Huế, in case you aren’t too familiar with it, is pronounced ‘hWAY’ and that helps the title of this article make a bit more sense. I spent 8 days there after I left Hanoi, and I found a lot to like about the place, but in a manner I didn’t really expect.
Let me begin by mentioning that I arrived on one of the night trains from Hanoi, and even though my night train experience going to and from Sapa was pretty good, this one was fairly miserable so I am going to take as few of them as possible in the future.
After Tet in Hanoi I had the choice of a bottom bunk in a 6-bed sleeper cabin one week after, or I could wait an entire week more to get the bottom bunk in a 4-bed cabin. I had been in Hanoi for quite a while already so I chose the earlier train and figured I’d be asleep for most of the journey anyway.
The train left Hanoi at 11pm, which seemed convenient as it would allow me to get to sleep shortly after we got underway, I hoped, and the tricky part was that it didn’t arrive in Hue until 11am the following day. Long story short, the train wasn’t nearly as smooth as the one to Sapa, so it was like trying to sleep on the back of a donkey cart going over a cobblestone road. Perhaps the upper bunks are better, but I doubt it.
The other problem is that with 3 bunks on each side of the cabin, there isn’t nearly enough room for me to sit up in a comfortable position, so I had my choice of being slightly curled up in a flat position, or standing up altogether out in the corridor. At least in the corridor you can see things passing by, but I wasn’t expecting the rail company to have sold extra tickets to about 15 people who were lying on the ground out there or sitting on their own plastic chairs. That meant that even going down the hall to use the bathroom meant stepping over and around a bunch of people who were trying to sleep.
Arriving in Hue
I got maybe 2 hours of sleep on that wild ride, but I felt okay as the train pulled into Hue late that morning. Although I was going to walk to the hotel where I wanted to stay, I got an offer from an actual taxi driver to take me there for only $2, which seemed like a good deal at the time. It’s probably almost two miles, since this hotel was on the other side of the main tourist district from the train station, so it turned out to be a bargain considering my big backpack and computer bag.
First impressions of Hue
I’m definitely not going to do anything close to a blow-by-blow description of what I did in Hue, partly because I really didn’t do all that much, as I got quite a bit of work done on the new website I’m developing, and partly because the attractions in Hue were pretty underwhelming anyway.
The city is on both sides of the wide and brownish Perfume River. It didn’t smell like perfume, but it didn’t smell bad at all either, so that much is fine. The most famous attraction is the Citadel, and that huge complex, plus the so-called Old City, are located on the south bank, while the tourist district and more residential areas are located on the north bank.
The main difference from Hanoi that I could immediately see is that Hue isn’t nearly as pretty as the capital. Hanoi at its heart appears to still be mostly intact from the French colonial era, but apparently Hue was the main northern base of the South Vietnamese side during the army, so it was bombed to bits first by the North Vietnamese when they took it over, and then later again by the American side when they took it back.
So as a result, most buildings are new, and really cheaply built, with no real sense of style at all. It’s a bit like one of those strip malls in a city without codes to make the buildings match in some way. So most buildings don’t look like what’s next door, were built within the last 30 years, and most of them seem to be falling apart already.
But on the other hand, the tourist district of Hue has a vibe that I really like. There are big corporate-type hotels that overlook the river, but on the other side of those is a really nice and well-defined pocket of cheaper hotels and businesses that cater to travelers. Even the similar tourist district in Hanoi feels like a hornet’s nest of activity with hundreds of thousands of locals always passing through, but in Hue it’s more peaceful so there is room to breathe.
I guess you could say it’s a bit that Hanoi is like Times Square and Hue is like Las Vegas. When in Times Square there are plenty of other tourists, but zillions of New Yorkers are whizzing by you and it is probably very intimidating if you don’t speak or read the language at all. With Hue being like Las Vegas, it’s more spread out and you only ever see tourists and people in the tourism industry, so it’s a bit easier to take. Oh, and there’s no legal gambling in Hue, so that’s where the analogy ends.
The food in Hue
As much as I liked the food in Hanoi and Sapa and even Halong Bay, it turned out that food in Hue is even better, and cheaper as well. The noodles are made from a different kind of flour and there are a few other fundamental differences, but it was mostly that they used more herbs and different vegetables, and everything seemed a bit fresher. Hue is like 400 miles south of Hanoi, and it’s warm or hot pretty much every day of the year, so I think they can plant anything at any time and it’ll grow well, unlike the more seasonal climate up north.
Since I spent 8 days there I had a chance to try out at least 12 or so different restaurants, and pretty much all of them were good. Main dishes start at around $1 but ones I had were usually around $2, and starters (like spring rolls) were around $1 each or even less, so I could have a wonderful meal and a few beers for around $5 total, including tax, no tipping.
The signature dish of the city is called bun bo Hue, which is just the Hue variation of the popular beef and noodles dish that is also popular in Hanoi. Sometimes it was served with a bowl of rice, a bowl of leafy greens, and the main bowl of beef and veggies, which you’d combine yourself in small quantities in a small bowl that was provided. Other times it all came together, but I quite liked it no matter how it was served.
Attractions in and around Hue
As mentioned, the big attraction in the city center is the Citadel, and I went to check it out on my second day there. This used to be the capital of Vietnam and I guess this was a city inside a fortress where the top people lived, but at this point there really isn’t much to see. There’s one preserved part that costs about $3 to enter, and it had a constant stream of tour groups going in, though I don’t think many of us knew what we were looking at. The guidebooks I’ve read warn that it’s not a very special attraction and they were right.
It’s quite spread out, plain looking, and slowly falling apart, just like many other things in this part of the world. I suppose if you had a particular fascination with the tribes that used to rule this area a couple hundred years ago then this would be meaningful, but if not, the site doesn’t really stand up on its own.
A couple days later I hired a cyclo driver to take me to the main market nearby and then take me on a tour of the parts of the Citadel complex I didn’t see on foot. The place is almost all residential and commercial now, so most of it just looks like a pleasant-enough Vietnamese neighborhood.
The river cruise from hell
The other main thing to do in Hue is take a cruise along the Perfume River that stops at 6 or 7 temples and pagodas, and with only a couple days left in the city I finally did it.
It costs $5, not including entrance to a few of the sites along the way, and it includes lunch so it’s not much of a financial risk.
I was picked up from my hotel, not on the bus I was promised, but by a motorbike. There’s a strict helmet law in the whole country now, and the “guest helmet” my driver handed me fit like OJ’s shrunken glove. It sort of covered the top part of my head, but in a real accident it probably would have flown off long before my head hit the pavement, or maybe even stayed on and wedged into a hard surface in a way that caused more damage than not having a helmet at all. The driver and the guy from my hotel both agreed that it fit just fine. Fortunately it was about a 400-meter ride to the boat, so I could have walked there in like 5 minutes had I known.
I was one of the last on the boat, and I was disappointed to discover that this cruise would take place on a double-hulled “dragon boat” that on the inside was literally nothing more than a flat surface where passengers could choose a loose plastic chair and then sit wherever you could fit. It was really hot and humid already even at 8:30am when we set out, and it would only get worse.
Our first stop came after only about 10 minutes, and it was a martial arts school that we had to pay extra to see their demonstration. I went in and it was worth the $1 or so, but not much more.
The next stop was a really interesting temple sort of thing, but the problem was that our guide was a local whose English was basic and hard to understand, so he never really bothered trying to explain anything in depth. One thing I’ve learned here is that native English speakers (Americans, Brits, Canadians, Aussies etc) struggle to understand Vietnamese speaking English, and everyone else finds it pretty much incomprehensible. Most of the people on my tour were Germans or French or Israelis and whatnot, so for them it was almost like not having a guide at all.
The next stop was about an hour away, and it turns out the Perfume River gets even less scenic when you get out of Hue. And the boat moves slowly so there was almost no wind to help perspiration evaporate, so it just got hotter and more uncomfortable as we went.
The next pagoda thing was also quite nice, as was the one after that, but honestly with so little explanation it doesn’t have much meaning at all and gets old quick.
After that we were served the included lunch on board the boat, and it consisted of a few pieces of tofu, cabbage, and carrots, on a small plate of fried noodles. It wasn’t bad, and is probably the sort of thing the locals have for lunch every day, but its street value would have been about 40 cents and I’d rather have a kick-ass $2 meal.
At my lunch table I met a young couple from Bristol, England and a Dutch guy who did logistics at a poultry plant in a part of the Netherlands I’d never heard of, so it was social enough, but still pretty basic.
After lunch we were sent off to another huge temple complex, and this one was the grandest of all, though still had almost no meaning attached to it for most of us on the tour. I read that pretty much all of these things we were seeing were built by low-level rulers about 150 years ago as vanity projects, so it’s all pretty new when compared to the fact that Hanoi is celebrating its 1,000th birthday this same year.
From there we boarded a bus to our next few temples, and the description of one of them sounded so horrible that everyone on the bus literally voted to skip it once we pulled up front. The guide told us on the way there that it was the hottest single place in Vietnam that day since it was 100% concrete and way up on a hill, plus you had to climb like 200 stairs just to get to the front entrance. “So who wants to go inside this one,” he asked, “anyone, no?” Okay, and on we went to the next one, which was near a village where we got to see conical hats and incense being made.
I really like incense, and I love that they always have like 20 sticks burning at each of the temples, so I was psyched to see how it was made. The demonstration was short and concluded with a strong pitch to buy incense, but it was still interesting to me.
I didn’t go inside the final temple thing, partly because we had to pay for each one ourselves a la carte, and they were mostly around $3 each, but I was also tired and burned out after 7 hours or so in the draining heat. I was pretty happy when we were back on board the bus headed for Hue again, and even happier when we arrived about 15 minutes later.
The bottom line
As mentioned near the top, I actually quite liked the vibe in Hue and it had a kind of beachy, vacationy feel to it, being set alongside a wide river, and the food was fantastic. But the “attractions” weren’t much to write home about at all, and even though I had read that they were underwhelming in my guidebook, I feel like I have to do the main ones anyway. It’s not like you can go to a city around the world from your home and then brag about how you skipped the main sites because you heard they weren’t all that great.
That’s one thing about traveling to new places like this. I end up doing many things that I’ve heard aren’t all that great ahead of time. I actually do skip quite a few things if they sound boring to me, but I try to at least give the most famous and popular sights in each city the benefit of the doubt. Once in a while I’m pleasantly surprised, though usually they are about what you are expecting them to be. I just like seeing for myself, as long as they don’t cost too much.