that (this is a rough phonetic translation) “voi” means good, “swvao” means young, and “an” means old. After about six shots I asked them for a chance to slow down but apparently this was not acceptable. At this point a woman came over and brought some food for us – they let me join in their eating. The food wasn’t that good but their generosity was refreshing. After a month of dealing with scammer moto drivers in Vietnam it was nice to meet some that just wanted to eat, drink, and talk.
At one point another man came to join us that spoke much better English than the three moto drivers I was sitting with. I told the man I wanted to reciprocate the boys’ generosity by buying them a few beers. He told I should give them some money so they could buy so more rice wine. I said ok and handed the first guy who had accosted me 100,000 Dong ($5). He asked me to get on his moto so we could go get some more rice wine. He rode me across the color-changing bridge and we stopped at another moto-driver gathering where three moto drivers were drinking rice wine out of a plastic water bottle. Of course I was yet again encouraged to imbibe at this stop. But this is where things got a little weird.
The main man moto driver who had drove me across the bridge asked me at this point for more money. I opened up my wallet and handed him another 100,000 Dong. More he asked. Another hundred. More again. Another hundred. More he asked. At this point I said no, 400,000 is plenty to get a bottle of rice wine. I think his scammer instinct had clicked back on when he realized I had a wallet full of Dong and he kept trying to get more and more but he realized he had pushed the limit when I said no more. Or so I thought.
He got a big bottle of rice wine which I’m sure cost far less than 400,000 Dong and we drove back across the bridge to his waiting friends. When we started sharing the new bottle of rice wine I noticed an immediate difference – higher quality, much better tasting. It probably didn’t cost 400K Dong but it was certainly better than the stuff we had been drinking before. We shared some song together – they loved singing – and some more “whiskey” – their common word for the rice wine we were drinking (any hard alcohol = “whiskey”).
After a few drinks I did my instinctive wallet-camera pockets check. Not necessarily because I was worried about these guys (but after handing him 400K, I kind of was) but because this is what I always do wherever I am. The main moto guy saw me doing this “check” and said “we are all friends here”. He seemed to take from my check that I was worried about getting robbed – he was partially right. The main moto guy then tried to take me to a restaurant down the street for some food. I assumed after giving him 400K Dong that this was going to be a free meal but when we arrived he said “50,000 Dong” for both of us to eat at the place which was most likely owned by his aunt. At this point some red flags had already gone up and I sternly told him “no more money”. He got the point and I saw in his eyes that he truly felt bad. He had tried to get one thousand too many dong from this American. So he took me back, assuring me all the while that we were “friends”. We had a few more drinks and shared a cigarette. He clearly just wanted to make amends for trying to take his scamming one step to far.
But then he and his buddies said they wanted to go for a “ride” and they all motioned for me to join in the fun – “hop on and take the ride!” I asked them “where” are we going to and he simply pointed a direction that was opposite of where my hotel. It was obvious that they wanted me to come with them but at this point I did not feel comfortable hopping on back for another wild ride. I told them thank you, enjoy the whiskey and the extra money I gave you and good night.
I’d like to walk away from this experience thinking it was just a genuine experience but deep down I know that when I crossed the bridge with the main moto man his scammer instinct kicked in and he tried to extort every last Dong he could out of me. But when I said “no” multiple times I think he genuinely felt bad about it and he knew that he had ruined an otherwise genuine exchange by trying to extract more money from me than he should have.