The city of Hue has been our first true taste of Vietnamese tourism. About 50 km outside the city, at the DMZ, was the first time we’d seen other foreign tourists since leaving Laos five days prior. The population of tourists just increased as we approached Hue, though we were pleasantly surprised to find Hue is more of a functioning city for both locals and foreigners as opposed to the Disneyland-esque tourist cities of Laos.

For those uninformed on Vietnamese geography (as Matthew was until about 5 days ago), Hue is on the coast of central Vietnam 50 km south of the former DMZ that divided Northern and Southern Vietnam. Under the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty it was the political capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. The city is divided by the ‘Perfume River.’ The main attractions of Hue are the citadel (a walled old-city on the northern bank of the river) and a series of temples and tombs south of Hue, also along the river. Many tourist agencies in the city also offer day trips to the DMZ, but as we had cycled through it we chose to skip that.

We spent our first day in Hue exploring the citadel by bicycle. The first stop was the Imperial Palace, an inner walled section and supposed highlight of the citadel. Much of the palace had been destroyed in WW2 and the Vietnam War, so it consists of either rebuilt sections from the last two decades or the original foundations of buildings yet to be reconstructed. They seem to be hard at work making it all shiny and new, but the original foundations are more atmospheric. Outside of the inner palace, the citadel is a huge area of canals, narrow streets, and the hustle and bustle of Vietnamese life. Cycling around this section of the citadel was very pleasant and, in our opinion, more enjoyable than the palace and the nicest afternoon we’ve spent in Vietnam.

The next day we joined a boat tour to visit the many temples around the city. Our tour included one temple, three tombs, a pagoda, and a visit to an incense making village. The sites themselves were quite interesting, but the experience of being on a tour was less thrilling. The temples, being buddhist, were hard to tell apart from Chinese ones to our untrained eyes. They were even liberally decorated with Chinese characters. Like many Asian languages, Vietnamese was originally written using Chinese characters. However, since the early 20th century a Vietnamese alphabet designed by a French jesuit in the 17th Century has become the official form of writing. The tombs were also quite similar to ones we have seen in China – a symmetrical avenue lined with sculpted soldiers leading through gates and pavilions to a large grassy mound where the body is entombed. Disappointingly, the ‘underground palace’ which forms the actual tomb has not been excavated and opened to tourists. It was particularly interesting to note the influence of French culture on later Nguyen emperors, as can be seen in our photos.

Hue has many restaurants offering Vietnamese and European cuisine for tourists. Most of the locals seem to eat at home or in little roadside eateries which are often literally just a few plastic stools clustered around a lady selling pho (soup with rice noodles) on a street corner. We get to eat that sort of thing so much when ‘on the road’ that we have been giving them a miss in Hue. One aspect of European cuisine has made a big impact on the locals – French baguettes. These are on sale from many street stalls, and there were big crowds in the supermarket waiting patiently for fresh ones to come from the ovens. They are so ingrained in the local culture that a street seller in Dong Hoi had even devised her own use for stale baguettes – she sliced them up, dipped them in a spiced batter with onions and deep-fried them.

We’ve been enjoying the food, and are going to another French restaurant tonight to try again to answer the question about the nature of French cuisine. Many thanks for your attempt to clarify that, Matthieu. Thanks to all of the people who have commented, its good to get feedback. Tomorrow we continue south. We hope to make it to Ho Chi Minh City for New Year. That’s over 1000 km away, so we’d better get a move on.


Photos from this post can be found here and here

~ by Elephants on December 12, 2010.

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