Hue is Vietnam’s imperial capital and was the seat of the Nguyen dynasty. It’s located in central Vietnam and made a nice stopover for us on our way south. We arrived by another lovely sleeper bus that took four hours to make the journey from Phong Nha to Hue even with the stops to deliver car bumpers and large packages. All the things we had read about sleeper buses in Vietnam came to fruition during this journey. The beds were as uncomfortable as before, the staff were rude and there was no space for luggage due to the unscheduled stops to make collections and deliveries (including a risky maneuver reversing across a busy dual carriageway). We didn’t have problems personally but didn’t enjoy other tourists being told to go away or forced to sit with heaps of luggage. Thankfully we knew what to expect and it maybe wasn’t as bad as we had read but it is not enjoyable.
We were glad to get off the bus and wander into Hue centre. The perfume river runs through Hue and supposedly brings tropical scents. Our first impressions were that it was grey, damp and didn’t smell anything like perfume (more like rubbish). Hue isn’t known to be a sunny place but we hadn’t expected such a damp cool atmosphere. Once we had found our hostel we went for a wander through town and across to the north side of the river. The Imperial city was once a large fortress occupying the Northern bank but sadly wars and the weather have taken their toll and today only a small portion remains. We entered through the main gate and were immediately reminded of the Forbidden city in Beijing. The layout and architecture is similar although Hue’s imperial city requires a lot more imagination.
We watched a video explaining which parts of the citadel were used by the emperor, women and guards, but sadly there wasn’t much information about daily life in the citadel or the importance of the emperors so maybe it is worth hiring a guide. We got a sense for how magnificent the city once was but it was quite shocking to read about the numerous restoration attempts. The citadel is listed as a Unesco world heritage site and there are attempts being made to restore the buildings. Sadly, no one seems to have put any importance on the idea of maintaining the restored buildings and they seem to be crumbling faster than the restoration team can keep up. For us, it was really sad to see buildings growing moss and tiles falling from roofs when the buildings have been restored within the last 5-10 years. Even considering the bad weather Hue gets and the huge effort that was made to rebuild after the war we found it disappointing.
The following day we opted to hire bikes to explore some of the sites outside Hue city centre. Hue isn’t just the home of the emperors, but also the resting place of many of them too. There are about 7 tombs located along the perfume river that you can visit. Each tomb was designed by the emperor during their lifetime and it’s often said that a few of them didn’t have much to do during the French occupation so they made their tombs into works of architecture. It’s strange to that the Nguyen dynasty survived the French occupation but fell to communism.
We decided to visit the Ming Manh tomb located about 20km away from our hostel. The Vietnamese staff were shocked that we wanted to ride so far and suggested that we take a motorcycle instead. We fancied a little exercise and rented some single gear city bikes. The ride to the tomb wasn’t very scenic, but once we made it out of the city we did see a picture of rural vietnam and have to shout hello quite a bit to greet the friendly locals. They were probably thinking ‘what on earth are those crazy foreigners doing cycling in tshirts in the rain’. The tomb was a little different to the imperial citadel with large ponds, gardens and a series of temples. The resting place of the emperor is underground in a mound that is covered in trees. He was placed there via an underground passage which was later sealed. The temples are in better shape than the imperial city but there is ongoing restoration work. We can only hope they make an effort to keep it that way. It was worth a visit but we didn’t feel we needed to visit the rest. We returned to our bikes and had a great coffee as our payment for bike parking. Maybe it was just an entrepreneurial local taking advantage, but he was friendly and we were entertained by some run away cows while we rested.
On our way back we planned two stops, one to an abandoned water park and the other to the old tiger and elephant fighting arena. Both of these aren’t popular tourist destinations but they sounded more interesting to us than another 6 tombs. The water park was built from 2004 but never completed so like almost everything in Vietnam fell into disrepair. It was home to a watersports arena, water slides and a dragon shaped aquarium. Cycling around the graffiti covered buildings and falling down buildings was a little creepy. Luckily the wild alligators were removed a few years ago so it’s a little safer, but it reminded Zoë of somewhere the homeless and drug addicts would hang around. That said the dragon shaped aquarium was very creatively designed and even cooler now that plants are taking over. It is possible to climb into the dragon’s mouth with it’s backbone on the ceiling and get a view of the lake. The water slides and pool were in the process of being reclaimed by the jungle and the tiles were thick with moss making them like an ice rink.
Unfortunately the tiger arena was a complete let down as it was closed due to the construction of a huge concrete building inside. We were hoping to see the claw marks on the walls of the arena where tigers were once pitted against elephants. Thankfully this practice hasn’t happened for over a hundred years as we wouldn’t want to see a fight. It was a little detour from our tour but worth it when we stumbled across a street food stall selling small vegetable pasties and sweet sesame doughnuts. Yum!
Back in Hue city we changed out of our soggy muddy clothes and chilled in a cafe watching the world go by. That evening we tried some local specialities: rice cakes (gelatinous rice discs with onions and shrimp), pancakes and vegetables wrapped in rice paper and our favourite fresh pork spring rolls (fresh crunchy and better than the fried variety).
Our time in Hue was brief but certainly sufficient to try some local food and see the sights. It was good to stay at the weekend to get a bit more atmosphere on the pedestrian streets in the evening.