It seems like I had been planning a solo backpacking trip overseas for ages. In late May 2016, I finally took off for a trip through South East Asia like I had always wanted to. I was dismissive of all deterring arguments. I cared not what was happening to me or around me. This trip was all that mattered right now.
This post is about when I got to Huế in central Vietnam. I took a train from Dong Hoi. Huế was the last imperial capital of Vietnam as well as one of the border towns in the north south civil war. It has a lot of history to it and some specialty cuisines as well.
Hues of Huế
I walked out of the station after saying goodbye to Bibi and Miss Han. Google Maps showed that the hotel I had booked was just 1.5 kms away so I did not even consider the many xe om drivers offering me a drop. Huế seemed like a lively town. It was lit up and people sat in restaurants and cafes enjoying food and drinks. I liked the vibes of this place.
Lively colours of Huế
I got to the hostel quickly enough. It was immediately south of one of the hospitals, well before the backpacker district. I had booked a single room that was falling in my budget. It had been a while since I had spent some time in the comfort of having no one around. I gladly accepted this break from hostels and all their activity and socialising. I am not a very social person to begin with. Anyway, since I was getting a single room with good reviews at a fraction more than what a hostel dorm would have cost me, I was up to spending a night in my preferred style!
The hotel, Bien Khoi, was a little off the spot marked on Google Maps but a local helped me find it. This was a new hotel; just 30 days new. The woman at the reception barely spoke any English but one of her friends helped us out. I made more use of the Google Translate app as well. The narrow stairway led me to the third floor where my room was. It seemed nice and simple. It even had a balcony which I used just once during my stay. All in all, I would say, I had got a good bargain.
I quickly took a bath and went out to get something to eat. It was getting late and Vietnam’s more local food joints tend to close early. I got cơm chiên (fried rice) from a restaurant and then went ahead to check out the backpacker district which Michaella had told me about. The lights got brighter and the streets livelier as I approached the area. The xe om and cyclo riders also started pestering me. They offered me everything from opium to prostitutes. I went into my WTF mode. I had gotten into the habit of politely refusing any offers made to me but there were so many of them here that I quickly learnt to ignore. Then there were some that tried to get your attention in any possible way. One of the xe om riders rode for 50-80 feet along my side constantly talking to me and showing me a packet of marijuana that he thought would interest me. Smacking him across the face would have interested me but I refrained for the fear of prolonged engagement. I walked straight out of the area, ditching my previous plan to grab a drink somewhere. I understand that people like to party and I have nothing against them or those who facilitate it in any way, but I do not understand why they cannot leave alone the ones who don’t want to join in! Anyway, the offers by cyclo and motorbike riders continued for a bit and then stopped when I had put enough distance between myself and the ghetto.
I walked to the river side and walked along the empty street. The shops had closed down and there was barely any tourist to be seen. A few artists were engaged in creating amazing pieces that they would sell at unjustified low prices the next day. I preferred such peace and quiet more than the loud tourist areas. I walked around a bit before heading back to the room.
I had a really peaceful sleep and woke up late the next day. I decided to stay another night in this place and talked to the hotel manager about a suitable price. We agreed on the one agoda was listing. I am really curious about how that site works. Most of the hotels demand a higher rate when I ask them either for an extension or if I simply walk in to book a bed. One would have thought that agoda would be the more expensive of the two since there might be some service fee involved but it has never been so.
Anyway, I went out and looked for one of the more famous Bún bò Huế shops. This dish is, as the name makes obvious, a specialty of Huế. It is the classic Bún bò noodle soup done in the imperial style of Huế. I found the place and relished a large bowl.
Kevin hearts Bún bò Huế
Then I went to Mandarin Cafe, one of my wikivoyage discoveries. I am really glad of having gone to this one. The owner is a photographer and there are many excellent photographs of Vietnam on display. They are up for sale if any interests you. I had a banana pancake and a coffee and inquired about the rates of the buses to Hội An. Then I picked up the map of the walking tour, the real reason I had gone to the Mandarin Cafe. The map and advice for the walking tour were free of cost. They even gave me a nice post card compliments of the restaurant. 😀 I like such traveller friendly places.
On the banana pancake trail
Huế was the last imperial capital of Vietnam. It was also a main player in the civil war that brought about the socialist revolution. The Perfume River runs through the city and while most of the hotels and backpacker areas are south of the river, the north has the picturesque old city with a walled citadel. The walking tour map traced a nice route through the old city and gave a short history of every place of interest that would lie on the route.
I crossed the Trường Tiền bridge to the other side of the Perfume River which was pretty wide. The sun was not too hot and that made for a pleasant walk. I turned into one of the roads and entered the citadel through one of the many gates. There was the first layer of moat here and the wall was an impressive 8 meters wide fortification. It reminded me of the old Indian cities like Jaipur, just much less crowded.
Crossing the river
Entering the citadel
The War Museum was up first but I seemed to have come in at the lunch hours. I decided to go ahead and come back for the museum if I felt like it. There were huge fighter jets and artillery guns on display that memorialized the civil war of Vietnam.
Passing the War Museum
I went to the Imperial Museum next but it required a ticket which was the same as the one for the Imperial Palace. I walked along the southern wall of the palace complex and came upon the ticket counter, only to decide against buying the ticket. It cost a dear 150 kVND and I was not sure I wanted to see another palace. I assumed palaces are all similar inside; bedrooms and meeting rooms and halls for entertainment. I would have been interested in the Imperial Museum but there was no separate ticket for it. So I decided to forget all about the palace and the museums and enjoy the walk in the citadel. There was a big flag right opposite to the grand entrance of the palace and the two entrances to the citadel right next to the flag were flanked by big cannon guns.
Big flag and big guns
I walked along the well shaded pathways on the outside of the palace moat. The moat was full of lotuses, flower that I had fallen in love with. I had not seen many lotuses in India and I had never seen ones as beautiful as I was seeing here. Incidentally, lotus is the national flower of Vietnam as well.
The other side of the street had a variety of shops; mostly clothes, bikes and daily needs. I did the southern and western walls and then took the by-lanes into the more residential parts of the citadel. There was a lotus plantation of sorts and impressive street art to be seen.
As I walked back to exit the citadel from the Eastern side, I ran into a wholesale market of electric appliances, fabric, motorbikes and what not! Outside the citadel was the more famous local market - Cho Dong Ba. They had everything one could ask for. The back lane even had specialty shops for eggs and bananas!
Most unexpected specialty shops
I walked back across the river over the Trường Tiền Bridge and went to the Church that marked the end of the walking tour. I decided to head back to my room, which was close by, to cool down and rest my tired legs.
I wanted to try some local food and I looked some places online and decided on a particular road to explore. I went to a more busy joint at the end of this road, Hanh Restaurant. This place was full of locals, which is always a good sign. It looked a little more expensive than my usual choices but I decided to sit myself down. The rice wraps were the snack of choice all around me but I was not in the mood of that one again. So I ordered a couple of new snacks from the menu. The waiter helped me choose them and offered to bring me half a plate of each. When the snacks came, he also explained how they were eaten. I liked the rice pudding one (Bánh nậm) but did not like the shrimp tapioca thing (Bánh bột lọc) all that much. I topped off the snacks with a glass of delicious fruit yoghurt (fruit lassi).
Next, I went to the parks and walking street along the river. This place had it’s share of people. Huế seemed to attract a lot of Vietnamese tourists as well. I was walking along the street taking pictures of the Trường Tiền Bridge when a young girl walked up to me and started talking. She was a student and wanted to practice her English. Could I spare a few minutes to help her out? Of course I could! We sat next to the river and she started asking me the usual questions that must have formed her repertoire for foreigners. Where was I from? How long had I been in Vietnam? Where all had I travelled? I asked her some questions as well. Her name was Gau and she was from Hội An. She was studying medicine in Huế. She told me, as I was to find out in a few days myself, that Hội An was famous for cheap and good quality clothes. She did not know what Huế was famous for. She was in the fifth year of her six year course. It took money or family connections to have a good career in Vietnam. She said she might just start a private practice after completing her education. Another friend of hers, An, joined us later. They knew that India had tropical climate like Vietnam’s. But did India have snow? I told them it did, high up in the mountains. They were quite fascinated by snow, having never had seen it. Vietnam did not have snow in any part of the country. Once we had exhausted the possible list of questions, I expressed my desire to continue walking and we said goodbye.
Trường Tiền lights up
I must have walked barely fifty steps when another girl came up to me with a similar request. I nodded in agreement. I could not think of a better way to spend my evening. I sat down with her and another male friend of hers and we started talking. Another guy with pretty good English joined us later. These were Loan, Hom and Lin, in that order. The starting questions were done and dusted soon enough. Hom was studying law and we talked about the economies of our countries, the taxes and other similar things. He said he thought I was friendly and smiled a lot. I think that is one of the most important things I have learnt on this trip. They were impressed by my pronunciation of Vietnamese words, which is not at all an easy task for foreigners. They wanted to know how I found the traffic in Vietnam, another thing that the foreigners usually struggle with. I shrugged my shoulders and told them that this was nothing compared to what we had in India. 😎 Lin wanted to know why the women in India wear a red spot (bindi) on their foreheads. Loan wanted to know why we use our right hands in particular to eat. Then we got around to the subject of patriarchy. Vietnam has made long strides towards equality of genders. The men and women share the work outside and inside households. Loan told me that she had come to know that Indian men came back from work and did nothing while the women worked, cleaned and cooked. Much to my shame, I told her that it was quite true. But things were changing slowly.
Stop being chauvinist pigs. Those of us who travel do not like to be put into embarrassing positions because of your stupidity. 😒
And what about religion? I told them that our predominant religions were Hinduism and Islam. Vietnam’s were Buddhism and Christianity, though there was an increasing number of non-religious people in Vietnam. In fact, Vietnam is one of the most non-religious countries in the world. Out here, they called these non-religious people “free”, which, as per me, was a very apt way to put it. These guys were free; I told them that so was I. 😇
I walked around some more after leaving the three. It had been an interesting day and I was starting to like the town a little despite the irritating cyclo and motorbike riders. I ate Cơm Bình Dân, the commoner’s rice, that night. It was simply rice with an assortment of vegetables and meat. Cheap and filling as I like it. I ended the meal with a mango smoothie before heading to the room for another night of peaceful sleep.
Typical Cơm Bình Dân stall
I changed to a new hostel after waking up. I went back to the Bún bò Huế place on the way and ate a bowl for breakfast. The new hostel seemed quite nice. It was outside the backpacker area and so there were less people around and I got my quiet. I rented out a bicycle for a nominal charge of 1 USD and took it for a ride. This was a city bike without gears and the roads turned out to be a bit challenging as soon as I left the city. I was planning to do a few royal tombs around town today.
I headed to the Tomb of Tự Đức, the one that was closest to the city. I rode on the main highway for some time before diving into the country roads. Google Map led me through quaint alleys before dropping me at the entrance of the tomb. It looked like a modest complex with a few shops that had set themselves up in front of the ticket counter. They invited me to avail free parking in their premises but I chose to pay the nominal 2 kVND parking for a cycle instead of risking a misunderstanding later on. The ticket to the tomb turned out to be a 100 kVND affair. I shook my head and bought the ticket.
The first building was the living quarters of Tự Đức and later became his temple. Tự Đức was the last emperor who enjoyed real power in Vietnam; he was followed by puppet kings installed by the French. This was his holiday palace, something of a retreat. The house was in the typical style of the old structures (temples and schools) I had seen in Hanoi. There was the courtyard and a backyard. The entire complex was pretty and big. It was interesting how the emperor had lived in utmost, though not overt, luxury.
Tự Đức's temple
There was a lake in front of the building and an islet in the middle of it. It used to be populated with exotic birds and animals; the emperor enjoyed boat rides and walks there. Now there were just withering lotuses in the lake and lots of workers working on some project to beautify the islet.
Lake and islet
The living quarters had a throne room where you could rent out “royal” clothes and sit on the throne or palanquin to take pictures. 👑 📷 😅
There was also a small sales counter for some impressive local art. Vietnam has the most beautiful quality of local artwork I have seen.
The next building was the tomb and it was very strikingly different in architecture from the living quarter. The living quarters heeded to the emperor’s requirements in life and the tomb represented his journey in death. There is the courtyard with waiting stone mandarins and royal rides (horses and elephants) made of stone. These were arranged in two neat rows on either side. The courtyard led to a huge stone tablet up ahead that was inscribed with some script. The tablet and it’s shelter were flanked by two obelisks, one on either side. Further ahead was a walled enclosure with a gate. This enclosure contained the actual tomb in it’s center and felt something like a fairly simple maze. It was grand and quite morbid, as is to be expected of tombs. There were very few people around so it made for good photographs as well.
Tự Đức's tomb
I met a guy from Cyprus (first Cypriot I have met) in the complex. He was on a vacation with his mother who he had managed to lose somehow. 😂 He was in his middle ages and had been to India and had loved it! I think this is undoubtedly the best part about being an Indian traveller. You meet a lot of people have been to India and more often than not, they remember it fondly. This makes them smile in reminiscence and treat you with a warm bias when they talk to you. It is funny how you get to know more about your country and culture when you leave it. I walked around the other parts of the complex after Tự Đức’s tomb. There were some lesser known tombs of the other royal family members up ahead; some under renovation, some left to their abject state.
I really liked this place, though the 100k still seemed too much. I walked around the extensive complex and ended up in the building next to the lake. I sat down to rest and enjoy the view. A tourist group came in after a while and the musicians, who had been resting, began to play. However, I was preparing to leave just then so I could appreciate the music very briefly. The instruments were interesting; strings, flutes and everyday things like cups and sticks!
I was planning to do some more tombs and I asked Google Maps for the route to the one closest to where I was. It took me through a pine plantation and village roads! I really prefer such small unused roads to the big highways.
I reached the Tomb of Thiệu Trị in a short while. It seemed like an off-route place with very few tourists and I was half expecting there to be no ticket for this one. But there turned out to be one, and it was a 40 kVND worth. 😣 Huế had really costly tickets. I had found the entry fee in Hanoi pretty reasonable for single monuments and structures but Huế was too expensive. This complex did not seem to be much cared for as well. It lay in ruins which was it’s primary difference from Tự Đức’s tomb. The actual tomb was much the same in layout, though much less grand and much more in shambles. But there were beautiful lotus lakes in front of and behind the tomb to make up for the lost architectural beauty.
A tomb in ruins
Similar to Tự Đức’s there was a living quarter/temple here as well but it was much too bare. I felt like I was walking through someone’s home while they were out on a vacation (not that I have ever done such a thing!). There courtyard and backyard here were probably prettier.
Thiệu Trị's temple
A cat came out of somewhere to eye me suspiciously walking about the complex. I fancied it to be the ghost of one of the owners keeping an eye on my movements. There was a jackfruit tree with fruits hanging ripe and ready for the picking. It felt way too private for a tourist attraction.
Spooky cat don't like me
I walked out of the complex and sat down on a bench to get my money’s worth. A dog waited for me to settle down before deciding to take a nap itself. I was not going for more tombs. I was financially done for the day. I left this complex around 5 PM and saw no one at the ticket counter. I might as well have come in at this time. 😐
I rode the bicycle back to the city, running into a small traffic jam right before entering it. I returned the bike at the hostel and took a bath before going back to Mandarin Cafe for some comfort food. Baked potatoes and chocolate shake. I sat in a cafe near the hostel and finished the Philosophy of Religion book that had finally got interesting towards the end. I also learnt the difference between a Ca Phe Sua Da and a Bac Xiu. I went back to the hostel to work a bit after asking if the cafe would be open for the match later in the night.
I returned to the cafe and sat watching the Austria vs Portugal match. A guy from Manchester, Daniel, joined me and we talked about football and travelling. He had travelled India extensively and used to be a bar manager back home. Interesting guy. He had taken up a job teaching English in HCMC and was travelling in Vietnam with a friend before joining the school next month. He told me about a football match that was going to take place in Da Nang the coming weekend and we exchanged contacts so that he could get in touch if the plan materialized. Him being a ManU fan, we discussed the Ronaldo-Messi rivalry. Daniel left after the first half and I sat doing the insta and watched the rest of the match because it was going in the funny freak football way that was to be typical of this Euro Cup.
I woke up early for the Chile vs Colombia match that was delayed because of a storm. Chile won and progressed to the Copa finals. I booked a ticket to Hội An from the hostel. It was some bus service that I had not heard about but I decided not to be paranoid and give it a shot. I had time so I worked a bit and went to a nearby cafe that was a tripadvisor success. The food was nice but a bit expensive, although I guess everything would be expensive when compared to the streetside places that I usually haunt.
When it was time, I went downstairs and a minivan came to pick me up. I was dropped at the main office of the bus service where the bus stood waiting. This was a “sleeper” bus; two levels of reclining seats arranged in three rows.
Sleeper tourist bus
That is how most of the tourist buses in Vietnam are. I felt a bit uncomfortable and stuck in those seats which were not my size. I was sleepy though and managed to drift off to sleep despite the cramped seats, cold AC and loud Vietnamese comedy show that was playing in the bus. I woke up a couple of times to see beautiful sceneries drift past my window.
Through the window
I really liked Da Nang from what I saw while we crossed it. I had also gotten great reviews of the place from a few people during my travels. I was seriously considering coming to the city for a few days after Hội An but my month in Vietnam was seeming too short now.
Whether you enjoyed the post or not, do leave a comment!
Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Huế leg of the trip.