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Monday, March 22, 2010

The Thanh Toan Bridge

Since our preferred motorcycle tour guide was already booked for today, we opted to utilize the hotel tour booking service. Bill didn't want to visit any more temples, pagodas or tombs so I booked a car and driver to take us out to the countryside to see the Thanh Toan Bridge. Neither of us knew anything about this bridge but we thought it would be nice to drive out of the city. Would have been more fun on the motorcycles, but an air-conditioned car to keep out the mosquitoes was also nice. Turned out that we drove on rutted dirt roads through large rice fields which were heavy with mosquitoes and we appreciated being inside that car.

A Google search later at the hotel informed us that the Thanh Toan Bridge is a small tile-roofed bridge crossing a canal in the Thanh Toan village (a/k/a Thuy Thanh Commune) in the Huong Thuy district. The village is about 8 kilometers east of the city of Hue. Thanh Thuy village was established in the 16th century by emigrants of 12 families following Lord Nguyen Hoang. A sixth-generation niece of the Tran family offered to fund the village to build a wooden bridge so that the villagers on both sides of the canal could transport conveniently and also so that travelers could rest on their travel on the dirt road. Mrs.Tran Thi Dao was a childless wife of a high-ranking mandarin in the Le Hien Tong reign, and she wanted to use her money for charity. Emperor Le Hien Tong granted the village a document to praise Mrs. Tran Thi Dao and exempted the villagers from many taxes to encourage them to remember her and live in her example. In 1925, Emperor Khai Dihn also granted a document to honor Mrs. Tran Thi Dao and ordered the villagers to set up an altar on the bridge to worship her. The photo at right is the shrine in the interior of the covered bridge.

The tile-roofed Thanh Toan is an arched wooden bridge. It is 17 meters long and 4 meters wide. (For comparison, our boat is 16 meters long and 4.6 meters wide; so the bridge is about the size of S/V BeBe.) On both sides of the interior of the bridge are 2 rows of wooden platforms with parapets for people to lean their backs. The bridge is roofed with tubular tiles. A researcher into Vietnamese ancient articles has classified the Thanh Toan as a rarity and the most aesthetically valuable bridge in Vietnam. There are a few other rare bridges that are also considered valuable, but those are roofed with flat tiles. The Thanh Toan is especially rare because it is roofed with tube tiles.

The bridge was built over 200 years ago and has been damaged many times by storms, floods and wars. However, each time the villagers have contributed to repair, renovate and preserve it. In September 1991 the bridge was greatly renovated according to the old design and officially accepted by the Cultural Ministry as a national remains, a rare and appreciated beauty-spot of the whole country. The bridge is considered to inspire the poetic souls of the local people and travelers.

Neither Bill nor I have very poetic souls but we did enjoy visiting the village to see this bridge....especially since there was a village celebration in progress when we arrived. The bridge was jam-packed with people sitting on the seats on both sides and hanging over the edges. Oh goody; they threw a big party on the day we decided to visit! No one (including our car driver) spoke any English so we didn't get a clear explanation of what was going on. We attempted to ask a few people and the only response we got was "holy day" but I don't think this celebration had anything to do with a holy day. It was a day for paddling boat races on the canals....with lots of betting by the locals judging from the money exchanging hands after each race.

The long boats were crewed and the leader of each boat would bring the steering oar and place the tip of it on a horizontal pole at the official starting point. A suspended drum would be beaten and when the drumbeats stopped each boat leader grabbed his steering oar and raced to his boat. Then all the competing boats paddled furiously in 3 circles, then took off madly down the canal. At some point they then turned around and proceeded in the opposite direction for an equal distance past the official starting point. Then they again turned around and paddled furiously back to the starting point and that was the end of the race.

The villagers were cheering madly and it was a lot of fun watching both the racing boats and the villagers. As at all local celebrations, there were food vendors set up along the canal. One of the ladies even had Coca Cola Light. And it was even cold. Bill still insists on not consuming caffeine, so his drink option had to be a beer -- at only 10:30 in the morning no less. Knew right then this would be a leisurely afternoon day. You can't start drinking beer that early in the day and stay energetic all afternoon.

One vendor had the tiny green boxes that we have noticed at roadside stands since the day we visited the Mekong Delta. These boxes are somehow strung together and left hanging without refrigeration or heating. Had no idea if these were food or what. The contents of these green boxes has remained a mystery to us. Some men had several of these boxes on their table and Bill politely intruded to try and find out what the boxes contained. He motioned for them to open one of the boxes. Turns out that these are folded very stiff leaves. Actually folded leaves within folded leaves within folded leaves. After 4 or so layers of the stiff folded leaves there was a thin sliver of some kind of meat or steamed fish. It was slightly pink and looked somewhat gelatinous. Did not look like something we would want to eat. Glad to have that mystery solved.

For the first time since arriving in Vietnam we saw old men wearing pyjamas -- just like old-time photos of Vietnam. None of them were smiling; they all looked so serious as they slowly walked around the crowds, often with their hands clasped behind their backs. They didn't appear to want to have their photos taken, but I snapped a few unobtrusively. The children were just precious. They also did not appear eager to have their photos taken but seemed okay about it. This is unusual because little kids we have encountered in our travels usually are very eager to have their photos taken and then want to see the images on our camera. One thing we have found adorable with the small Vietnamese children is that when we are leaving and walking away they usually shyly murmur to us, "Good night." They don't speak English and that is their way of saying goodbye to us.

By one o'clock we were back at the hotel. Walked to what has become our favorite sidewalk restaurant for another order of mi xao don dau --crispy yellow noodles with vegetables and a clear thin sweet and sour sauce. A large plate of this delicious dish costs a whopping 75 cents and I could eat it several times per week. Must find a recipe and learn how to make this clear sauce. By the way, by frequenting restaurants we have learned a few Vietnamese words, although we don't know all the correct spellings. Ba is the word for the number 3. There is a popular beer in Vietnam called 333. So you order it by saying Ba Ba Ba and sound like a sheep. The best and most popular beer in Hue is the locally produced Huda. The country of Denmark provided the equipment and technology to produce this beer. The name is a combination of Hue and Danish -- Huda, as in "who da man." It has quickly become Bill's favorite beer and comes in large bottles for about 75 cents. The word for the number 2 is Hai. Beer is Bia (sort of sounds the same, doesn't it?) Pho is the very popular noodle soup. Pho is sold everywhere and each region has their own variety. We have not tried Pho. Bun is another popular soup, again with slight variations from each region. Bo is beef. So, Bun Bo Hue would be beef soup in the Hue region style. Hue is pronounced much like the word "way." We saw a sign recently for a restaurant called Huong Hue. Surely they were playing with the tourists with that name because it would be pronounced "wong way." By the way, when was the last time you saw one of these? An actual pop-top beer can.

After a leisurely lunch we walked back to the hotel so we could watch CNBC live coverage of our House of Representatives discussing passage of the major health care "reform" bill. Certainly looking like I will be forced to buy health care insurance in the near future even though I do not need it or want it. video

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