The best thing about volunteering is definitely meeting new people. Even though we only spent ten days in Da Nang, we got many new acquaintances with whom we explored the city and had many fun moments!
We got to know a guy in the language cafe who was originally from Hue. He offered to travel with us to Hue and show us the places there. He also invited us to stay at his parents’ place. We didn’t want to refuse such a nice offer so we met up in an early Saturday morning and started our motorbike trip to Hue.
Motorbiking through Hai Van pass
The popular and famous Hai Van pass is located between Da Nang and Hue and many travelers rent a motorbike just to experience this route. Many rental companies even transport the luggage between Hoi An and Hue so you can jump on a motorbike without carrying too much stuff with you. Hai Van pass is famous also from the Vietnam episode of Top Gear where the route was even called one of the best coast routes in the world. And not without a reason.
The mountain road separates from Highway 1 soon after Da Nang and starts to wind uphill. The first landscapes opened in front of us already after a few minutes of driving and we could see a beach and Da Nang city center behind the bay. The view just got better and better and there were plenty of beautiful spots to take pictures on the way. The road was very good but driving on a serpentine road still has its own excitement (especially when combined with the Vietnamese traffic culture).
After driving for a while, we reached a resting place with restaurants, old fortresses and lots of tourists. The place is gorgeous for taking pictures but it’s better to stop by somewhere else to have coffee and food. The lady in the restaurant tried to coarsely overcharge just of using the toilet so probably other prices have some tourist addition too.
Then we started to go down with a beautiful landscape around us. Hai Van pass is only a bit more than 20 kilometers long so passing it didn’t eventually take even an hour. The rest of the way to Hue was just driving on the highway in significantly more boring landscapes. We stopped by in a roadside cafe and got probably the cheapest coffees during our Vietnam trip for just 7000 dong which is $0,30! Many prices go magically down when you have a local person with you…
Visiting a Buddhist family
The parents of our Vietnamese friend are Buddhist so we got a unique chance to see local everyday life and get to know a religion that we basically know nothing about. When we arrived, we got greeted with smiles and green tea. It wasn’t appropriate for a couple to sleep in the same room so Johanna got her own room downstairs and Jarkko got to sleep upstairs.
We came just in the right time for a lunch so we had a Buddhist vegetarian lunch: rice noodles, tofu, veggies and fruit for dessert. Buddhist food is vegan because one of the most important principles of Buddhism is to not harm anything living, including all the animals and even smallest insects.
The parents asked if we would like to see a local pagoda next day where they were gonna have a meditation class and a lesson kept by a famous monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Well why not! We don’t get this kind of chances every day so we definitely wanted to join.
Snail dinner and discovering Hue
Next we went to discover the city with our friend. Besides the abandoned waterpark, we visited Thien Mu pagoda and wandered around the night market.
Our friend doesn’t follow the Buddhist diet so for the dinner, he chose a local cheap snail restaurant that is popular among young people. The restaurant served snails (in Vietnamese oc) for a ridiculous price of only 12.000 dong (about $0,50) per plate. The snails turned out to be a very positive surprise! The spicy broth and chilli sauce were not only delicious but eating snails itself was fun and finishing one plate took surprisingly long. The restaurant didn’t serve beer but bringing our own drinks was totally okay. In the end, we had emptied four plates of snails and a couple of desserts.
We answered that for us the best part of traveling is to see local life and get to know locals. That is exactly what we got to do in Hue thanks to our friend.
Next day we drove around the Hue palace area and stopped by to have sugar cane juice next to a river. Our friend asked what kind of things we like to do when we travel as we don’t seem to be so eager to visit every museum and temple. We answered that for us the best part of traveling is to see local life and get to know locals. That is exactly what we got to do in Hue thanks to our friend. We find it far more interesting to sit in a roadside cafe and observe the passing people than to pay an arm and a leg and stare some statues.
A day in a Buddhist pagoda
On Sunday morning we headed to the pagoda where our friend’s parents visit regularly. They mentioned the meditation class and lesson before but we still didn’t know at all what to expect. Our friend brought us on the spot to the second floor of the building where the lesson had already started. The big room was full of people dressed in grey and brown clothes and sitting on the floor. Everyone was glancing confused when two foreigners suddenly sneaked into the room.
There was a lesson coming from the screen with a Buddhist monk speaking Vietnamese. We sat down on pillows on the floor and wondered how we can understand anything about the whole thing. Then the girl sitting next to us moved closer and started to interpret the lesson with a fluent English! We kept listening to the Buddhist teaching for almost two hours until there was a break. The people invited us to stay for the lunch and meditation class after so we said yes to the offer.
The lunch in the pagoda wasn’t just a quick food break because eating intently and enjoying the food is a part of Buddhist lifestyle. We filled our bowls with vegetarian food and followed others back to the big room where the people were sitting on the floor in neat rows. Before eating, there was a long praying seremony with singing and drumming. We tried our best to follow the movements and to bow at the same time with others. Eventually we started to eat.
Eating in the silence really gave a chance to fully enjoy the food, chew carefully and taste every nuance of the crispy vegetables. Everyone should try this kind of eating, especially if you normally tend to empty the plate in five minutes!
The whole lunch thing took at least an hour and during the whole time, nobody spoke a word. We watched the nuns eating and they really enjoyed every bite chewing with their eyes closed. Eating in the silence really gave a chance to fully enjoy the food, chew carefully and taste every nuance of the crispy vegetables. Everyone should try this kind of eating, especially if you normally tend to empty the plate in five minutes! At least we have to admit that we do that too often.
After the lunch there were more prays and a break. Besides the visitors, there were only female nuns in the pagoda and most of them were very young. Surprisingly many spoke perfect English and we had time to talk with a few people during the breaks. One nun told us that during the rainy season, they study hard for two or three months and barely step outside. The reason is that there are lots of insects outside during the rainy time and they don’t want to harm them even by accident. During this period, the only connection to the family and friends is via phone. It was very interesting to hear about a totally different lifestyle that is not familiar to us at all!
Eventually, we had a meditation moment on the schedule. Unlike we were expecting, it’s wasn’t traditional meditating sitting in a lotus position but the folks were laying relaxed on the floor and listening to the nun speaking, singing and drumming. We didn’t understand anything of that of course so our eyelids started to feel heavy quickly. One hour later we woke up refreshed from the nap. We guess you can still call it some kind of meditating. At least we felt relaxed afterwards…
As a cherry on the top to our Hue visit, we went for a Sunday walk with the family and had a nice morning tea moment with the father before leaving. We didn’t discuss much because of the language barrier. While listening to Vietnamese tea music and sipping green tea, he reminded us how important it is to stop and enjoy the moment. We surely won’t forget this tea break for a long time. It was awesome to see some Buddhist lifestyle and spend two days enjoying things that not every tourist gets to experience!