Hue; A Feast For The Eyes

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March 11th 2011
Published: March 12th 2011
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1: Hue 6:30 AM 23 secs
One cloudy day in China Beach is barely tolerable. Two days is insufferable. We figured that Hue was as good a place as any to endure the cooler weather. Probably the best choice given the fine food that Hue is known for. We paid our bill with Hoa, dropped some laundry with Giao, packed 4 days worth of clothing in one bag and deposited the other with Sarah for safe keeping as we planned to return to China Beach when the weather turned. Jeff and Truc found our plan a good one and decided to come along to keep us company.

Jeff is a US Army Vet who served in Da Nang and the DMZ from 1968 to 1969. Truc is a human resources director at a large and expensive Saigon hotel. She is a slender girl with a huge smile that seems even bigger under her straw ’Annie Hall’ hat. Truc is Vietnamese but I believe that she has some Scottish blood in her family tree. This girl squeezes a Vietnamese Dong hard enough to make Uncle Ho scream for mercy. It was great to have a native running interference for us as we dealt with the hotel and
Karen, Jeff and TrucKaren, Jeff and TrucKaren, Jeff and Truc

Waiting for our train in Da Nang. Great travel companions. Truc is a human resources manager in Saigon while Jeff futzes around in Boston. He's a Pats fan. There's only so much latitude we are willing to afford him.
the restaurants in Hue.

We caught the noon train out of Da Nang to Hue. Fare was 54,000 Dong each ($2.70 US) and the trip took three hours. We passed along what is considered the most beautiful section of track in Vietnam. The route runs along the coast. To our right beautiful little beaches nestled in private horseshoe coves. To our left, beautiful green mountains that gradually gave way to verdant rice paddies and well-appointed hamlets as we neared Hue. We passed the fishing village of Lang Co. Jeff reminded me that Michael Herr had written a heart breaking story about Lang Co in his book ‘Dispatches’ which discusses in startling detail Herr’s experiences in Vietnam during the war. In the paddies near Lang Co we saw bomb craters filled to their brims with water. They looked like perfect round mirrors reflecting the pewter sky.

We grabbed a taxi in at the Hue train station and headed to the Phuong Hoang Hotel at 66/3 Le Loi. Phone: 054.3826736 E-mail: Website: Karen and I had stayed here on our last visit to Hue in 2008. Truc took the bit in her teeth and secured two beautiful rooms
Sidewalk Pho RestaurantSidewalk Pho RestaurantSidewalk Pho Restaurant

Only open in the evening and very popular with Hue locals. They serve nothing but noodle soup.
with balconies on the top floor for $14 each including breakfast. You go girl! After a shower and a rest we headed out for dinner. On the train up I had mentioned that I found the Pho in Hue to be the best I had ever eaten. Truc bristled a little at my comment. Pho is the national dish of Vietnam and each region has its own particular take on the recipe. Truc is originally from the Mekong Delta and is partial to the South Vietnamese version of the soup but being the open minded individual that she is (?) she agreed to withhold final judgment until she had given Hue its soup shot.

We took them to the Xuan Trung restaurant at 42 Chu Van An. This is its new location. Formerly a small open front operation about 5 blocks away, it is now housed in a beautiful 2-story building with table cloths and a ten page menu instead of the simple bill of fare it previously offered. When I saw the new digs I inwardly groaned. In the past I have seen many a restaurant ruin itself with expansions but what the hell. We were already inside, sitting at a table for four on the second floor terrace. The spicy Hue Pho hit the table accompanied by a plate piled high with herbs. The thing that distinguishes the Pho here from the others is that the broth is infused with Lemongrass. After a bit of slurping and thoughtful chopstick poking Truc told us that she agreed with our assessment. Hue Pho rules! After our Pho Truc said that she wanted to introduce us to some other Vietnamese dishes. Bring it on kid.

She ordered a selection of Vietnamese appetizers done in the Hue style. Banh Beo which look like 2-inch disks of gelatinous rice/ flour topped with tiny bits of meat and fried garlic. These are seasoned with fish sauce that has been infused with red chili peppers. Banh Nam; small shrimp encased in a clear gelatinous capsule, Banh Loc; little pork tamales wrapped in banana leaf and the overall winner of the tasting contest; Banh it Ram; little potato pancakes fried to a crisp and topped with shrimp in rice paste. Startling good. Restrained complex flavors that dwell on the palate long after you have swallowed. These are dishes that we may have never ordered

Charming girl with a deep appreciation for her country's cuisine. This lady squeezes a Dong till Uncle Ho screams. We never received a restaurant bill that she didn't send back for a correction that was always in our favor.
had it not been for Truc taking the time to order and to explain everything we were eating as we dined.

It turns out that Xuan Trung is the best restaurant we have visited in Vietnam. Karen and I have been here for four days now and have tried out a large share of their offerings. We’ve not been disappointed with anything to date though I have to admit that their Pho, in my mind, will always be their standout.

We had drinks at the DMZ Bar right around the corner from our hotel. The DMZ is a well-known spot in Hue. It’s graffiti covered walls have hosted many a late night party. While we sipped fruit smoothies and hot lemon tea we discussed the Irish music scene with a young couple from Belfast. I mentioned Oasis and the Cranberries the only two Irish bands I know of. (U2 is waaaay too pretentious a band for me to even consider discussing. What’s up with that Spiderman debacle anyway?) Jeff knew quite a few more bands than I and the kids seemed suitably impressed. Karen and Truc counted all the right angles in the room while we talked. There’s a pool table in the bar which is in continuous use. Our last time here was Christmas Eve in 2008 when Vietnam defeated Thailand in an important game. The place exploded and the pool table suddenly became a dance floor for a dozen females. I caught sight of Karen waving around a Vietnamese yellow start flag as the patrons sang “Vietnam, Hochiminh” all night long. It was quite a Christmas gift for the country.

Jeff and Truc had to leave the next day. Truc to work and Jeff to catch a flight back to Boston. We will miss Jeff. He’s a keen guy with a wonderful outlook on life. Fortunately we’ll be seeing Truc again in Saigon where she’s agreed to take us to her favorite Saigon restaurants. Cannot wait!

With Hue to ourselves we plunged right in with 5-mile long morning walks. Starting out from our hotel we would follow the south bank of the Perfume River to the eastern bridge by way of the sculpture garden. Jeff told me that he first saw Hue in 68’ right after the Tet fighting. He said that the town was a bullet-ridden heap of masonry rubble. Today its tree-lined
Perfume Bridge Hue. Tet 1968Perfume Bridge Hue. Tet 1968Perfume Bridge Hue. Tet 1968

Refugees cross to the south side of the river to escape the VC. Bridge was blown as soon as the VC entered Hue to prevent US forces from reaching the Citadel.
streets are a beautiful contrast to what was. Education is a major industry here and in the mornings and afternoons the streets are streaming with bicycle riding students going to and coming from school. So many bicycles in Hue. Hue is the quietest city we have visited in the country. So quiet you have to remind yourself of the fact less you overlook one of the city’s greatest virtues. The sound of silence. Even the backpacker bars are required to close at 11 PM to secure everyone’s sleep.

We head north and cross the bridge. Destroyed by the Viet Cong during Tet it has been rebuilt exactly as before. At night, multi-colored floodlights turn the steel structure into an the town’s most evocative visual show. Across the bridge in the river park to the left you can see an old military pill-box with 6 gun portals. The structure is so close to the ground it’s easy to miss. To the right of the bridge is a two-story shopping center offering groceries and clothing. Beyond the store is the chaotic Hue market selling everything from fish to fingernail polish. In the early morning it is a madhouse as goods arrive
Hue after the battle in 1968Hue after the battle in 1968Hue after the battle in 1968

The city was nearly completely destroyed in the fighting. Even today one can see scars on the Citadel walls.
and are then disbursed by people using cyclos, scooters and hand carts. You have to see it to believe it. At the north end of the bridge we head left and follow the path along the river to the Citadel. A monolithic structure that filled American TV screens and minds during the Tet offensive

The Citadel dominates the old city. This large walled area was once the enclave of the Vietnamese emperors. In 1968 the VC captured the Citadel during the infamous ‘Tet Offensive’. The VC set up gun emplacements on the high walls with intersecting fields of fire. Two battalions of US troops had no choice but to attack the Citadel by crossing two narrow bridges directly under the enemy guns. The Americans suffered horrendous casualties as the VC fought to the last man and woman. There was hand to hand combat in the streets, which was preceded by intensive bombing, artillery strikes, and the use of Napalm. It took 25 days to regain the city. Out of a population of 140,000 people 90,000 were made refugees in their own town when their homes were destroyed. The VC took advantage of their time in Hue by executing 3,000
Our Moment In The Sun.Our Moment In The Sun.Our Moment In The Sun.

The sun actually emerged for two minutes at lunchtime. Unfortunately we weren't in a very picturesque place.
citizens they considered to be sympathetic to the government of the South. The royal palaces were so badly damaged by the fighting that restoration work continues to this day.

Along the promenade, vendors sell an oddball collection of cast off US military equipment. The low walls are lined with gas masks, Claymore mine casings, fatigues, military patches, medals, infantry badges and disturbingly; US Military dog tags. On the same street one can also buy flowers, songbirds and food. A huge Vietnamese flag flies from the Zenith Gate, which dominates the skyline. In the early morning people play badminton on the dozens of courts that surround the Citadel. Senior citizens dressed in dark track suits and snow white hats walk the paths around the walls swinging their arms and doing stretching exercises in the chilly air. There is a military museum on the Southeast side. American tanks and artillery pieces that have been stripped of their mechanical parts sit in a rusted row. Frenchmen pose for photographs on the equipment, usually straddling the 155mm howitzer. (Like that’s ever going to happen) The museum itself consists of two long buildings. One is dedicated to the war with the French; the other
Perfume Bridge Hue. March 2011Perfume Bridge Hue. March 2011Perfume Bridge Hue. March 2011

Rebuilt to look like the original, the bridge is a two-lane affair with narrow walkways.
is focused on the ‘American War’.

We paid a visit to the Citadel one morning on our last visit. It’s considered to be a pricey attraction at 55,000 Dong. ($3.30) US. Anyone who thinks that is expensive hasn’t been to the museums in Italy recently. You buy your ticket from an official looking woman at a gray metal desk. Right behind her at an identical desk is a man who checks your ticket. Inside the first building you visit sits another woman who punches your ticket. She accomplishes this by snipping a corner with a pair of shears. The efficiencies of Communism. At first glance the Citadel is less than impressive. Most of the buildings are either gone or undergoing reconstruction. Karen and I watched a group of carpenters as they rebuilt a pavilion using the same techniques that were used a hundred years ago. Mortise and tendon joinery. No power equipment here. Chisels and wooden mallets are the tools of choice. Once the carpenters are finished, a team of men on scaffolds come through and painstakingly apply coats of lacquer until the wood takes on a baby's bottom finish. A wooden architectural model provides visitors with an idea
Our Hotel FishOur Hotel FishOur Hotel Fish

We have no idea what kind of fish this is. It is about ten-inches long and most inquisitive. Acts almost like a dog, wagging its tail excitedly whenever somebody approaches the tank. Likes to be petted. The hotel staff calls it 'Lahan'. We call it 'Brainiac'.
of what the final product will look like. At the rate they are going they might be finished within a hundred years.

The last exhibit was the most interesting. There was a large collection of photographs showing life in the royal court during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Comparing the photos to the outside areas we began to fully appreciate the grandeur of what was. Every wall in the city was crowned with a line of oil lamps that were set alight every night. The effect must have been a stunner. A collection of intricately embroidered royal garments filled large glass cases in the room.

Hue is an aesthetically pleasing town. Large gardens line the river. In the evenings you can arrange for a private ’Dragon Boat’ cruise that will take you west past the Citadel and back. The city at night is safe and inviting. Life here is leisurely and rewards the patient. It’s a unique city and deserves more than a single night’s stay. We’re heading back to China Beach tomorrow after four nights here. It’s been our second visit and we look forward to the third.

Travel Tips:

Night buses from Nha
Our Room In HueOur Room In HueOur Room In Hue

Very comfortable room with cable, A/C, balcony, fridge and breakfast included for $14 US per night.
Trang and Saigon stop in Hue city center. Take any others and you’ll end up 5 klicks away where you’ll have to arrange transport in.

Trains arrive at the Hue station on the west end of Le Loi. Taxi fare to city center is about 30,000 Dong.

Hotel rooms are easy to come by. Cheaper places are on the east end of Le Loi. They get more expensive the further west you go. The town is very walkable. Even pushing it like we do it is hard to go more than five miles while crossing to the other side of town and back.

You have our recommendation on a restaurant. You can also try ‘Mandarin Café’ at 24 Tran Cao Van Street. Nice atmosphere and competitive prices. The owner, Mr. Cu, is a well-known local photographer. His work decorates the restaurant walls and is available for sale at 40,000 Dong per print. In Hue, more than any other town we have visited in Nam, we strongly advise you to avoid the restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet. For some reason these establishments have allowed their good press to go to their heads. The result is a mish-mash of overpriced and pedestrian menu selections. Brown Eyes and Hot Tuna spring immediately to mind. DMZ serves decent but very pricey food. Xuan Trung feeds two people well for $5 US with non-alcoholic drinks. Beers are 8,000 Dong.

Additional photos below
Photos: 28, Displayed: 28


Market Worker Early MorningMarket Worker Early Morning
Market Worker Early Morning

Cleaning herbs in the Perfume River
French BakeryFrench Bakery
French Bakery

Lots of these businesses in Hue offering French pastries for an average of forty-cents US apiece. We use long morning walks to burn off the calories. It almost works.
The Perfume RiverThe Perfume River
The Perfume River

Taken near the market boat stop on a Saturday morning.
Market DisplayMarket Display
Market Display

The poorer vendors who are unable to pay the rent required for an indoor spot in the market will set up their 'stores' on the road just outside the building. They open very early to take advantage of the morning buyers locked out of the building.

One of the thousands planted in the public sculpture gardens that line the south side of the river.
Limes and ChiliesLimes and Chilies
Limes and Chilies

Limes are called 'Lemons' in Vietnam. So anytime you order lemonade (which the Vietnamese enjoy hot) you'll be getting limeade. We've yet to see a genuine lemon in the country.

26th March 2011


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