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28 April 2016

Hué II: Bex and the Citadel

I couldn't quite drag myself out of bed as early I would have liked this morning, but after a quick breakfast at my hotel, I headed straight out to Hué's UNESCO-listed Imperial City. The site is huge — the steep walls run in a 2 x 2 km square, surrounded by a moat and just north of the Perfume River.  This imperial enclosure is nested within a bigger citadel and do note that the ticket desk is just before the moat by the main gate. It only takes 25 minutes or so to walk there from the hotel zone, but there are plenty of people who would love to give you a boat, bike, cyclo or taxi ride if you think it's too far.



The ticket price is 150,000 VND, which is the most expensive attraction I've visited in Vietnam so far but still under £5. There is a lot to see, though, and I spent a good three hours there. By 9 am, the weather was scorching so I spent a lot of my visit skipping into the nearest shaded area or into some of the cooler pagodas. There is some information in English, although not a great deal; you can, of course, hire a guide. The imperial was home to the Nguyen dynasty of emperors, who ruled from the early 19th century until 1945. Their legacy lives on, however: about 60% of the country has the surname Nguyen (pronounced ng-wee-uhn).



While I was there, I visited a number of different buildings, from the emperor's reading room, to the queen mother's pagoda (the queen mother being the only person who has more power than the emperor — and only a little bit and in family matters) and the royal theatre. Many of the buildings were destroyed during the wars with France and the US, but a lot of restoration work has been taking place. The lacquered red and gold inner walls were particularly impressive.



The Hué Festival, a biennial festival held in the city, starts on Friday. However, preparations were already underway inside the citadel: golden dragons, pink lotus flowers and dozens of lanterns were being set up throughout the site. There were also a few workers touching up the paintwork on some of the buildings and statues.


It was almost noon by the time I left the citadel and decided to visit one last pagoda: Dieu De, which is just over a mile east of the imperial enclosure, outside the citadel and across a tributary of the Perfume River. On the way, I stopped for lunch at a small but busy kerbside cafe near Cau Cho Dinh. There wasn't a menu and they didn't speak any English so I ordered what the man sitting next to me was having: a chicken drumstick with rice, shrimp soup and a fried spring roll. The food was mostly OK (and pretty good for 60p), but the spring roll was absolutely delicious: light, crispy and with a melt-in-the-mouth texture. I wish I had known how to ask for more of those!


Outside Dieu De, the street was laid out with neon-pink incense sticks, which were arranged in flower shapes. The pagoda itself was deserted, other than a few locals who were having a siesta inside the slightly cooler buildings. It was a colourful and calming place to visit, though.



By then, the afternoon heat — and the promise of rain that never came — drove me back to my hotel after a quick stroll through Dong Ba Market and a pit stop for snacks and air con at the neighbouring supermarket. I spent a few hours chilling and chilling and then set out just as the sun was setting — sadly, it was too hazy for the Perfume River sunset scene I had hoped for.

For dinner, I headed for a street food cart on Lê Thánh Tôn (about a block north of Tong Duy Tan). I had read a great post about Hué's regional cuisine on the Legal Nomads blog and one of the dishes in particular intrigued me. Banh trang trung is a fried rice cracker topped with beef, egg, scallions and garlic that resembles a pizza. It doesn't taste like pizza, of course, but it was delicious. The cart is located next to 14 Lê Tránh Tôn and is open in the afternoon and evening. The dish was delicious and the owner was very friendly — he was pleased when I told him his cart had been recommended and even took my picture. It's a little off the beaten track but worth the walk.



I wanted to see the imperial enclosure by night so I crossed back into the citadel and headed towards the lights and music. It turns out that they were doing some kind of dress rehearsal for the Hué Festival and there was plenty of costumed singing, dancing and general pageantry. These guys asked me to take their picture outside the main gateway to the imperial enclosure.



Hundreds of people were sitting and watching the festivities and I stayed to watch a few of the set pieces. I didn't really understand the words (in one song, the only words I knew were Hué, Hanoi, Saigon and Vietnam) but the gist seem to be that there were many wars and much fighting but thanks to the Nguyen emperors, the country became strong, unified by the lotus flower. The ambiance was lovely, in any case, and it was nice to see something of the festival, even if it's probably going to take a while to get the smell of incense out of my hair!



Although I've now seen a lot of the key sights in Hué, I would have liked to have an extra day here to explore more and to try more of the local specialities. The food is so cheap — I haven't paid more than 80,000 VND for a meal — but the heat has left me with a small appetite. If you're looking for more food inspiration for Hué, I would definitely recommend the Legal Nomads blog post. On a separate note, there are a lot of French tourists here — conversely, in Saigon, Brits, Americans, Aussies and the Dutch were more common. At least it means that I get to practice a language that I can speak (unlike Vietnamese, sadly).

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