We arrived in Hue (that’s ‘Hway’ to you and I) to blue skies and sunshine, and booked ourselves into a slightly more expensive hotel to enjoy a night of luxury. Upon arrival, we were welcomed with a passion fruit juice and told that we had been upgraded to a suite! The room, or rather mini apartment, included it’s own living room with laptop, two balconies, and an en suite with a hot tub. We took it easy on our first day as we had taken a night bus from Ha Giang to Hanoi, which arrived at 4am that morning, before being taxied to the airport and waiting for a 12:30pm flight to Hue. We were struggling to keep our eyes open so it was a nearby dinner and early night for us (and of course a bubble bath).
We reluctantly checked out the following morning, after a banquet breakfast (chorizo, cheese, garlic potatoes and fresh fruits were a real treat) that we took full advantage of. We were only moving around the corner so we dumped our bags and headed straight to Hue’s Citadel and Imperial enclosure.
Located on the banks of the Perfume River, Hue is a city situated in central Vietnam, once the seat of Nguyen Dynasty Emperors and the national capital from 1802 – 1945. The biggest attraction is the 19th Century Citadel, still considered to be the heart of Hue. The Citadel is surrounded by a moat and 2m thick and 10km long stonewalls. Inside the Citadel lies the Imperial City, a forbidden city where only emperors, concubines and those close enough to them would be granted access. There are distinct sections within this vast complex, with various temples and compounds including residences and gardens. Little of the Imperial City remains, although reconstruction efforts are in place to maintain it. But it was easy to look beyond the broken tiling and rubble and see the beauty and skill in the Imperial City’s construction.
Hue’s central location, bordering Northern and Southern Vietnam, made it vulnerable during the American War. The city suffered considerable damage due to both American military bombing and the Tet Offensive. During the 3 and a half weeks that the North of Vietnam controlled the Citadel, 10,000 people died, most of whom were civilians. The USA and southern Vietnam battered the Citadel, even using napalm on the imperial palace.
After half a day exploring the Citadel, we walked along the Perfume River to explore Dong Ba Market. This is Hue’s largest market, selling anything and everything. Then we headed for a beer at a rooftop bar, overlooking the Perfume River and watched the sun set before trying some of Hue’s infamous cuisine.
The cuisine in Hue was one of the highlights of the city for us. With such a rich history, Hue boasts a ‘royal cuisine’ with several distinctive dishes created to please the appetites of fussy lords and emperors. Royal rice cakes are the most common with varieties including banh beo, banh loc, banh it and banh nam. These are all made using thin, delicate rice flour crepes or pancakes. Some are stuffed with shrimp or pork and boiled or steamed. They are often served with a dipping sauce and sprinkled with crispy fried shallots. The food in Hue is very light, fragrant and feels particularly healthy.
One of the most striking differences we noticed is the emphasis on vegetarian food and the small serving sizes. Locals have a strong tradition of eating vegetarian food twice a month, as part of Buddhist beliefs, and the refined presentation of the food also indicates remnants of its royal cuisine. We enjoyed visiting a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant called ‘Lien Hoa’, which we went to twice, it was that good. The ginger aubergine, crispy fried jackfruit and peanut dipping sauce were delicious. We also had a very tasty Bun Bo Hue, a rice noodle soup flavoured with lemongrass, shrimp paste, ginger, sugar and chillies. Cubes of congealed pigs blood (tastes nicer than it sounds – similar to a stock cube) float alongside beef shank with mungbean sprouts, lime wedges and sliced banana blossoms.
On our third day, we hired a moped and drove to the outskirts of the city where several notable monuments lie, including the tombs of several emperors. Minh Mang was the first stop, 12km from the city centre. Minh Mang tomb is constructed in a forest setting and provided a very peaceful and tranquil place to walk around. The tomb complex included temples, courtyards and lakes.
After Minh Mang tomb, we hopped back on the bike and whizzed our way up to Khai Dinh tomb. The European inspired tomb is built onto a hillside so we caught a glimpse of the impressive sight as we weaved our way up the road. The majority of the temple’s exterior is covered in blackened concrete, which gives the temple a slightly spooky, gothic feel. A small courtyard area is filled with large concrete sculptures of people, horses and elephants, which reminded us of the chess pieces from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The interior of the temple was a beautiful and a somewhat surprising sight considering the exterior. The walls were covered in colourful ceramic mosaics that glistened in the suns rays. Khai Dinh was undoubtedly our favourite of the three tombs that we saw in Hue.
Our final stop was at Tu Duc tomb. According to the Lonely Planet, Tu Duc was the most popular and impressive of the three. Perhaps we were all tombed out by the time we arrived, or maybe the heat of the day was getting to us, but we weren’t overly impressed. We appreciated the beauty of the lake and forest surroundings, but for us, the highlight of the complex was a small stilt building that overlooked a lake and small island where we sat back, relaxed and watched the fish swim.
Our last stop for the day was Thien Mu Pagoda (‘Pagoda of the Celestial Lady’), sitting on the bank of the Perfume River. It is the tallest religious building in Vietnam with seven stories. It’s regarded as the unofficial symbol of the former imperial capital, sitting on the Ha Khe hill, just 3km from the Citadel. The temple also houses the Austin car in which Thich Quang Duc was driving before he burned himself to death in 1963, in Ho Chi Minh City. He was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government led by Ngo Dinh Diem at the time (which included raids on Buddhist Pagodas). Photos of his self-immolation circulated around the world and brought attention to the policies of the government, generating a huge amount of pressure and protests, and eventually leading to Diem’s assassination later that year. Having studied this period during his history degree, Porridge (Lawrence) was able to share some knowledge with his companion.
We had dinner on the banks of the Perfume River, enjoying some seafood and BBQ’d catfish.
After dinner, we sat by the river and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains. Hue has been a refreshing change from the food of the North, particularly the greasy noodles that we encountered in Ha Giang. The warm weather has allowed us get our pasty legs out, making the trip feel more like a holiday.
Sapa and Ha Giang involved quite intense and adventure-driven activities, due to the mountainous landscapes in particular, and we felt pretty exhausted after a week in the chilly hills. Hue allowed some down time, and our final day was spent catching up on blog posts, editing photos and generally relaxing in the sunshine with a coffee, as well as eating our way through various restaurants. The relaxed, laid back atmosphere of the city allowed us to recharge our batteries and take things at a slower pace. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Hue, immediately falling in love with its sunny riverside streets and historical charm. Our next stop was the city of Danang, just a 2-hour bus ride south, drawing us ever closer to Ho Chi Minh City.