We arrived in Hue and checked into our hotel, Binh Duong 1. We had been offered a basic double room for $8 but decided to splash out and go for the $12 room that contained a computer with internet access as I was getting very far behind on this blog. The room was on the top floor of the hotel, was very clean, well equipped and had a great view. We left the other six of our group downstairs to decide where to stay, giving them our room number so they could get in touch. About an hour later we had a call on the room phone from three of the guys who had decided to hire bikes for an hour for a quick ride around the citadel. We decided to join them and paid for a half days bike rental though this only came to 15p! Our hotel and pretty much all hotels and restaurants are located on the south side of the river in new or European city and the main city itself is across the river. The entire old city on the north side is enclosed by a 20m thick wall that run around the city in a square with each side of the square being 2.5km long. We cycled across the bridge and through one of the gates into the old city. Inside the old city is 2 further walled areas. The first that you reach is the imperial citadel which would have been used by the mandarians, civil and military noblemen as well as everyone who served the emporer. Inside the imperial citadel is a further enclosure called the forbidden purple city. This area would have been used solely by the emporer, his wives and concubines. In fact the only men allowed inside the forbidden purple city who weren’t related to the emporer were eunuchs.
Anyway we cycled into the city (through the first wall) and up to the imperial citadel. It was pretty late and the imperial citadel was closed so we cycled around it inside the moat to see what there was in the city. on each wall of the imperial citadel is an impressive gate all of which seem to be in different styles. By the time we returned to the front of the imperial citadel it starting to get quite dark and even though there were streetlights we didn’t have lights on the bikes so we cycled back to our hotel not having seen a lot but having had a very enjoyable bike ride.
Our entire group of eight planned to go to dinner together but knowing that I’d be a little harder to cater for Alex and I opted to head off and have dinner by ourselves. We found an interesting Indian restaurant that served a cheap and good vegetarian thali (a set menu that all arrives on a traditional metal plate divided into sections for each dish). After dinner we headed back to a bar near our hotel where we agreed to meet the others and sat down for a few drink. It took a while but eventually Luke came over to tell us that they had finished eating and were heading to the DMZ bar for drinks. All eight of headed over together and found a large table outside the front of the bar. The others ordered a bottle of the local rum and a small bottle of the local vodka and mixers to accompany it. A couple of drinks later and we were all sharing stories of travels, lives and plans for the trip and the future. I think both Alex adn I spoke to everyone at some point and they were all really interesting people we were all within a few years of age. Three of the people were tavelling together and were on a one year around the world tour the others were all solo travellors with unique stories to tell. Luke had been counselling in Cambodian prisons for a Christian charity, Nick had spent time in the middle east and was starting work as a solicitor when he returned to England. Gabriel was spanish and had worked in many places including five visits to Cuba. The three travelling together, siblings Mark and Lucy and Lucy’s University friend Helen hadn’t travelled as much before but had already been on a couple of months of their one year trip, had been to many countries and had some fascinating stories to tell, especially about India. The alcohol kept flowing and at 3am Alex and I along with Mark and Gabriel decided to head back to the hotel. It was very randon and really good night to finish off our day at the DMZ but the biggest night out I’ve had in Vietnam and I’m not planning to top it!
The next day Alex and I, understandably got up pretty late feeling pretty rough and headed out for some breakfast. We went to Cafe on Thu wheels run by a small Vietnamese woman with a very big personality. It is the kind of place that travellors flock to being friendly and very cheap. All of the walls are covered with messages of recommendation written by previous visitors to the cafe. We ate some food and headed back to our hotel to hire some bikes. Unfortunately our hotel was out of bikes but a place up the road hired us some for an extortionate 30p! Alex and I cycled back to the citadel and bought tickets for the imperial citadel, leaving our bikes with a security guard by the entrance for a small fee. We entered the citadel and started to explore. The citadel had originally contained over 100 palaces but wars against the French and the Americans as well as some bad neglect in the last century meant that only 20 now remain. The remaining palaces are now being restored and where some of the palaces were completely destroyed by bombs they are starting to rebuild a couple to give an impression of how the city would have looked. The main palace where the emporer lived has been fully restored and is very impressive. Inside is a wealth of gold and red with hude wooden columns holding the whole thing up. You can see some pictures in the Hue gallery. The palaces that still stand are very impressive and even walking around the ruins you can see partial walls and plenty of stone stands where hundreds of woodden pillars would have stood. The most inner area, the forbidden purple city was unfortunately a bit of a let down as it has been almost completely leveled by bombing during the American war. We strolled around the citadel for a few hours taking in most of what it had to offer. We suddenly realised that it was approaching closing time so we headed for the front gate stopping in the large pagoda/gatehouse to get a city of the city. We started looking out over the city and realised that our bikes had gone and the refreshments seller where we parked them with the guard was just closing up. We rushed out of the citadel with Alex running over to the refreshments stand and me looking for an official to find out where they’d gone, after all we had parked the bikes where told by the official ticket seller. I realised almost immediately that since our bikes were now the last in the bike park the guard had moved them over to the entrance and was waiting for us to pick them up. Alex soon came back to the front and we collected our bikes, paid the 10p each parking fee and started to cycle back to the hotel. We got back to our hotel a few minutes later, returned the bikes and headed back to our room for a break. A short while later we got a call from Mark inviting us out for some food at Cafe on Thu wheels. We obliged and headed down for a bite to eat. It turned out that the other three had been really hungover (Lucy and Helen had stayed out a little later than us) so hadn’t managed to do much. Thu, the owner of cafe on Thu wheels was really friendly and told us about a motorbike tour of the surrounding country and its sights that she offered, putting no pressure on us to book with her. We had read some stunning reviews of the tour and it seemed the only way to see the surrounding sights properly as many of the roads are not wide enough for a car. The tour was only GBP3 for the entire morning so we all (five of us now, the other three guys had left first thing that morning) decided to book for the next morning starting at 8:30am. We had a couple of beers and got a much needed early night.
I awoke the next morning feeling a little apprehensive. I have tried to avoid motorbikes where possible this holiday (hard in a country with very few cars) and although I knew this tour had excellent reviews and there was no other good way to see the sights I was still a bit worried about doing an entire morning where the transport was on the back of a motorbike. I took some solace from the fact that I’d be riding on the back of a bike driven by an experienced rider and we got up and headed down to breakfast. We met the other three in cafe on thu wheels and waited for the pickup. There were quite a few other people also waiting for the tour but one group left before us and we were pleased to see that everyone was given helmets. Admittedly the helmets looked more like builder’s hard hats but surely this was better than nothing. We climbed on a bike each behind our drivers for the day and headed out the town. I was pleased to see that even on newly paved straight roads the drivers were not exceeding the speed limit of 40kph and on the narrow winding roads you could have kept up on a bicycle.
Our first stop on the tour was a decorated covered bridge built in 1776 which had withstood successive floods that had almost completely covered it! I have put a picture up in the Hue gallery. The second stop and the most impressive was a buddhist pagoda where 65 monks lived. Our guide had rearranged the itinery so that we got there for 10am prayers and after we looked around we were told to sit down around the temple and minutes later 3 monks came in and chanted and sang their morning prayers for 30 minutes while we looked on. This seemed a little intrusive but the monks didn’t seem to mind and we were encouraged to take photos. I took a video which I will try to add to the end of this post when I find a computer I can upload it from.
Our next stop was bunker hill where we saw four french bunkers. The guide also pointed over into the distance to the hill known as hamburger hill and mentioned in Apocalyse Now. Apparently the hill is still heavily mined and is guarded by the military while the demining operation commences. We hopped back on the bikes for a two minute ride to the tomb of Tu Duc an emporer ruling in the 19th century. The tomb area consisted of a landscaped park and pagoda complex that Tu Duc had built and used for 15 years before his death. He was a very short guy and all of the statues of manadarins around the place were made shorter than him (see the photo of Alex standing next to one!). Tu Duc seemed pretty keen to leave an impression that he was modest and added the vietnamese word for modest to the name of every building in his massive tomb complex. He also wrote a massive stone self critical autobiography which sits under a stone tower. Despite this upon his death he was buried in a secret location along with his great riches and, to prevent anyone finding him, all 200 servants that carried out the burial were beheaded!
Our final stop was another Pagoda, this one is famous because in 1963 in protest of the government’s oppression of Buddhists one of the elder monks drove down to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in and old Austin car, sat down on the pavement in the middle of Saigon doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. A picture was taken of him on fire in front of his car which appeared in newspapers around the world and this prompted six other monks in Vietnam as well as people all over the world to do the same. The car that he drove to Saigon is on display at the pagoda. Apparently the monk was entirely burnt except his heart which wasn’t touched. The heart is apparently now on display in a museum in Saigon! The pagoda was one of the best we’ve seen though most of it was closed as it is currently undergoing restoration.
After the last pagoda we headed back to the Cafe on Thu wheels where we had a light lunch with Mark, Helen and Lucy who were scheduled to take the bus to Nha Trang shortly afterwards. Alex and I booked the bus to Hoi An and went back to the hotel for a much needed rest. We left the hotel again to head out for some food at a vegetarian, mock meat restaurant which we heard had dishes on the menu including mock “deer” and “tuna” when we arrived and saw the menu we found they also sold mock “kidney”, “small intestine” and pigs ear. Not fancying anything that was too much like meat (I don’t like meat in the first place or anything that is too much like the real thing) I opted for the beef and vegetables and Alex had the Deer with lemongrass and pepper. The restaurant was pretty shabby and empty but the food was cheap and excellent. We had just finished eating when I saw what looked like a cat running across the room behind Alex. It wasn’t a cat it was a giant rat! Alex then saw another rat running across the kitchen floor I saw a cockroach running across the floor and we noticed numerous lizards. It appearred that we were in a restaurant that the local wildlife regarded as a safe haven! After food we headed to ‘Why Not?’ bar for a drink and on to ‘B4’ bar, a Belgian bar full of expats, so much so in fact that when we arrived we were greeted in flemish until they realised that we were English. We were pretty shattered by now so we headed back for an early night and some much needed sleep. The next day we slept in and ordered late, cheap and tasty breakfast in bed from the hotel which made a nice change. We checked out of the hotel had a quick walk and got on our four hour bus ride to our next stop, Hoi An!