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Mean: 33°c Max: 38°c Min: 22°c


Hue, Vietnam
Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hue, the city with a name that nobody seems to know how to pronounce. We have spoken to many locals and tourists and it seems to vary from person to person and even with the same person in one conversation. We think it should be pronounced 'whey' but don't take our word for it.

Day 1&2 - The Citadel

The main city within Hue has to be the Citadel. In 1802 Emperor Gia Long moved the capital of Vietnam from Hanoi to Hue to try and unite Northern and Southern Vietnam. The Citadel was built shortly after moving the capital to protect the city and serve as a Royal residence.

Unfortunately during the Vietnam War Hue was badly damaged. In just 3 and a half weeks when the North controlled the Citadel more than 2,500 people were killed. The USA and the South responded by destroying large parts of Hue and the Citadel. The scale of the human devastation is hardly comprehendible but unlike other war torn cities we have visited on our trip where the war scars are barely visible large parts of the Citadel remain levelled today which made it feel so recent and 'real'

The Citadel itself is enormous and still today a vast amount of the city is within its 10km perimeter walls. Within the big Citadel is what can only be described as another Citadel, the Imperial Enclosure and within that another Citadel the Forbidden Purple City. Confused yet? We still are and we have visited it!

Most of the city sights reside within the Imperial Enclosure which is encompassed by another city wall approximately 2.5km in length and was where the Royal's lived. At the centre of the Imperial Enclosure is the Forbidden Purple City an area that was solely for the Emperor and of course his concubines use. Unfortunately both of these areas were badly destroyed by the war and approximately 20 buildings out of 140 still stand today. Those that did escape the fierce fighting and those that have been rebuilt were impressive. Although the architecture of many of the building and temples had a very Chinese influence and were very similar to buildings we have previously seen on our trip it was a great afternoon and a must see sight not just in Hue but Vietnam.

Right next door to the Citadel is the General Museum Complex. Entrance is free but unfortunately the museum itself was closed, as usual without reason. However within the grounds of the museum are a number of war relics. Although you can't climb on the aircrafts there wasn't anybody around to stop us exploring the other relics close up :-)

After visiting the museum complex to gauge the enormity of the outer Citadel we finally relented to one of the masses of rickshaw drivers. After much haggling we agreed on just 120,000VND (approx. £3) for an hour cycling tour which took in the remaining sights.

You could fit all of the Citadel and the Museum Complex into one full day. But with the stupidly high energy sapping temperatures we are glad we spilt it over two.

Day 3 - City Tour

On our big adventure so far we've tried to organise our day trips ourselves as it is often vastly cheaper and you get the option to do exactly what you want not want the tour company wants you to do. However since arriving in Vietnam the prices are so cheap and getting to many places is virtually impossible by public transport it's been much easier to book through a tour company. So for our last day in Hue we booked to go on a full day trip named the Dragon Boat City Tour. When we booked the trip we were told that we would be picked up from our hotel at 7.30am. We assumed that we would be picked up by a mini bus or coach but were picked up by a young man and woman who led us to two motorbikes, yikes!

This was a fun start to the day and reminded us of previous trips to Thailand where being wizzed down the road as fast as possible on the back of a bike is common place. We were taken to the travel office where we had to wait for everyone else to be picked up. It was amusing watching some of the other people arriving by bikes, also looking a little wind swept.

We were sitting and waiting when the strangest thing happened. Sonya spotted a couple walking past that we shared a compartment with a few days before on the train from Hanoi to Hue. Just as we went to say hello to them, Ross noticed another couple from Italy that were in the compartment next to ours on the Trans-Siberian and stayed at the same Guesthouse in Ulan-Bator walking in the opposite direction! It was great to have a quick catch up as we lost contact with them when we caught the train from Ulan-Bator to Beijing. Strangely they had followed a fairly similar to route to us all the way through China. It's a big world out there but sometimes we are reminded that it can be a small world too. We never got to say hello to the other couple as they were long gone by the time we said our goodbyes to our Italian friends!

Hue is surrounded by a large number of Tombs designed and built for the Emperors that have ruled Vietnam. Each Emperor designed their own Tomb and either visited on a regular basis or lived there permanently. They believed in the afterlife and so they wanted to create a Feng Shui paradise to enjoy during both lives.

Our first stop was the Minh Mang Tomb and at 28 hectares it was huge. At the entrance there was a big double gate in the centre with two smaller gates either side. During Emperor Minh Mang's life time he only ever entered using the side gates, it wasn't until his death that the main double gates were opened for his funeral with strict instructions to close them after his funeral to be never opened again. On either side of the main gates there are stone statues of men, elephants and horses leading up to the Temple which has steep steps, this was meant to show he had great power. The building behind this was the Palace where he would relax with his concubines. He had over 500 concubines and 124 children! As there is not much to do in the countryside he found something to keep himself busy.

The grounds were lovely with a large lake that sits snugly around the mountain where his body lies. If there is an afterlife we can certainly see why he would want to spend his time surrounded by such beauty.

The second Tomb was the Khai Dinh Tomb, built into the hillside the architecture was a mixture of Vietnamese, European and most major religions. The exterior of the building was covered in blackened concrete, creating an unexpected Gothic air but as soon as we climbed the steep steps to the top and entered the building the sudden explosion of colourful mosaics was a sight for sore eyes. They were simply stunning. In total it took 11 years to build the Tomb, 5 years to design and another 6 build. An amazing place and well worth the visit.

The next stop on the tour was a performance at the Martial Arts of Kinh Van An. This was a mixture of martial arts performed by young men and women who were orphaned at a young age and taught this art to give them a skill to use in life. The performance included saw stick fighting, fan fighting and a man with a long spear on a stick! He placed the spear just under his Adams apple and pushed onto the spear towards the floor, if that wasn't gross enough another man then placed a concrete slab onto his shoulder blades and proceeded to hit him with a very large hammer! Sonya had to look away as it was too weird to watch. Amazing is one word but you could just as easily use the word crazy.

The last Tomb we visited was The Tu Duc Tomb. It was a little run down compared to what we had previously seen but the crumbling architecture only seemed to enhance its beauty and charm. Emperor Tu Duc lived a life of imperial luxury and had 104 wives with countless concubines, Ross was a little jealous. Not as greedy or as busy as Minh Mang but getting there.

After lunch we boarded a dragon boat and sailed up the Perfume River to An Hien Garden House. A very old house used by one of the Emperors and his family. We took a stroll through the gardens where the guide proceeded to show us plants and fruit trees many of which we have never seen in the West. Ross didn't find it as entertaining as Sonya and was practically falling asleep with boredom, so thankfully we didn't stay long.

The last stop of the day was the Thien Mu Pagoda which is built on a hill overlooking the Perfume River. It is an iconic pagoda known all over Vietnam and stands at 21m high. It has seven storeys and as it stands on top of a hill and can be seen from quite a distance. Behind the pagoda there was a Temple set in some lovely grounds and it was quite peaceful until the heavens opened. After hearing a few claps of thunder we made a hasty exit and just made it back to the boat before the rain really started. After sailing back down the perfume river we went in search of ice cream as the humidity was pretty intense. That's our excuse anyway!

Singing Tour Guides!

One thing we don't understand is why the tour guides insist on singing between sights. We have been on 3 tours in Vietnam and it has happened twice. They always start by saying 'I'm not a great singer...' and even without the introduction is it clear that they are not ...! If they know they can't sing why put the paying customers through the pain? Worst still why do the American tourists seem to love it so much, egging them on and joining in? We might tip more if they didn't give our ear drums such a battering.

Hue - Nha Trang Train Journey

We have both been on some amazing train trips many of which have been billed as 'one of the best in the world' for various reasons, but neither of us has ever seen Hue - Nha Trang trip on any such list. Why? In just over 12 hours we saw some amazing and varied landscape from beaches to mountains and then vast stretches of picturesque farm land. Some of the views were simply stunning. We are so glad we chose the train over flying, it might be slower but the views and experiences were priceless.

Money - Vietnam is cheap (if you haggle!)

Vietnam is the worst place yet in Asia we have travelled for haggling, you need to haggle for everything and we mean everything. Only big supermarkets and restaurants have prices, everything else is negotiable. However if you are prepared to haggle and let your feet do the talking you can get some serious bargains. Opening offers are normally 4 times the going rate i.e. what the Vietnamese pay. We often bargain for 50%, but have bartered for 25%, if in doubt walk away as this will usually seal the deal at any price you are prepared to pay. No prices are set in stone and having said in our last blog we slightly overpaid for our train tickets we met a couple on the train who purchased them direct from the station. It was unclear if they paid more than us as the face value wasn't printed on them!

Money, money, money...

If you want to be a millionaire for a few days you need to visit Vietnam. We loved withdrawing hundred's of thousands from the ATM in Mongolia but in Vietnam we withdraw 5 million at a time! Our hotel bill, including trips and all our train tickets came to 14,000,000... yes count the zeros, we felt like rock stars! Tipping the taxi driver 'hey here's 50,000' sounds cool just don't convert it back to £'s as you soon feel stingy again.

A cheaper way to travel

If you are travelling off peak the soft sleepers might have free births and if you want to save a few £'s you could book a lower bunk sleeper and a seat. There isn't an official ticket check like on Chinese trains so after loading on your stuff you can just sit down, obviously in theory this reduces your luggage space but as in China it is first come first served! The second method is to bribe a guard! Yes we saw this happen in our compartment we booked an upper and lower berth and the other lower berth was also booked leaving the 4th berth free but not for long after a few of hours a couple turned up and both jumped up to the bed. Shortly afterwards the guard appeared after a bit of laughing and joking some food followed by money exchanged hands and he disappeared, simple as that!

The iPad Generation

Admittedly we are hardly slumming it and are travelling with a laptop, iPad mini, 2 Samsung S3's and a camera. I suppose we are to backpacking what glamping is to camping, we need to think of a funky name for that before somebody else does! But we do respect our surroundings and the iPad never leaves the hotel room. We can't stand it when we see other travellers and holidaymakers touting their iPad's about. We just don't get it, it's so tacky. At the end of the day we are travelling through a country where most people don't earn a fraction in a month of what an iPad costs and are unlikely to ever own one. It's not big and it's not clever to haggle over a few pence for instance for a rickshaw ride and then pull out your iPad to take photos. You wonder why pickpocketing is rife.... the iPad generation you bring it on yourselves. We could rant on but we must stop before we start on those who take a photo and delay the tour to upload it to Facebook immediately, enough said.

Hotel Review

We stayed at the Jade Hotel. A small hotel about 15 minutes' walk from the Citadel, located just off a street with a bewildering array of restaurants and small shops. Staying in many budget hotels and hostels they start to look and feel the same but the one thing that made the Jade hotel stand out is the amazing service. All of the staff really did provide a service with a smile. Each and every time that we came back to the hotel we were welcomed back with a big smile, a cold towel and fresh drink. A small touch but in the sweltering heat it was just what we needed. A smile costs nothing and it changed the whole atmosphere of this hotel. It was a great budget stay with free breakfast, reasonable internet and only 3km from the train station. We would definitely recommend this hotel to other travellers.


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