More Vietnamese Train Journeys
We’d seen a little of Vietnamese mountain life in Sapa. Now all that stood between us, and our first real glimpse of the historic temples and tombs of Hue, was a twenty four hour journey consisting of two trains and a bus back down the mountain to Lao Cai station.
We’d managed to secure sleeper cars for both legs of this train journey, from Lao Cai to Hanoi and then Hanoi to Hue, so we were hopeful that the trip would be far less eventful and more sleepy than the train journey to Sapa.
For the first leg we shared our carriage on the Fanxipan express (one of the private carriers who attach carriages to the Vietnamese engines along this route) with a Vietnamese couple and their small child.
The family made for excellent travel companions. Within an hour or so from departure, we were all tucked up in our bunks and remained that way until an hour before we pulled into Hanoi at 5am the following morning.
We were running an hour late, but our train to Hue did not depart until 6.30am. So we had chance to have breakfast at the station, washed down with some delicious Vietnamese coffee.
Our Vietnamese railway soft sleeper car appeared comfortable when we arrived at our designated berths. There was another Vietnamese family already settling in, two kids and two adults with quite a bit of luggage (well extremely large boxes). We offered the family our bottom bunk, so they could spread out, and we managed to haul ourselves up top.
The family were great and the kids practised their English on us for most of the journey and we did the same with our Vietnamese. We therefore exchanged hundreds of hellos and thank you’s during the journey as that was the limit of our shared vocabulary. The family were very sweet, and insisted on feeding us at every opportunity. The kids even gave us their chocolate biscuits. We bought them some popcorn from the train buffet and the kids were delighted with it.
It made for a really pleasant journey, and in between having a few power naps, it gave us the time to catch up with the travel blog and picture editing that had been neglected over the past week of frantic trekking and travelling.
We bid the family farewell at Hue and wished them well for the next 14 hours they had on the train all the way to Ho Chi Minh City. We found the last taxi in the train station at Hue and had a pleasant night-time ride down the river to our hotel, as we throbbed to base of the taxi driver’s tunes.
Hue is a small compact city and the journey did not take long. We were greeted at the Canary Hotel and quickly whisked to our lovely little room. I don’t know why, but even on our flashpacking budget, you just don’t expect rose petals and a single fresh red rose on your bed when your paying US$14 for the room. Having said that, I think every room we’ve stayed in whilst in Vietnam has had a vase of fresh flowers, which makes John very happy.
Hue City Sights
Hue sits astride the Perfume river. The river splits the city into the old town, with its impressive Imperial Citadel in the North, and the new city in the south where you will find most of the hotels. The city has a very French feel to it with wide roads, a promenade running either side of the river and some very nice French colonial architecture dotted about it’s banks.
The name of the river derives from the orchard blossom which falls into the river in spring and floats up the river giving off its scent. It was obviously not the right season as we smelt little perfume, but also no nasty smells, the river was remarkably clean.
The citadel located in the old city is well worth the visit for the now familiar 80,000 VND entrance fee. The grounds are relatively peaceful if you can manage visit outside the peak times of the tourist buses. Some of the buildings are impressive, the ones that are still standing, many were destroyed during the battles of 1947 and 1968 in Vietnam’s recent history. There is quite e lot of restoration work taking place, and some buildings had a whiff of new paint, which takes away somewhat the historical images you are trying to conjure in your mind.
We also decided to try a cyclo ride around the old city for an hour to see if we were missing any additional ancient treasures. Sadly it took us an hour to find out we weren’t, but it was probably worth the trip just for the cyclo drivers pointing out where the old city walls and schools had been destroyed by American bombs. If you dont do this on your trip to Hue you really will not be any poorer culturally or historically. We just thought it would be a bit of fun, and it was.
The Emperor’s Tombs
Our second cultural visit was to be a day out visiting some of the tombs which can be found along the banks of the Perfume River to the south of Hue. We went for a combination Dragon Boat and coach trip. You spend the morning on board a dragon boat chugging up the river, before a very pleasant vegetarian lunch. You are then transferred to a coach at the end of your first tomb visit for the final leg.
We had a very entertaining guide, which was a good job as the rest of the group on board were a little humourless, with the exception of Lily from Singapore who took delight in the guide telling John he was going to have nightmares that night as he didn’t believe in God. John didn’t offer this information, the guide just stopped in the middle of one his monologues and asked if John believed in God, he politely replied No. Our guide was of the Cao Dai faith, which from his account, involves much communication with the spirit world. Needless to say John had a perfect nights sleep with no nightmares.
Our trip cost us US $7 each which I thought was great value, but bear in mind you need to pay in 80,000VND to enter each of the tombs. Two were well worth it, the third I could have missed quite easily. Here’s my summary:
Ming Mang - has some impressive grounds and buildings. Thankfully our group was the only one there, so we had the place to ourselves, and it was a very tranquil setting with some great pathways leading you to the main buildings of interest.
Khai Dinh Architecturally this is the most impressive and I thought it had a touch of the European art nouveau/art deco about it (I found out subsequently it was built in 1925). The inner tomb is filled with impressive mosaics and relief’s of flowers and dragons and has to have one of the most outlandish ‘over the top’ ceilings you will ever see.
Tu Duc – was our last visit of the day and while the lake and the wooden entrainment hall at the entrance are impressive, I thought the rest was a little disappointing, but each to their own – others have named this among their favourites.
Perhaps my favourite visit of the day was to the Thien Mu Pagoda. The pagoda and the grounds were beautifully peaceful with monks wandering about doing their daily chores. I got a real sense of calm wandering around on my own (John had an emergency and was held up in a squat toilet for most of the visit here).
It is also home to the car of Thích Quảng Đức who burned himself to death in Saigon on 11 June 1963 in protest at the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnam Roman Catholic government.
I found the images and the story moving, that a persons devotion can lead to desperate acts in times of persecution. Also, if you wander to the back of the grounds and peer out across the hills you will get to see a wonderful hillside buddhist cemetery.
Our final stop on the way home was to an incense stick manufacturing shop where you can have a go at making them as well as purchasing handfuls of them in various colours. If you are in the market for some josticks, it pays to wander around the stalls dotted along the road, as the one the tour guides bring you to have inflated prices. Nobody in our group had heard the word jostick before, which led to John being further reprimanded by our guide, as he kept saying “NO!! They’re not chopsticks” over and over again.
Happy Birthday Buddha
On our last night in Hue, we went to a very big birthday party; Buddha’s birthday.
It appeared like the good people of Hue were not partied out, after celebrating the Vietnamese new year just a few weeks earlier, so they put out the bunting and the fairy lights (well lanterns) and did it all again.
The riverbanks, markets and cafes were teeming with the locals as we joined in with them for the evening watching the decorated boats and lanterns twinkle up the Perfume river.
Lots of people were lighting small fires and burning their paper prayers. As people prayed, temporary shrines and offerings appeared everywhere. The smell of incense sticks filled the air, so although we couldn’t smell the Perfume river, what fuelled our senses was intoxicating.
The Mandarin Cafe and Mr Cu
There is another must do institution in Hue which is to visit the Mandarin Cafe. This establishment has been run by Mr Cu for nearly twenty one years, entertaining visitors with his charm and his stunning photography of local Vietnamese life.
He is a real Vietnamese gem, if you end up in Hue go and visit him he always has time for a chat and make sure you buy some prints of his amazing photography collection. There is no hard sell, the catalogues are there for you to leaf through if you want. We did and hopefully, Vietnamese postal service willing, they will be waiting back home whenever we get there. The food is also good as are his tour prices.
Surprisingly for a photographer Mr Cu does not mind posing for photos, and was patient with me while I fumbled to get this shot of him.
We liked Hue. Not just for the tombs, pagodas and Mr Cu but it’s very easy to walk around this city. For us, this meant we could wander the streets at our leisure taking in the pleasures of the town. Hue is really trying hard to welcome visitors to spend more time discovering its little treasures, and I hope it succeeds.