Vietnam: Hue

Those who say the journey matters more than the destination have probably been to Hue. We were in a big, unwieldy van, tottering on the edge of a cliff on a narrow road studded with small shrines for victims of road accidents, as it powers it way upwards the side of Hai Van Pass like a buffalo.

The vistas unravel on each bend – first, the photogenic Bay of Danang with its smattering of fishing boats and, as we go higher and higher, the twinkling turquoise sea, vast and unfathomable.

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Watch out, because it’s a looong way down.

Top Gear‘s Jeremy Clarkson calls this gnarly 21-km road “a deserted ribbon of perfection—one of the best coast roads in the world.” Come on a Vietnamese holiday, and you’ll realize that this couldn’t be further from the truth. The whole of Vietnam was on vacation, and a calvacade of cars driven by local sightseers with suicidal tendencies came racing down towards us from the opposite direction, blaring their horns as they go.

At the summit stands the Hai Van Gate, an old, rambling French fort. There was nothing much to see but, keen to stretch our legs, we jumped out of our van and was greeted by souvenir peddlers and swirling fog. It was then that I realize my life would not be complete without a Vietnamese conical hat. So we bought that. And we also bought a bamboo cap for Mika because one purchase always leads to another.

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Hey, anything to boost the local economy 😉

After spending money on a bunch of stuff that we wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in Singapore, we began our descent into Hue, just in time for the most important event of the day: lunch.

It is said that of the 2,700 Vietnamese dishes, 1,700, or nearly two-thirds of it, hail from Hue, the country’s royal capital from 1802 to 1945. Being a chef here was tough work here: you had to churn out a rotating mix of 52-courses for the emperors at every meal. Many of these dishes are unique to the city – meaning you’ll never find anything like it in other parts of Vietnam – available everywhere from upscale restaurants that charge up to USD100 per ignorant tourist for royal banquets…

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Where they serve Instagrammable spring rolls.

…to small family-run eateries / coffeeshops that serve these specialties to three generations of Chens at a fraction of the cost.

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No frills but no BS either.

I love Madam Thu Restaurant, an air-conditioned eatery in the middle of a tourist ghetto, for its friendly service and wallet-friendly set meals. 52-courses seem a little #craycray until you realize that most of these dishes are delicate and petite, like banh beo, steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp and crackling pork skin served in small saucers as well as banh loc goi, a chewy tapioca-based snack stuffed with shrimp and pork and wrapped in banana leaf.

Apparently, the chewier the banh loc goi was, the better and, while the kids wolfed the dishes down in no time, I felt like I was munching on an eraser. My jaw ached and a tooth almost dislodged from my gums. Thank God the fish sauce made the pain bearable. (Heck, I could dunk my worn-out sneakers in fish sauce and it’d taste fabulous.)

Anyway, it would be a sin to miss out on nem lui, or spiced pork on lemongrass skewers that’s served with paper-thin rice pancakes and salad. That shit is MAJESTIC. It’s a full-on assault on your taste buds and, apparently, Hanh Restaurant makes the best one in town.

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Get in my tummy!

We did a walking tour of The Imperial City to burn off the thousand so calories we must’ve accumulated in just one seating. Built in 1803 by Emperor Gia Long, the founder of the Nguyen Dynasty, this walled palace that’s modeled after China’s Forbidden City served as an administrative capital for 140 years.

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While the imperial city is not as old or grand as its Chinese counterpart – a majority of the buildings were obliterated during the Vietnamese war – it’s A LOT bigger. When I mean bigger, I mean YUUGE. Like, dump those heels and walk-till-you-get-blisters kinda yuge.

So we dutifully followed our guide in order not to get hopelessly lost, as he regaled us with stories of childless monarchs with 400 wives and other similarly batshit crazy tales. I was struck by how peaceful and low-key pretty it was. It was so nice to walk around in the wide tree-lined avenues that connected one site to another, without bumping into overzealous tourists who are more interested in the next best Instagram shot.

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As you probably know, any self-respecting Asian town will have a market and Hue’s Dong Ba Market is the biggest, most claustrophobia-inducing of its kind in Central Vietnam, selling everything from shoes to edibles to carpets to spare parts for bicycles. Rats the size of  terriers scurried around our feet – playing hide-and-seek and growing fat on Vietnamese grub – in the food section.

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I mean, who cares about the place being a fire and typhoid hazard when you can get brilliant deals here?

We also checked out two of the seven royal tombs found dotted across Hue. The Tomb of Tu Duc is built as a series of graceful pavilions scattered around a serene lake. Emperor Tu Duc, the longest-reigning monarch, is one of the most educated of all Vietnamese emperors, and his tomb invite peaceful reflection. Unfortunately, the only thing you’ll contemplate on in the 37 degree weather is how you’re about to melt faster than Frosty the Snowman and why your children won’t stop their incessant high-pitched whining.

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Can I please stand in the shade forever?

And then you enter the main tomb and see it (drumroll please) covered from top to bottom in scaffolding! #FTW

Anyway, I hear none of the tombs come close to the Tomb of Khai Dinh. Khai Dinh had money, but surprisingly, he also had taste and flair. This dude was a keen architect-slash-megalomaniac who spent his entire life doing nothing except designing an elaborate afterlife crib for himself that would blow the socks of others. The tomb is carved at the side of a mountain, and you need to climb a series of steep stone stairs to reach it.

What a sadist.

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A sadist with an eye for design, that is.

In the inner sanctum, broken glass and porcelain are pieced together to form a striking mural of nine dragons. Scales gleaming and expressions fierce, these beasts are frozen mid-flight for time immemorial, guarding the body of their imagineer.

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Khai Dinh.

We were always glad to return to the hotel after a particularly industrious day of sightseeing.

Our honeymoon bungalow at Pilgrimage Village Hue was lovely though a little bit pointless. It’s set in a small woodland and about the size of a mini Imperial City, with its own outdoor shower, plunge pool, and a super king bed set upon an elevated platform – which all would’ve been fun if we didn’t have two kids with us.

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We slept to a melody of chirping crickets but was jolted awake by a shrill sound that reverberated throughout the room. I thought I must be hungry, but later learned that this was not my tummy, but rather, cicadas.

On a regular evening, the city itself – with its lack of traffic and laidback vibe – is a great place to unwind.

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I had envisioned the Perfume River to be a romantic spot enveloped in a mist bearing traces of Chanel No 5, but it smelled more like street food and brine. Set by the banks of the river, the atmospheric night market is a great place for a stroll once the sun sets.

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Then wrap your evening up with dinner and an aperitif at the French-owned Le Jardin de Carambole, one of the best high-end restaurants in town. It’s touristy, sure, but it’s also one of the few places in Vietnam where you can dig into some kickass banana blossom salad and a hunk of decent steak, without blowing a hole in your wallet.

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Take me back!

That night was no ordinary night however. It was the first day of the biennial Hue Festival and the city was awash in festive colors and buzzing with different events, from royal dinners to small street side funfairs to stage performances by local and international acts.

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I was looking forward to the event for months but was a little miffed when we were turned away at the gates by some scowling guards, who thought we were a bunch of villagers trying to sneak in. I have consistently checked the tourism websites for information relating to the festival prior to my trip, but haven’t come across a single mention about buying tickets.

So there we stood, on a field with a million other Vietnamese tourists / rejects, watching local artistes belt out arias in a strange, halting language on a huge projector. We left after 3 minutes. It looked like we aren’t missing out on much after all.

As I was adamant on catching something cultural, we eventually got tickets for a show entitled Hue’s Royal Essence inside the citadel.

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Part propaganda, part family-friendly entertainment, the show tells how Hue has evolved from a tiny backwater town to the epicenter of tourism over the years, thanks to religion and royals. It featured mostly halfhearted acting and dancing by hundreds of stage actors and, more impressively, a booming voice over the loudspeaker and plenty of fireworks. This was more interesting – though not a lot – than the first show.

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Still, what a magnificent thing the citadel was at night.

The festival was also in full swing at the Hue countryside, transforming the sleepy farming village of Huong Thuy into a bustling avenue. We went there early the next morning – navigating a small potholed dirt path bounded by emerald paddy fields – and it did not disappoint. There were plenty of fun, games and – of course, this being Asia – food to be had in this carnivalesque atmosphere.

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This is where I had my first taste of banh trang nuong, or the very addictive Japanese pizza, made with rice paper and minced pork and pork floss grilled atop a charcoal brazier. It was so good it made me wonder if the Vietnamese restaurants are all in on this secret and collectively flipping us the bird by only serving us springrolls and pho. Like, fuck you ignorant foreigners, they seemed to be saying. Now here’s a lifetime of mediocre food for you to chew on.

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We took a spin around the market, where the produce is so fresh the fishes were still writhing in containers, caught a dragon boat race on the river that bisected the village, and walked the evocatively pretty Thanh Toan Bridge, an old Japanese covered bridge that isn’t used to the weight of so many visitors and is therefore creaking in protest.

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The guards were not happy.

I also stuck my head into a circle of men crouched low, hoping to catch a dwarf stripper in action, and was surprised to witness something equally illegal: cock fights. Some of these roosters were bleeding, but the winning ones get more glory, attention and food than a soaking wet Channing Tatum mounting a pole.

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Punters surround the winning chicken.

We saved the last night for a street food tour.

By xe om.

With kids.

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Too late to say no.

I realized this was potentially a bad idea, especially in Vietnam where traffic is chaotic, but as we weaved in and out of traffic on festival day – with all of us riding pillion and clinging for life onto our guides (I must’ve injured the poor girl with my death grip) and our kids wedged between us – I began to relax. Unlike cars, a bike does not insulate you from the world: your senses are heightened, and you feel connected to one and all. I even felt like a badass, like a character out of Hunter S. Thompson’s novels, that is, until I tried dismounting in my heels. Then I just looked like a duck.

We were taken to places I wouldn’t have otherwise set foot in – mom-and-pop eateries operating in small street alleys or by drains with tarp for roofs and plastic chairs and tables so low you’d think they cater to midgets. But there was nary a white face among the customers and that made my spirits soar a little.

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Che hue, or hue sweet soup, a multicolored, nefarious concoction of beans, corn, seeds and taro.

“Mommy, it’s dirty,” whined Mika, pointing out the obvious.

“It’s okay, honey, the food is clean,” I said, crossing my fingers behind my back.

It was difficult to look past the grime and litter, but once we did, everything was so delicious. We gorged on the various rice cakes, and noodles, and wraps, and barbecue. Oh my god. Could anything be more glorious and foodgasmic than Vietnamese BBQ?

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YASSS.

Sitting alfresco with a hundred other families, digging into succulent morsels of meat and okra grilled with lemongrass and cheese – oh my god the okra – I felt I had reached the pinnacle of my life and could die happy.

And just so you know, we didn’t have to spend the rest of our vacation on a porcelain throne.

STAY

Pilgrimage Village This resort is a good 10 minutes away from the city centre by car  (shuttle is provided but only runs hourly) but any inconvenience is offset by the lush surroundings, great service and massive pool. Tour groups usually populate the standard and deluxe rooms, so go for the bungalows and pool huts for more space and privacy. Decent, if repetitive, breakfast and lovely in-house restaurant. Independent travelers are usually rewarded with room upgrades. $$

TIPS

  • Hue is about three to four hours north of Danang, central Vietnam’s transportation hub and a working town peppered with seafood restaurants and tacky casinos. Give it a miss if you’re pressed for time.
  • Hue has so many different types of food that you may find it rewarding to squeeze in a food tour – usually by foot, bikes or cyclos – during your time there. The street-side eateries may not have amenities for children, but don’t be put off. The food is almost always clean and awesome.
  • Hue has a long and fascinating history as an imperial city. To see Hue’s most important sites, you need a minimum of two full days as the sites are spread out.  Get a guide to better appreciate your surroundings. Be prepared to walk.
  • New regulations require visitors to cover their shoulders in places of worship, including the tombs of emperors. There are no scarves on loan so be sure to bring your own.
  • The next Hue Festival happens in 2020. Book a room in advance and visit the Hue Festival website for a comprehensive program schedule. You can’t reserve tickets online but you can buy your tickets on the day itself and arrive early as it is usually free-seating.

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