Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hue, Vietnam (2008)

We'd wanted to visit somewhere in Central Vietnam, and for awhile I debated between the imperial tombs of Hue and the "charming" city of Hoi An. In the end I decided that Hue sounded less touristy, so from Saigon we took a 7am flight there. We got up at 5am that morning, and when we got downstairs we found the receptionist and the shuttle driver asleep on cots in the lobby. After waking them up, we checked out and went on our way. Amusingly, we'd planned to use the ATM in the lobby, but at 5:30am apparently even that was not turned on yet.

Upon arrival in Hue, we realized I'd given the wrong flight information to the hotel car. Luckily the Orchid Hotel had a reception desk in the airport (!!) and they set us up with a taxi. We arrived a bit before 9am but our room wasn't ready yet, so the receptionist invited us to have free tea/coffee, juice, and watermelon while we waited. We also used the free internet stations in the lobby and set up a boat tour for the next day ($5 per person including lunch). Actually, everything was amazingly cheap in Hue; the hotel car only cost $9 and the room $32/night, including buffet breakfast for both of us.

When we got to our room we discovered lots of nice touches; a DVD player with DVDs available for loan at front desk, free tea/coffee, a scale, modern decor (including a stained glass bathroom window), high quality towels, and a very comfy bed.

It was nearly 11am when we headed out to grab some real breakfast. We wandered around for awhile before stumbling across a local place where the owners barely spoke English. We were most definitely the only tourists there. We ended up pointing at some pork chops, which cost less than $2, with rice. We'd planned to visit Hue's famous citadel afterwards, but found ourselves caught in a torrential downpour. In the three blocks between the restaurant and our hotel, we got completely soaked, giving us little choice but to go back to our room to change and wait out the weather.

It took about an hour for things to clear up to a reasonable degree, so we set out again a little after noon, walking across the Trang Tien bridge towards the Citadel. Shortly before crossing the bridge, we had our first encounter with Hue's unreasonably aggressive cyclo drivers. It took quite a lot of effort to get rid of the first one; we finally stopped into a souvenir shop for several minutes, at which point he gave up. We encountered another after entering the Citadel gates, but managed to ditch him by quickly reversing directions a couple of times (he couldn't keep up). We finally found the front gate to the Imperial Enclosure, noted the nearby 9 cannons and flag pole, and then walked through the Noon Gate, with its raised pavilion, to the gardens inside. We spent several pleasant hours there, exploring a variety of gorgeous temples, palaces, and other structures, including the ruined Forbidden City.

We finally left to find some food, and decided that since we hadn't eaten much all day and it was nearly 4pm, we'd splurge on a set course meal at Y Thao Garden, past the far wall of the Citadel. We arrived very hungry, hoping they would serve us despite the very odd hour. Y Thao turned out to be a spacious traditional Vietnamese home, surrounded by a lovely garden.

The setting was amazing, but it was a little odd to walk into what looked like someone's home and then wander around asking if they were open. Luckily they were, and since we were the only customers, we were given a prime table on a little patio overlooking a fish pond. Later on we discovered that the pond was also inhabited by several frogs.

The menu was $20 per person (very expensive by Vietnamese standards) and included: spring rolls arranged on a pineaple in the shape of a peacock, vegetable and chicken soup, Hue-style Vietnamese pancake, a very interesting dish of shredded pork with sesame, peanuts, and basil, served on large shrimp chips, lemongrass grilled beef, lotus rice, and fresh shrimp served with sea salt and pepper.

For dessert we had oranges and green bean cakes molded beautifully in the shape of fruits. The entire meal was amazing, and I took photos of every course. Even the drinks (mango and lemon juices) were delicious.

Afterwards we walked back around the Imperial Enclosure to the Dong Ba market, but were somewhat disappointed; it was mostly clothes and trinkets, and many stalls were already closing just after 6:30pm. We left the market, but on the way home, D managed to buy two more silk embroidered pictures for less than $4 apiece, which made him quite happy.

The next day we were up early again. The hotel's free breakfast was amazing: fried rice, fried noodles, bacon, crepes (plain and with bananas), several kinds of spring rolls, many kinds of fruit, several kinds of cake, made-to-order omelets, and more. (We really liked the Orchid Hotel!)

Our tour started at 8am; at that time several motorbikes arrived at the meeting location, and each of us climbed on behind a driver. We were taken down to the river where we boarded a small boat with six others; a Korean-AUstralian couple, a French couple, and two brothers from Holland. There, we met our guide Ngu, who was very nice and spoke pretty good English. She was also well under five feet tall and looked about twelve years old, but when she spoke it was clear she was much older.

The boat first took us to the Thien Mu Pagoda, and then to the Tombs of Tu Doc, Minh Mang, and Khai Dinh, as well as a smaller temple near the Minh Mang tomb. My favorites were Thien Mu, which had an amazing view, and the interior of Khai Dinh.

We paid the admission fees ourselves; they were usually 55K dong ($7) for foreigners and 30k dong ($4) for Vietnamese. At least once the ticket seller asked if we were Vietnamese, and seemed ready to give us the lower price. It's unfortunate that neither of us speak a word!

We often used motorbikes to get from the river to the sites, and there was one amusing incident when D's motorbike ran out of gas. Luckily, another person from our tour (the Korean guy) was nearby, and the driver for his motorbike motioned to D to climb on. I arrived first and was very amused when the last motorbike arrived several minutes late with three guys onboard, especially as both D and the Korean guy were quite tall and the seat was not very large.

Along the way we were fed a lunch of rice, fried noodles, and some kind of pancake-looking veggie omelet. One thing that I really disliked about the tour was that people were constantly trying to sell us things. First, the older woman (not our guide) on the boat tried to sell us drinks, and then paintings/cards, and then a "deluxe lunch" (for $8!). Then, the motorbike drivers at Tu Doc tried to get us to buy them drinks, and all along the way people were trying to sell us water, pineapple, postcards, and various other souvenirs. It was all very offputting.

On the bright side, the tombs were gorgeous, the boat ride was pleasant, Ngu was a good guide, and I took a billion pictures. On the other hand, we were starving after the light lunch and the active afternoon, having wandered all over the sites and climbed up 127 steps at Khai Dinh. So, after giving Ngu a "generous" $3 tip (she was surprised and very grateful), we headed to second lunch at 4pm. We ate at the Mandarin Cafe, where the owner is also a photographer, and his photos decorate the walls of the cafe. They were quite good, and the food was cheap and delicious; we paid maybe $3 per entree.

Afterwards, we walked back towards our hotel, stopping to by some sesame candy along the way. By the end of our second day, I seemed to have mastered the art of fending off cyclo drivers; apparently the trick is not to speak at all, but to just smile and wave them off. I guess it's the only way to possibly pass for Vietnamese.

We got back the hotel early and spent the evening catching up on photos and email with the free internet. Around 7-8pm, we heard a soft knock, and were pleasantly surprised when we opened the door and found a hotel staffer with a complimentary bunch of bananas. As you can probably tell, the hotel left a really good impression on us.

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