Roaming with Royalty in Hue

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Asia » Vietnam » North Central Coast » Thua Thien - Huế » Hué
March 18th 2009
Published: April 10th 2009
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As with our overnight train to Lao Cai, we had soft sleeper cabins on the overnight train to Hue. It was an identical set up of four bunks in the cabin which we shared with Anna and Henny, two German uni students who we really enjoyed chatting to about cross-cultural experiences when living and travelling in different lands; however it wasn’t very long before we all crashed for the rest of the journey. We arrived in Hue at 9am and almost at once we were endeared to Hue’s slow pace. Hue is dissected by the Perfume River, with the old town within the citadel on one side and the newer residences and restaurants on the other. Hue was the capital of the Nguyen emperors and was modelled on Beijing’s Forbidden City.

While it is sad to see the results of mass tourism starting to take hold in Vietnam, we were constantly reminded that many of the treasured remains of numerous dynasties would be crumbing if it wasn’t for the tourist dollar. As with much of Vietnam we’ve seen so far, most of the temples, pagodas and palaces bear the brutal scars of many wars and pillaging armies. Hue was thankfully declared a World Heritage site recently and there is a lot of restoration work going on.

We spent the morning orienting ourselves with the town, looking around the shops and getting sustenance from Hue’s famed pancakes at the Mandarin Café. No surprises that I loved the banana and chocolate one the most! The owner of the café - Mr Cu is a local photographer and wasted no time giving us albums of his photographs which were available as postcards for purchase! Some of the shots were fabulous and we considered buying a few, but we decided that any photos that we framed on our return should be ones we took ourselves.

The group was taken on a tour of the Imperial Citadel and the amazing Forbidden Purple City. This is an artist’s/photographer’s dream. I absolutely loved this complex of ramparts, moats, gigantic fortified gates, and courtyards within courtyards. The archways were decorated in mosaics of bright sky blue and dark daffodil yellow, through which crimson pagodas and ornate wooden columns lacquered in reddest red could be glimpsed. I think between Andrew and myself we took over 200 photos here. Later we walked though Hue’s famous Dong Ba Market - however as lovely as the market was, the pungent smell of drying fish mingled with freshly cleaned fish guts just got too much for us! We decided to walk back to our lovely hotel over the river as a gorgeous pinky dusk began to set in.

We stayed at the Thai Binh 2 Hotel and had a fabulous room with a balcony overlooking fantastic colonial French buildings and the river in the distance. Andrew and I spent the evenings sipping Saigon Lager beer and iced tea, watching the sunset over the river, and reading in that lovely purple light... 😊

That night Chinh took us to Ushi Restaurant for dinner and while it was good Hue-style food, we were still a little sad that we were out-voted on doing the Imperial-style degustation menu - where you got dressed up in imperial gowns and ate until you dropped. My inner glutton was most disappointed at this... and sadly this was one of the down sides of travelling in a group with very different palates and tastes for adventure. This was going to be one of three times when a few of us who wanted to taste as much local food as possible would be out-voted in favour of more mainstream options. Anyway, back to Ushi Restaurant, I tried the chicken wrapped in lime leaf and I think this is my new favourite southern Vietnamese dish! Andrew has discovered fish grilled in banana leaf and absolutely loves it. We have also realised that the fresh fruit juices and shakes in Vietnam are very yummy, refreshing and much better value than any other drink, except for fresh coconut juice of course!

The next day was my favourite of the whole trip! We were taken on a motorbike tour of Hue. This involved journeying through the busy city, bustling markets, the rice fields on the outskirts, fishing communities on the banks of the river, and narrow suburban laneways only two people/one bike wide! We also visited a fabulous local market; an incense making shop where we tried our hand at making incense (we bought some beautiful cinnamon incense); an interesting rice museum complete with nana who spoke no English but perfectly communicated her demonstration of the life-cycle of a grain of rice; and then stopped at a nunnery for the best vegetarian lunch ever. We also visited Tu Duc’s palace and tomb - another beautiful and vast array of old ruined palaces and weathered pagodas that offered a gorgeous glimpse into how life once was here.

The motorbikes then dropped us off at the Perfume River for our dragon boat cruise, this was a rather picturesque way to be taken to the seven-tiered Thien Mu pagoda, which is a beautiful pagoda and temple complex on the banks of the Perfume River. A most fantastic way to end a most fabulous day! 😄

I haven't yet mentioned the peculiar nature of ‘happy hour’ in Vietnam... it’s unusual in that it generally goes for 3-4 hours and most often in peak drinking time. This served us a little too well... in Hue we went to DMZ Bar and Brown Eyes (seriously!). Cocktails in Vietnam are the same price as mixed drinks so you can guess who got their fill of Pina Coladas, Mojitos and Long Island Teas! And when the cocktails come in ‘bucket’ size, who could resist? Brown Eyes promises a free taxi to your hotel if you are too drunk to walk home.

I love Hue - I love its wide boulevards, its multi-cultural, multi-period, multi-genre range of graceful architecture, and its glorious glorious food. I think we will be coming back here! 😊

We left Hue by bus and headed south through coastal rice paddies to the fishing village of Lang Co, and then via the scenic mountainous route over the spectacular Hai Van Pass (1000m) to Hoi An. We are in a part of Vietnam that is no wider than 75km across and marks the geographical, climatic and political change from north to south.


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