The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 25th – Hue

I’m up at 6:00 and, immediately continuing yesterday’s train of thought, my first move is to check whether my phone is somewhere in the cabin. The French couple is already awake and are out in the train aisle. I climb down and search for my phone on the floor. No luck.

Once Katka is awake we pack our things and wait for the arrival to Hue. After the train stops we let the French couple leave first and I make one final sweep of the cabin, hanging on to the last bit of hope of finding the phone. Chances are slim that…HALLELUJAH…the phone is lodged between a lower bunk and the wall! I kiss and hug my phone, shed a few tears, and promise to never let it go again. Katka frowns and shakes her head, but that’s because she just doesn’t understand our relationship (mine and the phone’s, that is).

We take a cab to our hotel, the price of which I masterfully talk down from 60,000 to 40,000 dong (in case any prospective employers of professional negotiators are reading). Ancient House Hotel is a cosy and clean family-run hotel, with only a few guest rooms.

We arrive there at 7:30, which is well before our scheduled check-in time of 12:00. A polite and constantly smiling young guy leads us to a small dining room, where we get to pick a dish from the free breakfast menu. While we eat our breakfast and drink coffee I take a look around the room. Walls are line with pictures of the family and tasteful paintings of some workers planting rice and tending  to their crops. The outside door is open and several small birds fly in and out of the dining room, circling and chirping above our heads.

An artist’s approximate rendering of said birds…

At 8:00 a young lady walks in and tells us the room is ready! We were initially just hoping to leave our bags at the hotel and go exploring, but they’ve gone to the trouble of preparing our room well ahead of schedule. If this level of hospitality and service continues we may never adjust to Denmark again. Our room is spacious, with two King-sized beds, high-tech air conditioning unit and a huge flat screen TV mounted on a wall. Most importantly, there’s a proper bathtub in the bathroom (also a rarity in Denmark).

We unpack and rest in the room for a while, plotting our following moves. Later, we hand in our laundry to be done and then we’re given free bicycles to explore the city. The weather outside is beautiful – clear blue sky without a single cloud, the air is dry and hot. For almost thirty minutes we just bike around the city without a clear direction, hoping to eventually get to the Perfume River.

Our ultimate destination for the day is Hue’s main attraction – the Citadel. The Citadel is a huge complex on the Northern bank of the Perfume River (our hotel is on the Southern bank). Inside the Citadel itself lies the Imperial City, which in turn houses the so-called Forbidden Purple City. So, to recap – inside the city of Hue lies the Citadel, inside which lies the Imperial City, inside which lies the Forbidden Purple City. It’s the Matryoshka-style of city building.

When in Hue, do as the Russians do

The Forbidden Purple City used to be where the Nguyen imperial family lived. It was naturally forbidden to outsiders, something its subtle name hints at. Nowadays, crowds of tourists can gain access to the site for a token fee. The site has withstood many years of termite and cyclone damage, only to be completely flattened by the French and the Americans during periods of war in the 1940s and 1960s. Right now most of the former buildings exist only as outlines with signs, indicating where they used to stand. However, reconstruction work is actively ongoing and replacement temples and palaces are being erected in their place.

Back to Katka and I. After enjoying the bicycle ride, yet not getting any closer to the Perfume River, we stop by a church (later we’ll find out that it was the Redeemer Church) to get our bearings. We eventually get to a park by the Perfume River, where we sit down for a drink at an outside cafe. Before we order Katka snaps a few pictures of some curious artwork found nearby:

“…help..me…”

We order two ice teas. The order is treated quite literally here: the tea is brought hot, but with a bowl of ice on the side, so that we can regulate the desired temperature ourselves. We discuss our battle plan for the following day. We decide to leave Hue for Hoi Ann early tomorrow, giving us a good part of the day to explore the city itself. Then we’ll have time the day after for a trip to the nearby ruins of Hindu temples at My Son (pronounced “meeson” – mind blowing, I know) and departure to Dong Hoi.

When we want to leave we cannot find any waiters to summon for a while. Then a guy with a tray and without any English skills shows up. For a long time we attempt to get the “we’d like to pay for our drinks” message across, and only succeed after utilising some complex sign language.

We take our bikes across the Truong Tien Bridge to the Northern bank of the Perfume River. On approach to the Citadel we take pictures of the Flag Tower by the Citadel entrance, which is the tallest flagpole in Vietnam. There’s a big open square in front of the Flag Tower, lined on both sides by the Nine Holy Cannons – five on one side and four on the other.

Before we enter the interior grounds of the Imperial City we park our bikes at a “parking lot” behind a food vendor. An older man by the lot writes numbers on our bike seats with chalk. Then he gives us two pieces of paper with pen-written numbers corresponding to these. With such a sophisticated tracking system, we know we’re in good hands! (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

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