It's Wednesday morning here, meaning we've been away for almost three weeks, and what an amazing three weeks they've been. I thought that the close encounter of the elephant kind on Monday might be the highlight of the trip, but then yesterday happened and surpassed it. Here's the story. While we were at the Citadel and Imperial City on Monday, we saw a poster for some sort of ceremonial parade to be held at the base of the flag tower last night. It was for a religious (Buddhist, I think) ceremony that has something to do with agriculture. We decided that it was worth a look so, with the other UVa prof teaching here along for the walk, we headed over there about an hour before everything was supposed to start. While we were getting ready to leave the hotel, I saw a bit of sheet lightning, and younger son said that weather.com (which he had checked to see the temperature before our walk that morning--92 degrees with a heat index of 104), had mentioned the possibility of thunderstorms. When we were preparing for this trip, a Vietnamese colleague advised the husband that we should not wander out without rain ponchos since storms can come up quickly here. Having scrimped too often on $5.00 ponchos from K-Mart that tear the first time you put them on, I splurged on $34.00 (each) ponchos. They may turn out to be the best purchase made specifically for this trip.
If you've checked out younger son's photo blog, then you know that there is a bridge here that is lit with colored lights on certain nights of the week. Last night was one of those nights, making it somewhat fun to walk across with the lights periodically changing color. As we were nearing the Citadel, the lightning was progressing from sheet lightning to the traditional bolt variety, and what amazing bolts they were. I dislike having expensive camera equipment exposed when it could start to rain at any moment, but it doesn't bother younger son who managed to get this shot. Younger son said he shot about a hundred photos to get one that actually showed a lightning bolt, demonstrating why digital photography can be oh so much better than film.
The photo above was actually taken outside the walls of the Citadel, and by the time we got inside the walls and were on our way to the plaza at the base of the flag tower, the rain started. By the time we were over to the side where the crowds were, the rain had picked up a bit. We didn't really notice, though, instead uttering the newly immortal line, "Holy Hell! It's an elephant!" because there was the second, further-away elephant from Monday, dressed to the nines in ceremonial regalia. We ended up standing close enough to the elephant that I was able to look straight into its eyes and could have reached out to touch it had I been so inclined. This image by younger son somewhat shows how close we were. He wasn't zooming in much at all to get this short. It goes without saying (but one always then says it when using this expression) that this was a totally awesome experience. Then the rain started coming down harder, and people took various measures to get out of it. We stood under a tree (I was with three physicists who assured me that with the flagpole and all the tall light poles around us, lightning would go for one of those rather than a comparatively shorter tree). Some folk stood under the eaves of a gift kiosk. Others, well, others took advantage of what they could to keep their cigarettes going in the rain. At one point, one of the elephant attendants to the side (both of whom ended up smoking beneath the elephant's drapes) handed a cigarette up to the person atop the elephant.
After a few more minutes the lightning intensified to the point that all the people dressed for the parade as well as many of the spectators retreated inside to the cover of the gate to the Imperial City. The elephant stayed put. We debated what to do and decided that it might not be a good idea to be so very close to a creature that could conceivably go berserk should lightning strike closer than it was, so we retreated across the plaza to huddle under the eaves of a kiosk there with some Vietnamese students. The sons stayed behind (how could I argue with younger son's logic, "But Mom, how could you beat 'killed in Vietnam by lightning-crazed, rampaging elephant' as an obituary?'"), and younger son managed to get these two shots of the elephant in the rain. While the sons watched the elephant from closer up (they did keep their distance as the photos show), we were watching the most incredible lightning show you can imagine. Both the husband and I grew up in prairie conditions, Saskatchewan for him and Montana for me, and there's something about the way lightning strikes in a flat environment that makes it so much more impressive than the lightning we have in hilly Central Virginia. One of the bolts actually seemed to bounce, striking and illuminating everything and then, a second later, striking back upward. We were also counting the time lag between the lightning and the thunder to see just how close each bolt was. We had a few that were, let's just say, definitely within one mile and probably closer than I would want to think about.
Eventually, the sons rejoined us and we jointly decided that the rain could go on forever, and as dry as our upper bodies were under the ponchos, our feet and lower legs were not going to get any wetter walking in the rain as opposed to huddling under kiosk eaves, so we headed for the hotel. The other UVa prof had come without a rain poncho, so older son gave up his since he was already pretty wet from having stayed out in the rain while younger son took the elephant photos. Walking back in the sheeting rain was an adventure in itself. Because Hue is a flat city, there were lots of low-lying places like intersections that had started to flood. At times we were walking through four to six inches of water. At one point the physicists were muttering excitedly about something they refused to share with me. They told me later that they had been discussing the fact that the last strike had been so close that the ambient electric field caused by the strike was large enough to trigger the fluorescent lights in the kiosk we were passing. They figured that I would be better off not knowing this until later, and they were probably right. When it came time to cross the river, we had our choice of two bridges. The physicists advised that we take the one we had crossed over on, because the arches would serve as lightning rods, while we would be walking on a concrete sidewalk path a bit away from the main bridge. On the other bridge, we would have been the tallest objects on the bridge.
By the time we got across the bridge, the rain was letting up, and by the time we got back to the hotel, it had basically stopped. I must admit that at that moment, I really missed the States-side option of phoning out for pizza to eat while drinking the beer in the mini-bar. Instead, we all changed into dry clothes and shoes, and went around the corner to the Why Not bar for dinner and a recap of the night's adventure. ESPN was on the TV, so we also enjoyed a spot of football (of the British variety). It was a nice way to end the evening.
If it had been a cold rain, it would have made for a totally miserable night. As it was, we found ourselves loudly laughing our way through more than one deep spot, because, well, why not laugh about it as it was happening rather than later. At one point, older son shouted out, "This is the most awesome vacation ever!" before noting almost apologetically that he did realize that the husband's vacation part of the trip has yet to start. I have to agree that between the elephant encounters and the light(ning) show, it has been a pretty darn awesome trip, and if it gets any more amazing, I may not be able to stand it.