After 10 days in the South of Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh, the Mekong River area, and Phu Quoc, we took a flight to Hue (pronounced Hway). In honesty I really didn’t like Ho Chi Minh City – I found it drab, depressing, polluted and chaotic. I don’t think it helped that we flew there from Singapore, where I love, and the two cities couldn’t be more contrasting with one another. We had a good time in the Mekong and Phu Quoc, but I was still really hoping Hue and central Vietnam would redeem how I currently viewed the country.
Hue is an ancient city and was the capital city of Vietnam from 1805 until 1945 whilst the Nguyen Dynasty kings were in power. There’s plenty of history to the city and landmarks to visit but on our first day we simply got acquainted with our surroundings.
We stayed in quite a lively area of Hue that was filled with hostels, bars and restaurants. We came across The Kangaroo Restaurant round the corner from our hotel and saw that it offered cooking classes. After looking at some pretty good reviews online, we decided to give it a go and booked a class for that afternoon.
The class lasted 3 hours and cost 400,000VND each which included the food – you get to eat it all afterwards! I mentioned that I was vegan to the chef and she very easily made substitutions for me. I used tofu instead of shrimp or pork and we used vegetable stock for the pho rather than beef.
We made four traditional Vietnamese dishes – Beef/Tofu Noodle Soup (Pho), Fried Pancakes, Steam Cakes and Spring Rolls. The steam cakes were our favourite dish and so simple to make; the cakes were made from rice and tapioca powder mixed with water and then poured into small bowls to steam. Once cooked, we topped the cakes with caramelised shallots, spring onions and crushed shrimp or tofo. So simple but amazingly tasty!
Hue is renowned for its great food and many Vietnamese people regard it as the best place in the country for cuisine. We only learnt this recently, so it seems our spontaneous cooking class really was a great idea!
On our second day in the former capital, we decided to get on our Hue (Hway…) and start seeing some sights! We booked onto a guided tour through our hotel reception for a reasonable price, which included transport and an English speaking tour guide. Our tour guide turned out to be hilarious, not really through him trying to be, just with his sass and clear distain/impatience for some of the tourists in our group. At one point he responded to a ridiculous question with “How the hell would I know that..?” – some people thought he was rude, which he kinda was, but I thought it was pretty funny.
First stop on the tour was the Minh Mang Tomb Tomb which was a kilometre long straight line of gardens and monuments, built for a deceased King by his son. The site is not a tomb in the traditional sense of the word as the King’s body is not buried there. Only a few trusted advisors would have been made aware of the actual burial site in order to discourage any opportunistic grave robbing.
Our next stop on the tour of the tombs was the tomb of Khai Dinh, the only openly homosexual King in Vietnam’s history. His tomb is the most extravagant but also the most controversial as it is by far the most expensive tomb built for a Vietnamese King and took eleven years to build.
At the top level are the highly decorated tomb rooms which are covered wall to wall in mosiac style pottery. Motifs adorn the walls depicting dragons (a symbol of great strength) and stories from Vietnamese history.
There’s also a model of the deceased King made entirely out of bronze.
After visiting a few of the historical tombs, we crossed the Perfume River to enter the Imperial City, where the kings used to live and the majority of Hue’s citizens also live in modern day.
There are three levels to the Imperial City of Hue. The outer level is the ‘citadel’ – a 2km by 2km square surrounded by a moat. Within this there is the Imperial City which has another perimeter wall. At the very heart of the square is the Forbidden City which used to be where the royal family lived and only accessible by royals.
After walking round the citadel and learning about the kings, our last stop was the Thien Mu Pagoda. The pagoda was built by a Lord in 1601. It’s regarded as the symbol of Hue and has had quite a prominent role to play in various points in Hue’s history. At this point though, the rain was really coming down so we didn’t dwell too long here. We had quite a dreary boat ride back to the tourist area of the city and our tour was concluded!
Hue has its own bizarre micro-climate in Vietnam and seemingly rains constantly – it did almost the entire time we were there. Our tour guide explained that there was once a time Hue had three months of continuous rain each year, and 9 months of dry weather. However due to climate change, the city’s weather is now more unpredictable but it rains fairly frequently from March to October.
After seeing what Hue had to offer, we took a private car through the Hai Van pass to reach our next destination, Hoi An. This beautiful city turned out to be the highlight of our Vietnam trip, but I will discuss it in a separate post. For now, here are a few photos from our Hai Van tour.
Lap An Lagoon was about an hour’s drive out of Hue and absolutely stunning. At the moment it doesn’t seem to be that popular of a destination, but apparently it’s an upcoming tourist destination and soon to be populated, unfortunately.
The winding coastal roads between Hue and Danang are known as the Hai Van Pass and in honesty, I only knew about it from Top Gear’s Vietnam Special episode – how sad. We contemplated travelling this stretch by motorbike but I had a bit of anxiety about the winding roads and sheer drops. As it turned out there were bollards at the edge of the road the entire time so we probably would have been fine, but I feel okay with our decision to take a private car!
At the top of the pass there’s a stop to admire the views on either side of the mountain and also take a look at some old war bunkers.
After crossing the Hai Van Pass we reached our last stop just 20 or so minutes from Hoi An, Marble Mountains. We thought we would spend maybe half an hour here but the complex is actually huge, a lot bigger than I anticipated, and with a LOT of steps. There are pagoda, caves and viewing points spread across the mountains. For some ridiculous reason we climbed the ‘Highest Peak’ and I thought I was going to pass out by the time I crawled to the top.
We soon arrived in Hoi An, my favourite city in Vietnam. Hue had been a nice change from the South but still hadn’t bowled me over. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to see and do, perhaps the constant rain made it seem a bit miserable. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in Vietnam though. Where’s your favourite and least favourite place in Vietnam? I’d love to know!
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