Riding my bicycle across Vietnam
It’s nice to sleep in. Not too much on the agenda today. Hue is famous as it is holds the imperial city from the Nguyen Dynasty (the last dynasty of Vietnam). As it is not only a point of interest, but also ties into how tourism is an agent of change in the country, that was on the list. In the afternoon, I had an interview scheduled with a Facebook connection. But first, breakfast.
I walked a couple miles into town, mildly annoyed that on my rest day I should have to exert myself this way. I found a swanky French villa on Google Maps that served Vietnamese food. I was the only one there, sitting on a regal patio overlooking a small garden and the street. With a yogurt, cappuccino, orange juice, and fried rice paper crepe filled with shrimp, pork, and greens ordered, I sat back to enjoy it.
The imperial city “the citadel” is huge. Tourists flocked around the main entrance. Much of the citadel has been rebuilt since the Vietnam war, as it’s undergone bombing and attacks from the Americans, and the French before that. I cannot convey how big the space feels, but it is a big square, two kilometers a side. It’s all in varying states of repair, small shops selling ice cream and coffee jockeying for position in the strangest of places.
With the citadel “done”, I headed over to a coffee shop to meet Luke, a middle-aged, balding Brit who has lived in Vietnam for ten years, settling himself in Hue after a period of sporadic movement within the country. Luke is an English teacher, but the reason I met with him is because he’s also working in the tourism industry in Hue. Part of my project is looking at the effects of tourism on Vietnam - how it’s changing cultures and economies within the country. Hue is a good place to start, as it has such a rich history as well as a decent tourist draw - but not as much as places like Da Nang or Hoi An.
A tour for Luke means experiencing local culture, not curating it. He thinks that Hue has been slow on the uptake with innovative tourist ideas. He points to Phong Nha. And although neither of us like it very much, they have the best pizza. That attracts people. But is that the reality that tourism should be aiming for? Some of Luke’s ideas for tours are outside of the norm. The concept for one of his tours, “Vietnow”, would seek to connect current events to Hue. For example, Vincom seems to be taking over Vietnam. It’s a conglomerate company owned by Vietnam’s first billionaire. They just opened one of many Vincom Plaza’s in downtown Hue. It’s essentially a massive shopping mall, in addition to a whole bunch of smaller “VinMart’s” over town. At the same time, Dong Ba Market in Hue is an individual vendor, traditional style large market that caters to tourists as well as locals. Not exclusive to Hue, but all over Vietnam small mom-and-pop corner stores have survived for years selling necessities like soap and oil. Only time will tell if the entry of massive corporations like Vincom will yield any positive results, or rather, just put people out of business. At the same time, companies like Vincom are pumping in economic investment and providing jobs. What I’m starting to find out, if nothing else, is that nothing is as clean-cut as it seems, and I’ve still got quite a lot of time in-country to try and make some sense of it, as difficult as that is.