VIETNAM: EXPLORING HISTORICAL HUE (ON A MOTORBIKE)
Travelling by motorbike is a great way to explore Vietnam, and a city to spend a day exploring on one is Hue. Easily explored in a day or two, this ancient city is rich in history, grand temples, as well as being home to the Nguyen dynasty that ruled old Vietnam. We opted to see all of Hue in a day and managed to see everything without feeling too rushed. For our motorbike tour, we found Dr Phu from Hue City tours as our guide, and we were glad we did.
At 8am, Dr Phu together with our second motorbike guide Dang, showed up bright and chappy at our accommodation, giving us a quick brief on what to expect for the day. It was raining pretty heavily but fortunately our guides had full rain coats prepared and insisted we wore these micro-lab-scientist looking thing to keep us nice and dry. He then took us through more authentic back channels and alleys of Hue to get the real feel of how the Vietnamese people lived.
TIGER FIGHTING ARENA
Next, we headed for the tiger fighting arena in Ho Quyen, where both tigers and elephants fought as entertainment to the people and offerings to the gods. This area is often overlooked, but is a well preserved and unique example of South-east Asian architecture. The arena was built during Emperor Minh Mang reign in the 1830’s, and used during the Nguyen Dynasty. There are two entrances to the stands, one for the king and royalty, the other for soldiers and civilians. Fights were never fair as the elephants were trained for battle and were a symbol of the king’s power. The tigers represented evil and were often starved and drugged before the fight.
Cinnamon incense-making is by no means an easy task. Our next stop was a street with rows of shops specializing in making incense. The skill involves delicately kneading cinnamon paste by applying the right amount of press to roll out the perfect incense stick. Dr Phu explained that out of 5-6 stalls in the area, this was his favorite as the locals didn’t pressure you to buy anything. We had a go at making a couple of sticks, but no amount of prayers could help us with making a good stick.
TU DUC’s TOMB
Only 10-15 minutes away was Tu Duc’s tomb, located in the narrow valley of Duong Xuan village. Tu Duc ruled from 1848-1883, and was the fourth emperor and held the longest reign as monarchy of the Nguyen Dynasty period. The tomb was completed in 1967 and took 3 years finish. Note that entrance to the ground is 80,000 Dong (US $4). Upon entering, you first approach Luu Khiem Lake, which circles towards both the tomb and temple areas. Some of the temples are well preserved, especially Pavilion of the wake of Tu Duc tomb. The surrounding areas were run down and look like they need maintenance. Tu Duc’s tomb area was undergoing some extensive renovations, but the walking around the surrounding grounds makes visiting a worthwhile experience as it gives you a feel of historic Hue.
OLD RELICS OF A WAR
The American intervention into the Vietnam War changed the landscape, as war waged for 14 years until the American withdrew. Fifty years later there are still signs around Vietnam reminding the locals of the destruction war can bring. We visited an old bunker that overlooked the river with the strategic importance of protecting Hue city during the war. There was an eerie feel to the area, and in the war landscape, our guide explained that all the surrounding trees were destroyed to stop the Vietnamese hiding from the American troops. Even as memories of death and destruction are slowly being forgotten, areas like these bring back how real the war was 50 years ago. The area now however, is ironically used for couple in Hue as a dating spot, as many come to enjoy the scenic view overlooking the perfume river during courtship.
TOMB OF KHAI DINH
Last visit before lunch was the tomb of Khai Dinh. The tomb was built for Nguyen emperor Khai Dinh. Construction started in 1920 and completed in 1931. The temple is a mix of European and Eastern influenced architecture, beautifully laid out on a steep hill overlooking the country side area. Entering the tomb area cost 80,000 dong ($4 US). The ground consists of soldiers and mandarin statues lined up, with a video showing the history of Hue imperial city upon reaching the tomb. The tomb itself is elaborately decorated, with an intricate interior fit for an emperor. Definitely one of the tombs we enjoyed in Hue.
AUTHENTIC VIETNAMESE BUN BO HUE
Besides the value that the first world countries get from coming to Asia, the food has to be one of the most intriguing aspects that everyone has to try. Bun Bo Hue is a soup-noodle dish that consists of beef broth infused with lemon grass, shrimp paste, with a touch of sugar and chili favored oil served hot with spring onions and other condiments. The literal meaning of Bun Bo Hue, is Bun (rice vermicelli) Bo (beef) and Hue which where it originates from. It differs from other Vietnamese noddle dishes in the north as the noodles used are thicker and the spicy broth leaves a mark on your taste buds. Dr Phu took us to his favorite noodle eatery, and was blown away by the taste and flavors. You can find Bun Bo hue commonly along street stalls around Hue. Each bowl cost approximately 35000 dong ($1.8 US dollars). This is a must not miss.
HUE IMPERIAL PALACE
Approaching the imperial Palace is not hard to miss with the palace grounds being 2kms by 2kms, with the high stone walls and a moat protecting the citadel. The outside was run down, and the gate to the Imperial Enclosure (Hoang Thanh) was undergoing some well needed restoration. Entry was 10500 dong (US $5.20). The palace grounds are massive and at one time there was a wall separating the public area of the citadel from the “Forbidden Purple City”, the emperor private residences. During the Tet offensive in 1968, Hue was overrun by Viet Cong forces, and was bombed extensively during the American offensive to drive them out. The Imperial City didn’t escape the bombing, and only 10 houses remain from the original 160 that stood. The grounds are impressive but little information is provided in English, so it’s best to have a proper tour guide to explain the significance of the Imperial Palace.
THIEN MU PAGODA
Sitting with a beautiful view overlooking the Perfume River, the Thien Mu Pagoda sits on a hill 4km from the south from the Citadel. Founded in 1601 by Governor Nugyen Hoang and built by Emperor Theiu in 1844, the Pagoda is 21 meters high, with 7 stories dedicated to the Manuhi- Buddha, who was said to have taken human form. The Pagoda was seen as a political hotspot during the 1960’s, when Buddhists were discriminated against by the catholic-favored Diem government. Behind the Pagoda inner courtyard lies a giant bell weighing over 2000kg. When rung, it can be heard as far as 13km away. Along with some Buddhist statues, it was a nice way to finish up a day tour in Hue.
Overall, Hue was a good stop midway between our train travels from Hanoi to Hoi An. A day in Hue would be difficult to get around without a motorbike as walking distances between most historical palaces and tombs were pretty far from one to another. We’d recommend a day in Hue if you have time during your trip to Vietnam, but no more than that. We couldn’t have spent a better day there if not for our wonderful guides, so be sure to pick a good guide if you decide to do it that way.