HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Hue: Maybe this wasn't the best idea

We visited Hue (pronounced 'Hway') after our first stop in Hoi An, but I'm going to discuss this part of the trip first because I have less to say. Hue, which sits about 100 km north of Da Nang, served as the seat of the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 to 1945. Today, it is home to around 330,000 people and some major universities. The heart of the city is The Citadel, a 40-square km, walled city built by the Nguyen emperors. This was the main sight we were interested in seeing, and we were really looking forward to getting there.

Things were looking good at first. The bus ride from Hoi An to Hue was simply spectacular. A mountain range sits between the two cities, and as we climbed into the mountains north of Da Nang the views became reminiscent of our ride around the Son Tra peninsula - more peaks obscured by clouds and scenes of rural life. Unfortunately, a huge tunnel built through the mountains means bus passengers miss the amazing Hai Van Pass, but we still saw some stunning scenery.

Shortly after exiting the tunnel we stopped for a bathroom break in Lang Co, a small beach town. Uninterested in hanging around the bus for 20 minutes, we wandered around the back of the restaurant and stumbled upon a view that is exactly what I picture when I think of Switzerland: a placid, peaceful lake surrounded by towering mountains. Only the traditional fishing boats and unfortunate trash on the shoreline reminded us that we were still in Vietnam.

Once we continued on past Lang Co, we came upon more mountains, some of which we drove over, others we drove between. On the flatter stretches rice paddies fanned out from both sides of the road until they ran into the mountains, and it became impossible not to be amazed by the natural beauty of this country. Again, my pictures don't do an adequate job of showing the beauty, mostly because they were taken from behind a dirty bus window.

I opened my window when I saw this view approaching, but I only got 1 shot because a bus decided to overtake us right after this was taken.

Rice paddies and farmers in conical hats: the essential image of rural Vietnam.
After seeing mile after mile of amazing views, we arrived in Hue around noon and checked in at our hotel, which had easily the most excitable receptionists in the world. I'm almost certain my family won't display as much unbridled enthusiasm when I go home after a year as these women did every time we simply walked into the hotel. They basically talked in singsong and fought to see who could greet us first. Their energy was just impossible to match.

After dropping our stuff off in the room, which contained a rock-hard teddy bear with some questionable-looking stains in certain areas, we headed out for the Citadel. At this point I should probably mention the weather. Hoi An had been a little wet the first day, but the second day was dry and acceptable. Hue, however, was much colder, with an omnipresent mist falling that made everything wet, even if you were under an umbrella. The front of the fortress is an impressive sight, with a huge Vietnamese flag waving on top of the intimidating brick walls. I was surprsied to see that the inside of the Citadel, an important historic site, is actually a busy neighborhood. Seeing cars and motorbikes drive through the 200 year-old gates was a rather strange sight.
Vietnam's tallest flagpole

There is an area in the Citadel called the Imperial Enclosure, which no one lives in, since it is a UNESCO Heritage site, which you have to pay to enter. Since the weather was so miserable we decided to put that off to the next day, hoping that the rain would stop. So, we returned to our hotel and lamely wasted the afternoon watching "Sorority Row," one of the worst movies I've ever seen.

After a night of drinking and playing pool in Hue's backpacker area we got up early, excited to see how the weather looked. Joy of joys! It was...even worse. We were both totally unprepared for such cool temperatures, and while the rain wasn't hard enough to deter you from going outside, it was bad enough to make you want to kill yourself after a few hours. Still, we decided to soldier through it, since the Citadel is a pretty important part of Vietnamese history.

We paid our fee and entered the Imperial Enclosure, which housed the emperor, his family, and his court officials. A century ago I'm sure this place would have looked amazing. It is still interesting today, but the last century was extremely rough on this area. The French air force bombed part of the Citadel during their war here in the 1940's, and during the Vietnam War the Viet Cong set up shop within the thick walls, prompting the American military to pummel them with heavy artillery and napalm. As a result of these assaults, the majority of the buildings within the Imperial Enclosure no longer exist. Some are being restored, but those efforts will take a long time, and the grounds are actually quite messy: the grass is overgrown and many of the paths were simply mud. Despite these issues, what remains is still neat to see, and I'm sure the conservations efforts will eventually return the Citadel to some of its former glory.

This is what artillery will do to a brick wall.

After touring just half of the Imperial Enclosure, we decided we had had enough of the awful weather, and returned to the relative warmth of our hotel. We had originally planned on staying in Hue for three nights, since there are a lot of things to see in the countryside around the city, but we decided to cut our stay off at two nights. In the morning we boarded another bus (at a travel agency with the slogan "You'll love our freshness!" painted on the wall. There are certain qualities I want from such a business, but I'm not exactly sure if "freshness" is one of them.) for the return trip to Hoi An.

Even though the weather really made our visit to Hue ugly, it was still a mostly enjoyable two days, and our last dinner of bun bo hue, one of my favorite dishes, at a sidewalk stall with some locals made up for a lot of the misery. It is also amazing to see how far that part of the country has come in 40 years. As discussed the Citadel was the site of major fighting during the war, and the DMZ, as well as Khe San, where the most intense battle of the war took place, aren't far away. Today, Hue is heavily touristed. If it weren't for the scarred walls of the Citadel you'd have a hard time even telling there was a war just a few decades ago. Then again, that's true for most areas of this amazing country. After our bus ride past the same great views, we alighted in lovely Hoi An, which I'll cover in my next post. I definitely need to go back to Hue. Preferably when it isn't 60 degrees, windy, and misting.
Some dogs having a fight in Lang Co.

An elephant in the Citadel.