Rain, cyclos and war wounds in Hue…

Our visit to the Vietnam’s ancient capital, Hue, in the centre of the country began after an extremely uncomfortable and rather long journey on a sleeper bus! This was the first overnight bus either of us had ever taken – up until now, most of our travel has been during the day or overnight on a train, so we were a combination of excited and slightly apprehensive about sleeping on a bus kitted out with beds.

When we first got on we were amazed at how many people they can pack into these buses, but the reason for this is simple – the beds/seats were really narrow! Our sleeping quarters were right at the back of the bus, at the bottom and there were 5 beds squeezed in there. Luckily ours were by the window, which we opened as wide as possible to try and give ourselves some relief from the insane heat that was coming from the engine underneath us!

It was a long 13 hour trip (with a break at 6.30am for breakfast) and the hard leather beds didn’t do too much to help us get a peaceful night’s sleep – that and the immense lightening storm that raged for about an hour, lighting up the bus just as we were drifting off, meant that we arrived in Hue slightly dishevelled, sweaty and tired!

We only had 2 night’s booked there however, so didn’t want to waste time by going to sleep when we got to the hotel. We were staying on the south bank, right across the road from Hue’s Perfume River – the main icon of the city. A really good location – we could walk pretty much anywhere and decided that this is what we would spend most of our time doing – exploring the streets by foot.

Our first walk was along the banks of the Perfume River. It was quite peaceful as there really weren’t many people around (except for the tourist boat ‘captains’ who just won’t leave you alone!). Not the most spectacular of rivers – in one direction you could just see the two bridges that cross it, full of motorbikes and cars (Trang Tien and Cau Phu Xuan bridges), but in the other direction, you could see the foothills of the mountains and an old watchtower.

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The rest of our walk consisted of side streets and main roads teeming with motorbikes and scooters. It’s impossible to walk on the pavements here (and i’m guessing we’ll find this in every city in Vietnam) as they are used as parking lots for bikes as well as shop fronts, cafes and an extention of people’s living rooms! One thing that stood out on our exploration of Hue was that we couldn’t walk past a corner or side street without being bombarded with shouts of “hello, where you going?”, “you need cyclo?” or “stop, motorbike for you!” by cyclo riders and motorbike taxi’s who were insistant on taking you to your destination instead of letting you walk.

Once we’d explored the south side of the river we crossed over the Cau Phu Xuan bridge and made our way over to the ‘old’ side of the city. Hue itself has quite an interesting history – it is here that the last ruling family of Vietnam were based – the imperial Nguyen Dynasty. They ruled the country from 1802 right up until 1945 when the last emperor, Bao Dai, gave up the throne and handed power over to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (headed by Ho Chi Minh).

The city still suffers from war wounds following the many battles that went on in and around it during the Vietnam War – it was first conquered by the Viet Cong where around 1000 people (suspected ‘South Vietnam sympathisers) were killed and then subjected to a bombing campaign by the Americans.

The main attractions in Hue are centred around the remaining vestiges of the Nguyen Dynasty, in particular the Imperial Citadel and Purple Forbidden City within it, which are just across the river. The Citadel is surrounded by moats and its entrance is marked by the Hue Flag Tower, first built in 1807.

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There are several small bridges that you can use to cross the moat which is littered with water lillies. Once we had crossed over we went to the main gate of the Purple Forbidden City (Ngo Môn) which was built in 1833. This is where the Vietnamese Emperor would stand to address the people during special events or military occasions.

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Just past the main gate is a walkway with two ponds either side of it. One of the ponds had what seemed like hundreds of big orange fish in them (I think they are Koi) who were all fighting against eachother to get close to the wall in the hope that someone who throw some food in. We bought some fish food and threw it in and they all went mental! Practically jumping on top of eachother to gobble it up!

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It costs 55,000 Dong to enter the Citadel, which consists of many buildings such as temples, pavillions, walls and gates, as well as the residences of the former emperors, their family and officials. There weren’t many people inside, unlike the Forbidden City in Beijing which is heaving with tourists, but we thought that it was a great place to visit – mostly because it hasn’t been completely restored and repainted like in Beijing.The whole complex was badly damaged during fighting between the French and Viet Minh (who opposed the French occupation) in 1947 and then further damaged during shelling by the Viet Cong and bombings by the US in 1968, so much of it is rather ’empty’.

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The Forbidden City part of the citadel largely consists of fields and bits of broken walls -while we were there we saw lots of workers restoring various bits of the palaces, temples and other buildings that do actually still remain. The bits that they had already restored looked great and the paintwork was lovely and bright – showing off the carvings of dragons and other patterns that were drawn onto the pillars and eaves. But we thought that the real charm of this place was in the fact that most of it wasn’t all new and shiny – it was nice to walk around a historical place knowing that you are seeing it in it’s original form. We spent some time walking around the complex and reading all of the plaques that explained what the buildings were (or what used to stand on the big piece of grass!). It’s actually quite pretty if you ignore the mud and rubble as there is a lake and lots of trees inside.

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While we were there the weather decided to change again – we spotted dark rain clouds moving across the sky and just knew that this downpour was going to be a big ong – and it was!

Our umbrellas could hardly cope – it was so windy too and we still got soaked even under the brollies! We learnt later that Hue’s weather is infamously bad and trust us to go there during monsoon season! Not wanting the rain to spoil our day however, we carried on walking around the rest of the imperial city and outside the gates back in the ‘real world’.

We stopped for lunch in a plaza by the river, then walked back over to the other side. We then walked around looking for a pharmacy to treat a couple of ‘war wound’s of our own and none of them seemed to have what we were looking for – we must have gone to at least 12 all over town! By the time we had got back to the hotel our feet were literally swimming in water and our toes looked like we’d just spent about 5 hours in the bath!

That evening we tried to dry off all our clothes and shoes before settling down to watch a scary film on tv and eat some noodle soup! We’re booked onto another sleeper bus for the next day (although thankfully only 4 hours during the day) and are heading towards Hoi An, further south. We’re hoping the weather improves further south as there are a couple of beaches we’ve got our eyes on!…

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