27 April 2016

Hué I: Temples, Tombs and Tasty Food

On Tuesday morning, I took a flight from Saigon to Hué (pronounced hweh), the former imperial capital, located about 600 miles north of Saigon and 400 miles south of Hanoi. I arrived at the airport two hours ahead of my flight as when I tried to check in online, the Vietnam Airlines website told me that the flight was overbooked. Luckily, I got my seat, and when I reached the gate I found a group of about 100 excitable Vietnamese tweens (one of whom was documenting everything on his video camera); I assume that their group was the reason for the check-in issues.

Hué airport is tiny and located about 10 miles outside the city, which meant that we landed at 1 pm and I was in the city centre by 1.30 pm. Something seemed to be missing though... Oh yes, the traffic! There are still plenty of cars, motorbikes and cyclos in Hué, of course, but after the hectic madness of Saigon, the imperial city felt much calmer.

I checked into my hotel and then went in search of lunch. A few people had recommended a restaurant called Hanh, which was only a few blocks away from my hotel, so I headed right there. Hanh is nothing fancy but the food was really good. I tried a couple of local specialities: banh khoai (crispy rice pancakes) with shrimp and, my favourite, banh beo (steamed rice cakes with shrimp and scallions). With a juice, this cost about 80,000 VND (about £2.50).

I had been hoping that Hué might be a little cooler than Saigon, but alas, it was just as hot and just as humid. The city is built on the banks of the Perfume River, which weaves its way through town like a woman's flowing locks (my taxi driver told me this is what the Vietnamese name refers to 'because women smell nice', although I think the name really comes from the flowers that fall from the trees and float through the city).  The Imperial Citadel is located on the north/west bank and the more modern part of the city is on the south/east side. The three blocks along the south bank are very touristy but the city becomes residential very quickly.

I decided to save the citadel for Wednesday morning and set off on a walk to see some of the city's famous tombs and temples. You can do a guided city tour, by car or by motorbike, but I wanted a break from tour guides and itineraries. I wandered along the river bank, enjoying the breeze. All through town they were setting up for the Hué biennial festival, which starts on Friday. The river bank is lovely in the centre of town, but it soon becomes very residential —and pavement-free.

It was about a three-mile walk west to Ho Quyen — the locals must have thought I was mad walking through the dust in the heat. 340,000 people live in Hué and it felt like every single one of them offered me their motorbike services. However, I persevered and after only one dead end that involved an angry dog and a hasty apology (thanks, Google Maps!), I reached the tiger arena of Ho Quyen. This is where the imperial tigers and leopards were housed, although it was empty save for a few chickens. There isn't a lot to see but luckily, it wasn't too far to the main part of the temple, which is by the side of a small lake. I had the place to myself and it was extremely peaceful, if sweltering.

I was starting to regret my plan to go it alone, but decided to press on to my next stop: the tomb of emperor Tu Doc, another 1.5 miles south. As I neared the site, I started to worry that it might have closed. Indeed, one particularly persistent motorbike tout told me it had closed at 5 pm (it was 5.15 pm) and that the only thing for it was for her to take me back to town on her bike. The site was not, however, closed and I had just enough time to explore before it closed.

Before leaving, I memorised the next few turns of the route home and then strode out into the setting sun. Motorbike lady was there again and she followed me for about half a mile, dropping her price from 80,000 VND to 50,000. "It's very far — 10 km," she said, even though she knew I'd walked from town and knew exactly how far it was. To be honest, if I'd been sure that I would only have to pay 80,000, I would have gladly accepted but I was too afraid of being ripped off. She must have thought I was the stingiest tourist she'd ever met. After about 20 minutes, I reached a main road (relatively speaking) — Điện Biên Phủ, which has lots of small restaurants and shops and very few tourists. I stopped for bún bò Hué (beef and rice-noodle broth) at a tiny, family-run joint on the roadside. They spoke very little English but we managed to communicate and the fragrant broth was delicious.

By the time I got back to the city centre, it was dark and there were dozens of people gathered by the river for some kind of impromptu open mic night. The lanterns were turned on, Truong Tien Bridge was lit up in a rainbow of different colours and everyone was having a great time.

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