My hands grip the rain-slicked handlebars. My tired legs turn the wheels in trembling circles as I wiggle my way down the road. Erica and Rich’s bright rain macs are up ahead, beacons in the drizzle. Perhaps you can indeed forget to ride a bike.
Wary of not wasting our first day in Hue, Vietnam because of bad weather, we’d optimistically decided to hire bikes. At $1 to hire for the day, alarms bells should have probably rung, particularly as we suspected that $1 was more than the bikes themselves were actually worth. Nevertheless, there was an Imperial City to explore and we were Brits; undeterred by crap weather and rickety transport.
The tumult of Vietnamese traffic was just another obstacle. We’d got used to crossing the road, which involved stepping out in front of a wall of mopeds and hoping for the best, so why not throw ourselves fully into the deluge? Shoddy bikes and shoddier cycling skills aside, it was a fool-proof plan.
Erica and Rich seemed to pick it up horrifically quickly. I, on the other hand, cycled in slow monotony, trailing dangerously behind and hesitating woefully at each road crossing. Local people, three to a bike, peddled right up next to me and openly laughed or shouted ‘hi, hi’ merrily in my face, which didn’t really help.
After managing to manoeuvre across an almost-motorway, we arrived at our first pit stop, a yard full of relics from the Vietnam War. Tanks and aeroplanes sat forgotten, killing machines in a downpour. We took the obligatory photos and moved on to our destination point: the Citadel and Imperial City within.
We crossed the Perfume River and parked up the bikes. Entering the walled Citadel through the statuesque Ngo Mon Gate, we stepped into the bowels of the imperial city. Young, brightly dressed boys performed a mix of martial arts and sword fighting in a courtyard. It was a complex dance full of arcing arms with outstretched swords, swirling red and yellow sleeves and formal turn taking. It was arresting to watch.
The Citadel itself was stunning; dilapidated but still beautiful. Wonderfully restored buildings, ornate with Vietnamese architecture, still remained. The lacquered red wood and decorated ceilings of the To Mieu Temple were a highlight, as were the tourists playing Emperor dress-up in the Mandarin Buildings. The dressing up box was for those that wanted the photos and you had to pay for the privilege. Tourists bobbed past, laden with gilt yellow dress robes, which added theatrics to the ancient setting.
We wound through acres of crumbling, stone, which seemed to melt into the greenery that consumed it . A single elephant stood alone in the grounds. It was as dilapidated as the Citadel, ribs visible under its grey skin.
The gauzy rain that drifted down was the type that soaks the skin, so we sheltered in a filigreed, Vietnamese teahouse inside the walls. The tea was thick and sweet, but beautifully presented in traditional teapots and it warmed our hands. We sat on the floor, cross-legged, clutched our tea and looked out at the ruins.
I yearned to see the citadel in its hey-day; it must have been glorious. It still is…. And yes, I did survive the bike ride back to the hostel…