We arrived in Hue after a smooth if not luxurious overnight train journey. We had a ‘soft seat’ 4-berth cabin to ourselves which was dated but reasonably clean and comfortable and exciting for us all, especially the children. I won’t mention the state of the toilet facilities after a 13 hour journey! It took a while before we were out of the sprawling city limits of Hanoi passing through the now familiar landscape of rice paddy fields, many of which were flooded. We never grew tired of spotting water buffalo! Our home for the three nights in Hue was Jade Hotel, conveniently located in the centre.
Hue was the cultural stop in our Vietnamese tour. Home of the imperial city, royal tombs built for emperors and numerous pagodas we were spoilt for choice on which ones to visit. We chose to visit the citadel first which was built in the early 1800s within a 10km square perimeter wall and is surrounded by a 30m wide moat. Originally there were approximately 160 buildings within the walls, but much of it was destroyed during the American War and only around 10 buildings are still standing. What’s left is still very impressive including temples, gardens, a theatre, the throne room and many imposing gates. You can see the Chinese influence in the architecture and judging by the colours that have survived (or been restored) we can only imagine how spectacular and grandiose it would have looked when it was built.
As we were walking back to our hotel we were approached by a couple on a scooter offering us a dragon boat tour to a tomb and pagoda which was something we had planned to do. We agreed a price and arranged to meet them the following day. We ended up having a private tour on their family boat. First things first we ordered lunch from a menu then our host hailed a paddle boat and ‘popped’ to a local riverside market to buy fresh supplies. We motored slowly down the Perfume river for around 45 minutes towards the tomb of Tu Duc. The tomb is too far to walk from the river’s edge but not to worry, they had arranged transport for us – riding pillion on the back of a scooter! I have to say this was a nail-biting journey for me. Even though the roads were quiet and we weren’t going fast, we were helmet-less and more worryingly, so were the children! The girls loved it though and when it stated to rain that just added to the fun! They stopped during the worst of the rain at a souvenir stall where a lady was making incense sticks. After Kaitlyn announced that it looked ‘easy’ to do she let her have a try…it wasn’t quite so easy!
The tomb itself is the largest in the area, built in the 1860s for Tu Duc, the longest reigning Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty and the last independent Emperor before French colonisation of the country. He was never actually buried there but did spent a lot of time, along with his harem of wives and concubines, residing in the complex, which includes palaces, temples, pavilions, a lake and extensive gardens. We enjoyed exploring the grounds and we had the place pretty much to ourselves. The actual burial place of Tu Duc and his horde of treasure remains a mystery as the 200 servants who buried them in a secret location were all beheaded to prevent any potential grave robbers! It is stories like that that help you understand why there were several rebellions against him which resulted in him signing away much of his country to the French.
Following a return pillion journey from the tomb, we motored back along the river towards the city to visit the much busier, Thien Mu Pagoda. On our return to the boat, our host had prepared a fabulous lunch for us consisting of chicken, pork ribs and shrimp (shell-on!) all cooked by herself on a little stove at the back of the boat. It looked and tasted delicious and we enjoyed it whilst heading back to the city. Our evening meal that night, at Hang Me Me, was slightly less gourmet despite the name – Royal Cakes – a Hue street food speciality of gelatinous rice and shrimp steamed in banana leaves. It wasn’t our favourite Vietnamese dish so far, but 3 out of 4 of us enjoyed it and maybe the use of cakes in the name had been a little misleading!
On our last day we got a car and driver to visit the Vinh Moc tunnels, a series of underground tunnels,dug by hand, 30 metres deep, into the limestone, where villagers escaped the continual US bombing. On the way there we crossed the Hien Luong bridge over the river that once divided the north and south of the country. It is a reconstruction of the original bridge which was also painted yellow on the south side and blue on the north side. At the entrance to the tunnels, we visited a museum that explained how the tunnels were constructed and how life continued underground. We timed our visit well as there was no one else there and a guide adopted us – a deaf and dumb man who had actually been born in the tunnels. It was a really special experience for us to be led through the winding passageways by one of only seventeen children born there. There were rooms for each family, wells, kitchens, a meeting area and hospital area. As you can imagine, the tunnels themselves were dark and claustrophobic, life would not have been easy but they fulfilled their purpose – there were no fatalities amongst the villagers who lived there.
The following day, we departed Hue and headed to Hoi An via the impressive Hai Van pass. Fans of Top Gear might remember it from one episode where Clarkson, May and Hammond try to avoid lorries and buses as they negotiate the narrow, winding, mountainside pass on scooters. There is now a tunnel through the mountain which diverts much of the larger traffic from the now widened road. The weather was not great so we didn’t get to marvel at the view as Clarkson and co. had done but we enjoyed the journey. Our next stop was Hoi An which is one of James’s favourite places of all time…
Click here to see more of our Hue photos.