Woke up an hour before my alarm (getting really good at that) and managed to get ready at a leisurely pace. Gave the hotel restaurant a shot (its not so much a restaurant since they’ve stopped serving food other than breakfast, but still have a dining area for brekkie) and had a tomato omelette – had more onion than tomato but otherwise it was pretty good.
While I was waiting for the transfer to the tour, started speaking with one of the staff about getting to Hoi An tomorrow, and how I was wanting to go by motorbike if the weather wasn’t too bad. He recommended that I do it – as the weather would be much better on the mountain than in the cities, and the scenery is well worth it. This is the reason I want to do it – as a lot of the buses use the tunnel that avoids most of the views, and the train is notoriously late and leaves me having to make my way from Danang to Hoi An. The biggest issue is weather, and the price – its $45 to do. Decide to think about it and make a decision after my tour. We then start working on my Vietnamese (still abhorrent but I have managed to memorise 1-10, hello and excuse me. Working on memorising asking for the bill, directions and haggling lines).
Finally, the motor taxi comes to take me away. When we first arrive I’m a little apprehensive – my tour stated bus first, then boat, and we had arrived at the dragon boat dock. It was frustratingly hard to find someone who understood so I could double check – but thankfully once the guide arrived, he explained that they’d found many people had already done The Imperial City before coming on the tour, and in the morning it was always full of tourists. So they’d swapped the two parts of the trip around. Once that had been explained, happily boarded the Dragon Boat and started driving up the Perfume River.
The Dragon Boats are really interesting – they’re similar to taxis for people going up and down the river, but those who work on them also live on them – you can see washing hanging on lines, and lunch is cooked in the kitchen behind. They’re basically house boats that work as their occupation too.
Weather was (again) not fantastic, but managed to stay at a low drizzle for most of the morning and give us some visibility of Hue’s river banks. Its a slow and relaxing way to see parts of Hue away from the craziness of the motortaxi and cyclos (although doesn’t mean you escape the hawkers – there is someone trying to sell you stuff on the boat too).
The first stop on the tour was a Garden House, a privately owned home that was built (and maintained) in the style of old Hue, back when Hue was the Capital and Vietnam was a monarchy. There are several in Hue, though we were only visiting one. Our guide explained the building’s design, the feng shui put into the location and gardens, and what the rooms could be used for. He also explained that the biggest change in Vietnam homes is the loss of the Buddhist alter in homes, while keeping the temple for ancestors. Around 1965, Vietnam was suffering from famine due to a drought in 1963, and the Japanese invasion. The Vietnamese had been predominately Buddhist until this time, but had always believed that if they needed help, it would come. Sadly, it didn’t, and millions died of hunger. As such, many Vietnamese abandoned religion, and only worship family and spirits rather than religious deitys.
The house was very beautiful, and it was great to see a traditional home, but it left a sour taste in my mouth as I had no change (like many people on the trip), and needed to pay 20,000 dong to enter. When it came to my turn the owner only had 60,000 dong left, so I had to pay twice the entry fee. When I complained I was basically told to pay that, or don’t go in.
Back on the boat, our next stop was the Thien Mu Pagoda, the unofficial symbol of Hue. This Buddhist temple is situated on the river, and is beautiful to walk around. It also has a very unique (and very sad) relic on display. Have to admit I did a double take when I saw a car put on display in a temple, but this is the car that Thich Quang Duc, a monk in Vietnam drove to his own immolation in 1963 in protest of the anti-Buddhist laws being brought to the country by the current president.It takes some time to get to our next stop, so our guide explains the options. Since we haven’t paid entrances fees as part of the tour, we can choose where to go. The next stop are the Kings tombs, of which there are three, and he recommends only going to see two. For me, as the only ‘westerner’ in the group who hasn’t been to the Citadel, he tells me there is a special ticket I can get for the 2 tombs and the Citadel that saves me about 100,000 dong. I go for that and decide the third tomb is an expense I don’t need, as does everyone else on the tour.
Lunch is a simple but heavy affair. Tofu, noodles and rice – and no sooner was one plate empty that the woman in charge of lunch spooned another heaving on the table. At the end of the meal we were having to send her away in fear that she’d give us another plate that we’d have to try and finish off. Cheap but definitely not lacking.
One we got to shore, it was time to say goodbye to the Dragon Boat and hello to the bus I’d expected earlier. It only takes about five minutes to get to the next stop, and we had 40 minutes in the Tomb of Minh Mang. The Emperor between 1820-1840, Minh Mang died while the tomb was being constructed, but construction was continued, and completed in 1843.
The tomb is divided into 3 areas – the main gate where you enter, along with the courtyard in honour of the Emperor’s mandarins. There is also a stele that records the emperors life in its own temple.
Further inside is the temple for worship, which is a beautiful building deeper inside the complex. The third section is the tomb itself, which you cannot enter. Its a several dozen-acre lot surrounded by a 3 metre tall wall, and the Emperor’s final resting place is a mystery. In Vietnam, it is believed bodies must be buried in order for one’s spirit to move on, and if the body is tampered or destroyed, so will his spirit. As such, when the Emperor died, he was buried in a private location, the entrance permanently sealed, and then every man who helped bury him was killed, hiding the king for good.
Regardless of that bloody afterthought, this place is simply stunning. Every time you think you’ve seen it all, you walk around a corner and you find yet another beautiful building. I wish I’d had more time here – its well worth a trip.
The next stop was a much newer tomb, but highly recommended for seeing as its so different compared to every other building in Hue. The Tomb of Khai Dinh, who ruled between 1916 and 1925, the second last Emperor of Vietnam, who worked closely with the French government and was often considered little more than their puppet. Due to their influence at the time, the tomb has a very French feel to it, and is quite something to see.
The inside is covered in mosaic, and unlike the previous tomb, we know full well where Khai Dinh’s body is. Underneath his statue in the centre…under about 9 foot of concrete. Where Minh Mang chose space to hide, Khai Dinh used fortified defences.
At this point, it was time to head to the Citadel. Most of the Vietnamese on the group came as well as myself, but all the other English speakers had done the city before so had the bus take them back to their hotels. When we got into the city, most of the Vietnamese tourists went off on their own, so I more or less got a personal tour of the Imperial City.
Since Hue was once the capital, this was where the Royal family originally lived. Sadly, in the war it was heavily damaged. Some areas, such as the living quarters for the Emperor have been completely destroyed. In other places there are bullet holes littering the walls, and gates and walls stand in varying states of decay.
Regardless, this place has an incredible presence. Even in the rain, you walk through these areas (and believe me, there’s enough here to spend a full day if you so desired), and its easy to picture how magnificent it must have looked back when it was in its prime. Completely different to the Forbidden City in Beijing which is mostly intact but underwhelming.
The Vietnamese government is trying to restore the Imperial City to its former glory, and as such several places (such as the Queen Mother’s tea house and the Entrance Gate) are all under scaffolding and heavy construction. I honestly don’t know if I approve or condemn fixing a place like this considering the history that comes from its destruction, but it does seem wrong to not try and preserve whats left.
I could have stayed longer in the Citadel – I could have explored without a guide and gone through everyone at my own pace, but the rain wasn’t letting up, and there’s only so much walking in the wet I can tolerate. I felt I’d seen enough of importance to leave, and hopped on the bus to get back to my hotel.
When there, I had a talk with a different member of staff about the motorbike, and he said that it would probably be raining on the Hoi Van pass, which is completely opposite to what the earlier gentleman said. With that in mind, I wondered if I should swap to a bus that does the longer trip, or do the train. We went backwards and forwards for a good 10 minutes before I went upstairs to look online at my options.
Doesn’t really help, so I decide to post the question on Trip Advisor about the best choice of options, and then go out for dinner. There’s a small restaurant called ‘Cafe on Thu Wheels’ that’s very well reviewed, and has a high star rating from Trip Advisor on its wall. The day before, it had been packed with people, though it was empty today.
Personally, I thought it was overrated – that or they were just really short staffed today. There was only one woman working there, and when I ordered, she went into the back to cook – never coming out to check the front. There was one customer who came in, sat down, then left after 10 minutes after no attention.
As for the food, is was so so. The broth part of my Pho Ba was by far the best I’d had in Vietnam – it was unbelievably tasty. However the beef was hideously dry, and the noodles undercooked. Kind of surprised considering its reputation – can only assume it was a slow night.
When I got back, there were no replies to my question, but both the guys downstairs were saying I should probably do the bike, and I decided to bite the bullet and just bullet. I knew if I didn’t, I would regret it – I have been wanting to do this pretty much since I heard you could, and for all I know, the weather could end up great.