I probably would not have visited the imperial ruins of Huế if Dang had not been waiting for me outside my hotel entrance that morning. Truth be told, I was starting to feel the fatigue of my motorcycle trip, which manifested itself in a loss of appetite for sightseeing.
The must-see in the area is the mausoleums of the emperors of the Nguyễn dynasty, which ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. These are sumptuous temples located on the edge of the city. Financed with state resources in a then poor and underdeveloped Vietnam, the construction of these mausoleums was marked by violent popular rebellions.
I was glad to have Dang drive me from one site to the next. Once I arrived in a city, I preferred to leave my motorcycle at the hotel. Not getting lost on the roads of Vietnam required constant attention. Despite my efforts, I often got lost. Rare were the days when I reached my destination without having made some detours.
I had three tools to find my way in Vietnam: a GPS, a map and road signs.
Outside the cities, I had little difficulty. Although I could not rely on my GPS (the signal was often too weak), there is usually only one road connecting the main cities. So I was able to orient myself with my map and the signs. On all roads in Vietnam, there are markers indicating the distance to the next village. These are usually enough to get to the right place.
The biggest difficulty was to orient myself inside the cities. My road map was of no use. It was not unusual for me to spend more than an hour looking for my hotel. And I learned that Vietnamese affability is a double-edged sword: a Vietnamese will never tell you that they don't know the answer to your question. And their kindness is in no way proportional to the accuracy of the information given. I have learned to always check the directions I get on the street.
On the road, therefore, I had to be extra vigilant to keep myself alive and get to my destination before dark. This meant that once I got there, I would gladly delegate my captain's hat to someone else.
Dang had decided on the itinerary for the day. All I had to do was to let him drive me around and take pictures.
The first site we visited was the mausoleum of Emperor Tự Đức, built in 1867. The colossal site includes a lake, a hunting preserve, a temple, royal residences and the emperor's tomb.
Dang would be waiting for me outside. I bought a ticket and began my tour.
I walked around the site with my camera in hand. Not having the benefit of a guide's explanations, I found it difficult to understand what I was seeing. Nevertheless, I appreciated the opportunity to take pictures of these majestic ruins.
Arriving at the tomb of Tự Đức, I climbed a series of steps to photograph the sepulcher. With my eye in the lens of my camera, I heard a conversation in the distance.
- These tourists are lucky to have a specialized guide, I thought.
I heard them approaching me. I then recognized that they were speaking French.
- Ah, well. Quebecers...
I then raised my head to see who it was. I saw four silhouettes in the distance.
But it was ... the couple from the embassy!
I thought I was the prey of a mirage. I decided to walk in their direction.
I was not mistaken. It was Dominique and François, the couple I had met at the embassy a few days before my departure. They were accompanied by their daughter Alexandra.
This meeting defied all odds.
I knew that François and Dominique were coming to Vietnam during the Christmas vacations. In the few emails we had exchanged since our meeting, they had shared their travel itinerary with me. But we could not plan a meeting because I was determining my itinerary from day to day.
And there we were, face to face, at Tự Đức's mausoleum.
We had a moment of shock. Confused, Dominique and I looked at each other for a moment without moving. We were trying to understand the logic behind this implausible encounter.
The site of Tự Đức's tomb is dotted with monuments, temples and statues. There are many visual obstacles. We could have been a few feet apart and never seen each other. I could have decided to take a different route and we would never have crossed paths.
This meeting was a matter of minutes, if not seconds.
After a moment of shock, reason gave way to emotion. Dominique and I jumped into each other's arms. We were both certain that this meeting was not a coincidence.