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Underwhelmed in Hue

VIETNAM | Wednesday, 3 June 2009 | Views [1916]

It was only a four hour journey to Hue from Hoi An but we still had the bizarre “sleeping bus” to semi-horizontally not sleep in for the journey. We allowed ourselves to be taken to the suggested guesthouse Bing Duong III. It was a pokey room for $12 but it had AC, a TV, a desktop computer with a gazillion viruses (a first for me, in any type of hotel, business or otherwise) and was pretty central so not a bad decision in the end.

Hue is the historical capital of Nguyen dynasty and the old town, or citadel is on the northern bank of the Perfume river. After some down time we wandered around along the southern bank and around the town. Absolutely nothing to report I'm afraid – none of the small town charm of Hoi An – the wide boulevards crammed with mopeds were becoming increasingly difficult to cross as we got further north.

We searched for a place to play pool in the evening but the places the guidebooks mentioned seemed to have been gobbled up by shoe and lingerie shops. Eventually we found a pool table but left after one game. The establishment clearly catered for the late night crowd but despite being 7 in the evening and empty apart from us, had nightclub style and volume hardcore dance music.

We were about to call it a night when, on the way back to the guesthouse a girl gave us a flyer for a place called brown eyes, offering pool, drinks promotions and “laid back vibes”. Sure why not – we didn't quite understand the directions the flyer girl gave us so we jumped on a cyclo, a single-seated, brakeless contraption with a guy behind you willing to cycle you to your destination: MOT 37 – I don't understand how they stop because there are NO brakes!

Brown Eyes was as promised, the mojitos were tasty, the music and general buzz was mellow and there was a pool table, albeit occupied.

We stayed for a drink or two and then Claire spotted a familiar face outside – I couldn't work out who it was at all but it was Chris, one of the Aussies who we had met swimming in Don Det and with whose girlfriend I had swapped a book for Gregory Roberts “Shantaram” (which is very good by the way, especially for anyone heading to India). There had been a few signs of strain the last time we had seen them – some sort of issue between Chris and the other travelling buddy, his girlfriend's best mate. It seems the strain had become more pronounced, so much so that Chris was accompanied by a jolly, rotund Lyonnais called Hugo. Other Don Det Aussies nowhere to be seen.

We joined them and swapped stories of our our travels and I was able to practice my French for a while too. The friendly staff who Claire and I had been chatting to at the bar kept an endless array of free shots and cocktails flowing and then joined us for a game of Jenga. When our stomachs eventually berrated us for neglect and we thought to ask for the menu the kitchen was closed. So we had street sandwiches with la vache qui rit, a few greens and some unidentifiable meaty stuff. Oh and tons of chilli sauce.

To say that we weren't feeling the best the next day would be a massive understatement. The weather had really stepped it up a notch – it was so painful to be out in the searing heat that we retreated back to the AC almost immediately. HBO and intermittent snoozes entertained us until our stomachs complained enough to require attention. Grease was required so we found a place, Cafe on Thu Wheel 3 doors up the lane whose burgers had been recommended in the Lonely Planet. It seemed to be a front for peddling easy rider tours, where you are zoomed around the countryside on the back of a Harley by a local for a few days. The reason I say it was a front is because the cook, an ancient old woman almost bent double with a hunch back had clearly never heard of a burger. It was a baguette with a strange brown quorn-like substance stuffed inside. Radioactive tomato sauce as accompaniment. We ate it regardless, it was too hot to go anywhere else. I am ashamed to say the evening passed much as the morning had.

We had decided that Hue was not really for us – I'm sure we didn't give it a fair crack of the whip but the decision was made in any case. We had a full day before out last night bus to Hanoi so we rented bikes and made for the Citadel, determined to see something of note. The citadel itself is yet another UNESCO world heritage site. It's essentially an enormous walled and moated city and although heavily bombed in the war, it was easy to see that it was a beautiful place in its day. Inside the citadel is another moated and walled city, the imperial enclosure which itself contains the forbidden purple city, modelled on the fobidden city in Beijing. In order to get a sense of it we cycled around the enclosure first, stopping at an impressive collection of captured American tanks and guns outside a war museum.

As we entered the enclosure itself via an ornate gate house we were asked to leave our bikes outside. I had been expecting to enter into a hustling city along the lines of Hoi An but it was serenely empty and filled with open spaces. The odd elephant was hanging about chained by the foot, no doubt waiting for a tourist to rent its services from a mahoot dozing in the shade.

We entered the forbidden city via the great throne room with highly lacquered decorations – this was where the main business of the court was done, civic and military mandarins discussing their matters with the imperial family, waited on by a team of eunuchs so as not to threaten the royal concubines.

Most of the buildings in the city itself were destroyed by bombs – the only ones remaining being the left and right houses, one of which contains a few interesting displays of clothes and crockery and the theatre which was closed for repairs. It all looked as though they had made a big effort a few years back but it had all fallen by the wayside. Towards the back of the city there was a massive chinese style dragon and a cock beside what looked like a bandstand – their significance was not explained.

What was explained though was the imperial tennis court just beside them which had been renovated for “enjoyment and leisure of tourist-visitor”. We left the city by a different, shaded route past an engaging exhibition of French colonial postcards of the area. It was funny to note the difference between the French descriptions on the postcards themselves and the English Vietnamese below – sometimes referring to completely different cities and landmarks. Who knows which was right.

The remainder of the enclosure was given over to the imperial lodgings and their various gardens. We also visited a few beautiful temples / pagodas in which the imperial ancestors were venerated and still are, with gold bars, coins, large vases and such like. The Vietnamese have a huge amount of respect for their ancestors and almost every family will have a shrine dedicated to those who have gone before. What a contrast to Western culture – sticking the old and infirm in a nursing home so they don't get in the way is often the occidental way. In the orient the elderly are highly respected and money, food and all sorts of other offerings are made even after they've passed away.

We spent the rest of the afternoon cycling around the outer citadel which is a fully functioning town dotted all over with lakes and undulating bridges over winding rivers. We had given the tours of the nearby de-miliatarised zone (DMZ) and imperial mausoleums further up the river a miss, but were happy to move on to the capital.

When the bloke from the bus company came along to collect us we had one hope for our last sleeping bus – please please please let us not be put in the 5-in-a-row-happy-families-space at the back of the bus. Our wish came true but it was one of the older nastier buses and the driver sped north with a ferocity that was terrifying, His wanton disregard for anything in his path was matched only by that of the oncoming, overtaking truck drivers. It was terrifying and very uncomfortable being slung from side to side but thankfully they changed driver after a few hours and the second one seemed to have a bit more restraint. We had to make an unexpected detour at one point in the middle of the night which added an extra few hours to the trip. 14 ½ hours (and not a wink of sleep) after setting off we arrived in the hazy morning of Hanoi's renowned pollution. We took the suggested hotel, too tired to do anything independently.

Tags: citadel, culture, hangover, history


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