Adventures in Hue

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December 3rd 2012
Published: December 3rd 2012
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We arrived in Hue, a city north of Hoi An and highly recommended as a "must see" by The Lonely Planet (our guide book), in the early morning of November 30. A staff member from our hotel greeted us at the bus stop and got us a taxi to the hotel, leading the way on his motobike, the common term for moped in these parts. There we were greeted by a friendly staff who brought us cold, wet towels and fresh lemonade on the spot before sitting us down with a map of the city and giving us suggestions for where to go and what to see. They then showed us to our room, which was quite nice but for some reason was filled with an unpleasant smell coming from the bathroom...we shyly informed them of the issue and they were happy to move us to a different room. We began our day by walking from the hotel across town to visit the city's most famous sight, the Citadel. This was constructed in 1802 by Emperor Gia Long, who founded the Nguyen dynasty. To get there, we passed several beautiful parks and crossed the Perfume River by way of a big, busy bridge while the city's signature "Dragon Boats" (colorful boats shaped like dragons that haul tourists around) floated along beneath us. As we walked we quickly realized that Hue more resembles the bustling Ho Chi Minh City than the quaint and quiet Hoi An. Again, I found myself terrified to cross the street because of all the traffic.

When we got there, we found the Citadel to actually be comprised of three separate citadels. The outer citadel is enclosed by a wall and, though open to pedestrians, does not allow cars or motobikes inside. To enter the inner citadel, which was once the city center, we had to cross a bridge over a moat (and pay a fee, of course). Walking around this area was very interesting, with many gardens and ruins of old buildings that had been damaged during the French and American wars. Some buildings were still intact and open for us to walk through. By reading our guide book we found out that the third citadel, the Forbidden Purple City open only to royalty back in its time, had been completely obliterated by the wars and was now basically an open field. We spent a few hours walking around and admiring the history of the place before heading back to the hotel to shower and get ready for dinner.

The next day was not quite as fun as the first. Unfortunately my stomach was still acting up, so I didn't feel well for most of the day, and our stop for lunch turned out to be a complete disappointment. We went to a place listed in our guide book as the top choice and described as "a veritable foodie heaven" with "refined ambiance and thoughtful service." Wrong. Not only did the place reek of fish sauce, but the food was way overpriced - they even charged extra for rice, which usually comes with the meal - and not very good. After this and a few other dud experiences, we learned our lesson about trusting The Lonely Planet. Thankfully dinner was wonderful. Scott did some research and found a nice little family run restaurant called Nina's Cafe that served amazing authentic Vietnamese food at reasonable prices. We ended up going there for most of our meals and even got to know Nina a little bit. Her vibrant, bubbly personality and willingness to take the time to talk to us for awhile about Hue was awesome.

Day three was interesting, to say the least. Not finding much to do in the city itself, Scott and I decided to rent bicycles and venture out to the tomb of Tu Doc, one of the many tombs of rulers during the Nguyen dynasty that surround Hue. As we were riding, a Vietnamese woman pulled up beside me on her motobike and started talking to me. She said she was trying to practice her English and asked us where we were going. She seemed nice enough, so I told her we were going to Tu Doc's tomb, to which she replied that Minh Mang's tomb was better and that, not only should we go there instead, but she would show us the way. We viewed this as a slightly sketchy but potentially good way to get to know a local and learn a little bit about Hue's culture, so we agreed. On the way, she told us about herself, informing us that her name was Roi, she was 37 and she was married with two teenage children. She said she'd gotten married when she was 19 and she and her husband lived with her mother-in-law for ten years before moving out and building a small house of their own. She told us she worked as a farmer, but she was off for the day since it was Sunday. After much conversation and a long, sweaty and sometimes bumpy bike ride, we arrived at the tomb. We had to pay to get in, so Roi said she'd wait for us outside and invited us to have tea with her in her nearby home afterward. We happily accepted the offer, again viewing her hospitality as a great way to see a different side of Vietnam, and went to look at the tomb. Once inside, we couldn't actually view the tomb because it was permanently sealed in an underground palace, but we were able to walk around and look at the beautiful buildings and monuments dedicated to Minh Mang, the ruler of Vietnam from 1820-1840. We strolled around the grounds for a bit and then left to meet up with Roi, who was patiently waiting for us. She led us a short distance to her village, lined with tiny one-room houses and a few shops.

Roi's home consisted of one room with wooden walls and a tin roof. Inside were a bed, a table and chairs, a tiny kitchen nook and two fans that served as her air conditioning. We sat down and talked with her while she served us several cups of hot green tea. We were excited to be getting a firsthand perspective of Vietnamese life and truly enjoyed hearing about Roi's life. The experience was wonderful up until the very end. As we were preparing to leave, Roi began repeatedly telling us she was sorry but she was very poor, which we initially took as her apologizing for not being able to offer us more. We assured her that we'd had a great time and thanked her for the tea and company. As she continued talking, however, we realized that she was actually asking us for money - and not just a little bit. She insisted that she owed money to her children's school, and, though we believed that she probably really did need the money, we felt awkward and somewhat cornered. Had this woman simply been friendly and hospitable to us in hopes to get money? Hoping that she was indeed telling truth and would use the money productively, Scott generously gave her 300,000 VDN (the equivalent of $15, but a lot of money in Vietnam). She immediately counted the money, looking disappointed as she did so, and after an un-enthusiastic thank you, she bid us farewell. Sadly, this not only cheapened our experience with Roi, but it made us feel like we'll have to be cautious from now on when trying to get to know the locals and immerse ourselves in the culture here. Though the whole thing left a bad taste in our mouths, I guess you could say we learned our lesson - and got extremely sunburned in the process.

Today, our last day in Hue, we decided to be adventurous and rent a motobike for a few hours to go visit Hue's famous pagoda, eat lunch and explore the countryside. Scott received a frighteningly brief lesson on how to operate the vehicle, and off we went. Thankfully, traffic was pretty mild (for Vietnam) at this time of day, so we only had a few minor panic attacks as people zoomed out in front of us or drove toward us on the wrong side of the road. It actually turned out to be a lot of fun - we followed the river and made our way through little villages where all the children would smile, wave and yell hello to us. Not to mention the views were amazing. Overall this city, which we initially deemed rather un-exciting, proved to be fun and full of new experiences, both good and bad. Tomorrow we head to Phong Na Farmstay (basically a remote hostel on farmland) to explore the caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Can't wait!

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