Exploring Hue’s Imperial Enclosure
Hue (pronounced ‘Hwhey’) was Vietnams Imperial Capital during the Nguyen dynastic rule between 1802 and 1945. During the Vietnam War, Hue’s geographical location (close to the boarder between the North and South) lead to the town suffering greatly. Heavy bombing meant many of the historic buildings in the area were destroyed.
Today, the main attraction is the Imperial City. Built early in the Nguyen rule, it was built only for the emperors, concubines and the close acquaintances of the emperors. The Imperial City remains quite central, with the city of Hue expanding around the intimidating walls. We enjoyed two days in Hue, exploring the Imperial City and watching the locals getting ready for Lunar New Year. Unfortunately, the weather was against us, putting a dampener on our efforts to explore the outskirts of town.
We stayed our two nights at Binh Duong 2 Hotel. Yet again, we arrived in Hue without any accommodation organised. Two friendly Vietnamese men met our bus as it arrived in Hue, both of whom spoke perfect English. After ensuring they could help us catch our connecting bus to Hanoi (which I was quite anxious about as it was so close to Lunar New Year), they also offered us a room in the hotel they worked at. A bit dubious, we followed them just down the road to the lovely Binh Duong 2, a quiet, newly renovated hotel that suited us perfectly. I was also extremely grateful they were able to help us with our connecting bus ticket to Hanoi.
The cool weather only fuelled our desire and appreciation for noodle soup. The Bun Bo Hue is a speciality found almost only in Hue, a beef rice noodle soup with the addition of lemongrass, which really builds the flavour of the soup.
With the average weather, we relished in the opportunity to enjoy a quiet afternoon in the Light Room Kafe. Not only was the coffee incredible, the modern layout and atmosphere made it a great place to relax for a rainy afternoon. We also found another café (with a very Vietnamese name) with one of the best coffees I have tasted. Delicious chocolate undertones complemented the usual strong Vietnamese coffee flavour. Most excitingly, it was served in a small ceramic cup perched over a candle, which kept the coffee hot.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
With a 10-page spread in the Lonely Planet, we were expecting big things from the Imperial City in Hue. With such a prominent and important role in Vietnamese history, there is no doubt if the walls could talk they would speak volumes. Building began in 1804 after Emperor Gia Long consulted with geomancers who concluded Hue was the most divine place for the new citadel. Now listed as an UNESCO world heritage site, restoration and maintenance of the Imperial Citadel ensures the history and architecture will be preserved.
After four months of travel in Southeast Asia, we have visited countless temples and ruins. Add a bit of rain and high expectations; we were quite disappointed by the Imperial Citadel. After entering the Ngo Mon Gateway, we headed straight for the Thai Hoa Palace. Both incredible examples of dynastic architecture, they lead the way to the Halls of the Mandarins. We wandered through the centre of the Citadel slightly aimlessly, confused by the expansive overgrown empty spaces. With extensive fighting in Hue during the Vietnam War parts of the Imperial Citadel were ruined and I can only assume this area was previously littered with buildings. We headed around the outer portion, stopping to explore the Dien Tho Residence and the To Mieu Temple Complex. While the architecture is impressive, we found it difficult to appreciate the significance of the Citadel. Perhaps a guided tour would have provided us with information that would have given us a greater understanding of each of the remaining buildings.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
We have found the people in Hue really lovely and helpful. From the minute we got off the bus the locals have been really genuine and happy to help. So close to Lunar New Year it has been great having the opportunity to see everyone getting ready for the festivities. The first day, the town was absolutely manic with people rushing everywhere. The second day, everything was in the process of closing down. Restaurants that would usually be open into the evening shut at lunchtime, manically cleaning before a few days off. It has been really interesting observing the lead up. It will be great to experience the Lunar New Year festivities.
WHAT WE LEARNT
I was surprised by the miserable weather here. Some would joke its typical Auckland weather. Cold, grey and annoying drizzly rain. Just enough to lower your spirits, especially when the drizzle has soaked through your shoes. It makes me grateful we have only had a couple of days of rain since we have been travelling.
We have resigned ourselves to our overspending and have decided our main objective is to enjoy our time here. While we are careful with accommodation, food and transport, it is the various activities we are doing that have lead to us spending a lot more than I had budgeted for.
As I write this we are sitting in the Light Room Kafe in Hue waiting to board the 14hour overnight bus to Hanoi. I have no doubt it will take us a day to recover and get our bearings of the big city. From there, all we have planned is a flight leaving Hanoi on the 22nd of February. With Lunar New Year approaching we are unsure what we will be able to do so we will just see how we get along. The three remaining places we want to visit are Halong Bay, Sapa and Tam Coc. If we can manage to get to those three places all before our flight I think we will have successfully seen the majority of Vietnam!