18/12 – 21/12
My next stop of my journey was a place I was very interested in ever since I watched a documentary about the Vietnam War. One reason was the key part Hue played during the Tet offensive, and the proximity to the DMZ. I was sure that my interest in the history of the war would be satisfied here…
After an 11 hour train journey I arrived on time (once again) in Hue. After getting off the train (like most of the other tourists on the train) and heading out off the station you could spot the usual picture: taxi drivers and moto taxis trying to surround you to get your business. And it was as usual very annoying, as you didn’t get a second rest to get any orientation of the place. So I ignored them and just walked passed them (to the disapproval of the drivers), and checked if any taxi driver was waiting away from the annoying herd of touts and drivers. Unfortunately there was none, so I decided to start walking to the guesthouse I read about. It didn’t look too far from the station, and thought it would be a good exercise. Maybe not surprisingly after 15 minutes (and over half the way) I finally saw a Malinh taxi, and took the comfortable ride to an area where quite a few guesthouses are located (off Nguyen Tri Phuong Street). Off the main road is a little alley with several guesthouses and restaurants.
I read some good reviews about the Ngoc Binh Hotel and they even had rooms available. Thankfully they gave me a room straight away (great as it was only 10:30). The room was clean, spacious enough with two beds and a bathroom that even had a bath (no wet floors for a change after a shower). The only problem was that the bed sheet were a bit damp (due to the wet weather I assume they did ‘t get it really dry, but some cloth I put on one bed were wet when I checked them in the evening. The staff gave me a new sheet, but it this problem was similar to Sapa. But otherwise the guesthouse was pleasant. Breakfast was included (omelette or bread with jam, served on the first floor even on a little balcony if the weather is good – a very nice way to start the day), and the staff was very friendly and helpful. So overall it is a good place to stay for a few days (for only 190k Dong per night).
After a short rest I decided to explore Hue a bit – however first I decided to get my hiking shoes repaired as one of the sole got loose – and as I found them very comfortable I thought it would be better repairing them rather buying a new pair. Thankfully there were a few guys along the streets repairing and cleaning shoes. For an agreed price of 50,000 Dong I would get my shoes back in the afternoon. Worth trying it I thought. Only disadvantage was that I had to pick them up around 4:30. That left me with 3 1/2 hours to explore the town…
Maybe the area that attracts most tourist is the citadel – kind of the Old Town of Hue, surrounded by a moat and wall and with several gates to get in and out. A very short motorbike ride (I was too lazy so took a moto taxi instead..) I was at the south east gate, and I was rather impressed of the sight. The gate at the famous flagpole is probably more impressive, but even the other are very nice – and walking through the gate reminded me of the pictures of soldiers taken cover during the Tet offense. However, as there is no pavement you have to be a bit careful considering the cars and motorbikes.
Being the main tourist attraction you will be obviously greeted by the now normal sights of touts offering their services. I just ignored those that were on the other side of the road and just shouted ‘Hey you’. Yep, that will make me want to talk to you mate. On my way to the Imperial palace city I passed the War Museum of Hue, when one of the touts waved at me and called me ‘Happy Buddha’. My first thought was that this must be a friend of Toan and told him to call me that. Obviously that was absolute unrealistic, so I was curious and spoke to him. He was a friendly guy who has family from Germany (without telling him where I am from he told me that they staying in my hometown Cologne – the world is a small place). As all guides he had a little book full of reviews of other tourists who used him as a guide. I mentioned that I didn’t need one right now, so he just gave me some suggestion what to see, and how I get to the entrance of the palace. It was actually pleasant to meet a guide / tout that wasn’t pushy and you could have a nice chat with.
Next I stopped at a little place for lunch. Food was good as usual (and had the added entertainment to watch a family of 5 ordering food, listing things they didn’t want…), and watching the area gave me a first impression of the area. In addition of the walls, the moat and the old imperial palace the citadel also offers several parks to rest a bit, and quite a few old colonial buildings. So it is actually very nice to just walk or cycle around.
It was then time to head to the Imperial city. The entrance is behind the main gate into the citadel in the south, where you can also see the famous flagpole. A very nice addition is that no traffic is allowed in front of the entrance to the palace and the square behind the flag, so no need to look after any scooters or cars passing by.
The imperial city is the heart of the citadel, the former home of the king and his family. Entrance fee was 105,000 Dong.Unfortunately thanks to two wars most of the city was badly damaged. While restoration work is ongoing, only the hall of harmony, which includes the throne hall, is fully finished, while some work is ongoing at one of the temples and the royal theatre (where still some concerts are performed – unfortunately not when I was there). The main gate was also covered for main renovation work. The large cloister is mostly intact, while some of the other buildings were completely destroyed. However, it is nonetheless very interesting to spend some time there. After the throne hall at the hall of harmony you can watch a video about the history of Hue, the imperial city and the planned work. If you like some history, and get an impression of how the city looked in the past, this 10 minute video is definitely recommended.
When getting out of the building you can easily walk around, see a small painting and photography exhibition along the cloister. In one area is a detailed timeline about the kings who have resided in Hue. As I really had no clue about that, it was rather interesting.
I found it rather enjoyable just to walk around, seeing some of the remaining buildings, and to imagine what it was like here during the war as the destruction of the bombardment and fighting was clearly shown here.I thought that I could have spent easily more than 2 hours there, but unfortunately I had to head back o the hotel to collect my hopefully repaired shoes.
Obviously it started to rain a bit while walking back (thankfully it was only a 15 minute walk), and soon enough I could see how good the guys deal with shoes – quite well. Both looked in great condition. Only later did I realise that he must have done something to the bottom of the soles, as it was a bit slippery now with them on (quite bad for trekking shoes)….
It was then time for my afternoon ice coffee, and went to the Tree coffee near the hotel. It was a great choice for several reasons. The coffee was good, and not expensive, it was full with locals, and had a nice atmosphere. While drinking your coffee you can speak to the other guests or see the locals either card games or a board game which I never learned what it is called or how it is played – but which was taken a bit serious…
I also met Mr Mui, the father of the owner. He helps out there very often, and he enjoys chatting to the guests. He is a history teacher and also works as a guide from time to time. He is a lovely person, and great to talk to. During my first evening there we talked about Vietnamese food, and he asked if I would like some home cooked food. The prospect of some local food was very tempting, so called his wife and asked to prepare some food, which he was picking up. So in the end I was sitting in a little café, and had some Nem Lui
(it is a kind of spring roll you roll yourself, rice paper, grilled chopped meat and filling are in front of you), with a great peanut sauce, followed by a soup. It was delicious, and a nice experience (I was the only customer with such food, and some of the locals had some laughs about it while a little snack sold outside. It was a lovely evening…
After I had breakfast in the hotel (simple but nice) the next morning I decided to explore Hue by bicycle. The hotel offered them for $1 for the full day. For that you got the basic bike without any gear, but with a working break and a lock. My plan was to visit the Notre Dame Church (yep, there iss one here in Hue as well…), one of the imperial tombs that is actually located in town, and the Celestial Lady Pagoda. In addition I was hoping to see a bit more of Hue.
Thankfully the rain stopped during breakfast, and off I went. There are no cycle paths, so you had to cycle on the road. I mentioned before that traffic can be a bit crazy, so I tried to copy their style with my little bike. This included stopping in front of cars and buses when the traffic line was red (joining the motorbikes). It was interesting waiting in front of a bus, and cycle as crazy to turn left before the traffic from the opposite side arrived. Except of one motorbike I didn’t spot no one used the horn for me. Despite this adventure, I can already advise that I survived the adventure!!!!
My first stop was the Notre Dame cathedral of Hue. The blue church is probably not the biggest one, but it still looked very nice. I was really impressed when I saw the nativity scene inside the church: in addition of the usual parts there was a rice field, a watermill with water running down. It looked very impressive, and added something to the interior of the church. Great start for the day.
The second place I wanted to visit was Lang Duc Duc – the tomb of Emperor Duc Duc. It is the only tomb in the city, and I read that it isn’t easy to find. As I found out this was a true statement, even with a little map of Hue I got from the hotel. It took me a while, and during this search I found a nice little temple, enjoyed the view you get when cycling along the little river that passes though Hue and comes from the perfume River. I somehow manage to find it in the end – but it looked like the temple was closed. I looked around, and a shop owner across the street just pointed to a door that was open. I am sure that no visitors should go inside, I did it anyway. Unfortunately besides one main building and the wall and a square there wasn’t a lot to see. Another door leading to the inner part was unfortunately locked. So for all the searching I only saw a bit.
Getting back onto my bike I decided not to go the same route back, and instead follow the main road I came from and cycle towards the train station. In the end it was a good choice, as I cycled past a much bigger church than Notre Dame – Phu Cam Cathedral. Construction only started in the 60s, so it had a more modern look to it. I wouldn’t call it a beautiful cathedral, though the front with the two very large towers and the square looked rather nice and impressive. As they were putting up the nativity scene the cathedral itself was closed, and I wasn’t sure people were allowed to enter to the area through the gate. Well – it was not locked and slightly open, so why not. I am still surprised that the cathedral was on no map I had from Hue – so it was a lucky find.
I continued my journey, and soon enough I cycled along the little river again, and saw some market stalls along the road – selling fresh fish, vegetables and meat. It seems some children of tourists didn’t like to see some living animals there, as a family carried a boy away – crying. When I passed the stall I slightly understood it – the stall owner killed a frog before selling it. But for that is the reason I love markets in Asia – the food really is fresh (I even saw people fishing next to the stalls and road).
Next I decided that I wanted to cycle over Truong Tien Bridge that is used by both motorbikes and pushbikes. My motorbike taxi took that bridge, and I found it rather impressive, so I wanted to experience it with a bicycle. The bridge is a bit narrow, but still motorbikes are overtaking you, so you and in some instances 2 bikes next to each other in both direction. I am a safety first kind of person, so I was careful when I crossed the bridge, and took a video of doing so at the same time (one hand is enough to cycle!!!). However, after I crossed it I realised that my hat was missing from my basket – it must have fallen out. I have to admit – I love that hat, so I turned and cycled over the bridge – again. And half way across I saw it on the street. I was a bit lazy going all the way back and turn – instead I saw a gap and made a quick turn on the bridge, stopped, picked up the hat, and cycled on the other side. Firstly, I survived. Secondly, after the turn the traffic only had to stop a few seconds to allow me to pick it up. Thirdly, I adapted the craziness of Vietnamese drivers. And most importantly, I had my hat back!!!!
The plan was actually to go to the same gate again as yesterday to get into the citadel again, but just before I got there I saw a little side street that looked a bit more interesting, so I followed it. The street became smaller and smaller, and suddenly the gap between the two houses became so narrow you had a roof over your head, passing little gaps between chairs. People looked a bit surprised when they saw me, but the usual smile and wave ceremony started once again. Thankfully no traffic came from the other way, and soon enough I was back on a main street, and soon enough I got back into the citadel, and cycled from the east gate to the north to the west side of the moat, before exiting the citadel next to the entrance to the imperial city in the southern part of the citadel. I can only recommend doing that – it is a lovely ride / walk.
Unfortunately as soon I left the citadel I realised that I was hungry. On the main road towards the pagoda were no restaurants so I went back into the citadel (from the west this time), and when I saw some tables I just stopped, walked in and took a seat. Considering the reaction of the locals sitting there I was not surprised that they had no menu, so the owner just pointed on the bowl she just served to another one, and without knowing what it was I just agreed. Where is the fun if you always know what you eat, right???? In the end it was something called Bun Thit Nuong. It is similar to Bun Cha. But instead with meatballs in fish sauce it was pork with some peanut sauce and cold noodles. Once again the food was delicious. And once again I was happy that I didn’t stop at a restaurant but stopped at a little local place.
Now strengthened I started the 6km ride to the Celestial Lady Pagoda. Thankfully it was a flat road, and soon enough after a pleasant ride along the large Perfume river I arrived at the pagoda. From some distance you can see the striking sight of the temple – the high tower standing on a little hill (the tower itself is over 20m). From there you have a great view across the surrounding area. Behind the tower you find the shrine, and a large garden. You get some nice views from the various sides, as the whole complex is situated higher than the surrounding area. One interesting “artefact” is the car which was driven by a Buddhist monk who self-immolated in Saigon in the 60s in protest of the treatment of Buddhists in Vietnam. So overall visiting the pagoda while in Hue would be a good idea. You will get offers to get back to Hue by boat, but despite the slight rain I decided to cycle back. Unfortunately the rain got a bit heavier, and after a few stops I was glad to be back at the hotel after 4pm to relax a bit (which included my daily trip to the Tree Cafe).
In the evening I followed the direction of the receptionist of the hotel, and ended up in in an area close to the bike bridge. After a nice meal (unfortunately the dish I wanted – steamed sticky rice with a pork stew – was only available till lunch) I decided to find a place for one or two beer. For some reason instead of going to the bar I saw nearby, I walked towards the bridge – which in the end was a great decision. I passed a cafe where I saw some locals playing guitar and were singing some Vietnamese songs. It sounded nice, so instead of finding a place that served beer, I had a coffee and listened to these guys. After a while they asked me if I want to join them on their table. It turned out that they were all journalists who went to a conference in Hue. I had a great time with them, and after listening to their songs, it was my turn to sing as well. While singing songs with them like Lemon Tree or Wind of Change was ok, as they are well-known songs, it was a bit strange to sit in a café in Vietnam and sing “En unsrem Veedel”. Apparently the other guests in the café enjoyed it.
After the coffee we headed to the pub for a few beer, and once again I experienced Vietnamese hospitality. Even though I just met them they really looked after me, and like before, you know it was because they wanted to get to know you, and not because they wanted something. I also made arrangements to meet two of them in Ho Chi Minh City when I get there for New Year. Overall this was one of these evenings you will hardly ever forget.
For my third day in Hue I wanted to visit some of the tombs of the emperors that are scattered around the southern part of Hue. In theory you could cycle to them, but to ensure you can see several of them I decided taking a motorbike would be easier. So I made some arrangement with Mr Mui from the Tree Café to act as driver and guide. The plan was to visit Lang Tu Duc tomb, Lang Minh Mang tomb, Lang Khai Dinh tomb and Dan Nan Giao (Altar of Heaven). It was booked for a half day trip, and some negotiation regarding price and duration was needed, but in the end we agreed to everything. Personally I felt having someone who teaches history at school was a plus, but due to the time limit for 4 1/2 hours it felt a bit rushed at two places (but that’s maybe because I like to take my time and wander around).
We started early in the morning (I am on holiday so an 8am start is early!!!) and were on our way to Lang Tu Doc tomb, with a quick side trip via the citadel and the railway bridge. Mr Mui was keen to explain everything, and throughout the ride he pointed a lot of interesting fact. Soon enough we arrived at the Lang Tu Doc tomb. This is the biggest tomb, and like all other tombs it had an impressive setting. It had a canal system that was used to transport the remains of the emperor from the river was included in the settings, with a little harbour and even a small island in the middle of a little lake. It gave it a tranquil feel. This tomb included several buildings, including a rather tall tower (it was explained that the height of the power indicated the power, so they tried to build the towers as high as possible), a little arch that housed a massive tabled full of Chinese glyphs (well – not that made it a difference to me, as I couldn’t even read Vietnamese), and then a platform covered by walls, which was the roof of the grave of the emperor. Someone mentioned that most workers were still in the grave to ensure no one could spread the secrets of the tomb – still not sure if this was true.
One other area was the royal theatre for the emperor who used the tomb as a retreat before he finally used the tomb for its designated purpose. On its way we passed the remains of a building. Mr Mui explained that this building was destroyed by US bombs, and that he can remember the day as he heard the massive noise that came from the destruction. Hearing from locals who were there during the war makes you realise that it was only a few decades ago. The theatre itself was rather impressive, as the ceiling was carved with the stars, sun, moon and clouds, and used during the performances in the theatre. I assume that it must have been a sight to see performances in that room. Overall the whole complex is impressive, in a beautiful and peaceful surrounding, and you can surely spend ages there. Well – I couldn’t.
Instead we were back on the road, to get to the next tomb. On our way we briefly stopped at two other tombs to see it from the outside. Lang Dong Khanh’s tomb was closed for renovation, and I was only able to have a quick look inside. We also only stopped very briefly in front of Lang Thieu Tri before heading to the Lang Minh Mang tomb, which includes using a mix of main roads and some dirt roads, The drive was actually very nice, though on a few occasions Mr Mui had to ask for direction (which amused me…).
Lang Minh Mang is smaller than Lang Tu Doc. This might be because of the layout – unlike Lang Tu Doc, which is spread over a wide area, this tomb has all building on one long stretch from the entrance to the walled tomb. You couldn’t get lost there even if you would try. The surrounding with the water on the right and left side, and the mountains in the background was beautiful, and the walk passing the buildings was very pleasant. You could see some similar statues and buildings to the other tombs, but overall the buildings here were in a much better condition. The little gardens, which requires lots of work I guess, and the constant little lakes added something to the whole atmosphere. The actually tomb of the emperor was on the end of the path, It is located on a little island, and you can only see a wall and a gate that separates it from the rest of the area. Despite being smaller than Lang Tu Doc, for me Lang Minh Mang was bit more impressive and more beautiful.
Back on the bike we headed to the last tomb of the day – Lang Khai Dinh. This tomb was compared to Versailles in France, and was looking forward to that one. After a 30 min road (including a few stops to ask for direction!!!) we arrived there, and when I stood in front of the gate I really understood where this comparisons comes from. You can immediately see the differences to the other tombs. Heading up via stairs at the entrance you got to a first courtyard, full of statues and one shrine. Behind it you could already see the massive main building. And yes, it looked like Versailles – well, a black and white version (due to the colour of the stones). And yes – it looked very very impressive. The inside of that building didn’t disappoint either. It was covered with lovely wall and ceiling decoration, lots of mosaic, and some information about the emperor. Unlike the other tomb, this one looked more like a monument for the emperor rather than a tomb. While you don’t have the lovely green and canals like the other tombs, the exterior and interior was by far the most impressive of the tombs I have seen.
Done with the tombs for today, we headed to our final destination: Dan Nam Giao – the Altar of Heaven on the outskirts of Hue. In the past it was a very important religious place, now it is a big park apparently very popular for the locals to rest. But you still have a big platform in the middle of this area, and apparently if you stand in the middle of the platform everyone in this rea could hear you. Mr Mui made the experiment with me, and it really worked.
That was the end of the tour for me. After 5 hours on the road Mr. Mui dropped me off at the Tree Cafe. I enjoyed the wealth of knowledge Mr Mui had to explains a lot, but I think I could have spent more time at the various places. ½ Day was definitely not long enough for me
I used the rest of the day to arrange my trip to the DMZ (De-Militarised Zone) for the following day, getting my transport organised to Hoi An (despite being advised that the train journey is spectacular I decided to take the tourist bus who offered several stops on the way), and having lunch in the place I had dinner the night before to ensure I can try the pork stew with steamed sticky rice (Xoi Thit Hon), and coming back for the dish was worth it – very tasty. And as Hue is not very big, I met some of the other journalist I met last night once again. Wherever you go – you will see familiar faces.
Later the afternoon I also visited a place recommended in a few guide books: French bakery La Boulangerie Francaise. I preferred the coffee at the Tree Coffee, but this bakery trains disadvantaged locals and help them getting jobs afterwards – a great project that I gladly support. Would recommend to visit it once to support them as well.
For dinner I decided to head to the little Family Home restaurant in the alley of my hotels, as it got great reviews. It had a lovely interior (it looked like a little garden) and the menu looked good. The starter of spring rolls were good, unfortunately my main course (fish in a clay pot with a sweet sauce) was not, as the fish was over cooked. The owner was clearly embarrassed by it, and I got a plate of fresh fruit as desert as an apology. Hearing the comments of the other guest it seems I really was a bit unlucky, as everyone else was happy. I probably would go there again and try the food again, as the atmosphere was nice.
The next day I did a day trip to the DZM – this will be covered in my next entry.
After returning from the DMZ I decided to have my final dinner at a place on the main street next to my hotel
Well – I should have remembered my own guideline for selecting restaurants – look for locals eating there. The only other tourists were only tourists, and I must admit the food wasn’t that good – it wasn’t bad either. But small portion and average taste. Not staying too long there I headed towards the Perfume River, and I was kicking me when I arrived there. Next to the Truong Tien Bridge was a little food market. You could get baguettes for 9,000 Dong (it was great ones – highly recommended. You cannot miss it as it is at the corner of the bridge, with a big queue of locals), or the lovely spring rolls Nem Lui for 20,000 Dong. Sitting near the river with the locals and eating the food was usual great. In addition the bridge was lighten up in different colours, which was lovely as well. There was also a little market selling several touristy bits, and in the far you could see the massive flagpole lid up – which slightly annoyed me as my hotel told me that the Old Town was not lid up in the evening. I also saw a sign announcing that every Saturday there is a free concert with the traditional instruments (like the one I saw in the Imperial city) in that little park next to the bridge. So if you are there on a Saturday, I guess it is worthwhile to check out around 6pm.
While I enjoyed this last night, I was still gutted I wasn’t aware of the markets here before. Nonetheless, it was a nice ending to my stay in Hue – before I headed to Hoi An.
Like the previous places I visited Hue didn’t disappoint. While the weather was a bit grey with some rain, the town itself is very interesting, especially as it is full of history. From the old citadel, the various tombs and the military importance during the war there are quite a few things to see. It is maybe not as beautiful like Hanoi (or places like Hoi An), but should still be on any itinerary if you are in central Vietnam.
The Ngoc Binh Hotel Hue is a very good budget hotel centrally located, only around a 15 minute walk to the citadel, and lots of restaurants nearby. Very friendly and helpful staff,
Room was ok but basic, it was nice to have a bath – as it allowed a shower without the usual wet floor. Breakfast was good for the overall price. Very good value for money
The obvious know sights of Hue should be covered – this includes the citadel, the old Imperial City, the Celestial Lady Pagoda and the tombs of the emperor. Using a bike is a good way to explore Hue itself, but for visiting the tombs a motorbike would be better as you can spend more time there.
For food I would highly recommend visiting the night market, and try some of the smaller places in the citadel. The restaurant at the corner Doi Chung and Vo Thj Sau (I cannot remember the name, except that it the last word of the name is Chu) would be a good place to go for lunch or dinner – it is packed with locals which is always a good sign. And obviously, if you are in that area, head to Tree Cafe on Nguyen Tri Phuong St. – it is a great way to meet locals – and it has a great atmosphere (and very good coffee as well!!)