“40°C, feels like 48” has become a familiar sight for the weather the past few days. (To save some googling, that’s 104°F on the gauge, 118°F factoring in humidity and zero breeze.) And that’s in the shade – stepping out under sun and clear sky takes it several degrees further. It’s hot, to the point where we’re seriously impressed at the locals who continue to go about their regular business of construction, working over hot coals, or pedaling tourists around on rickshaws.
Huế has been a bit of a trial and the heat is no small part of that. It’s constraining, exhausting, and tends to amplify difficult situations. We’ve found ourselves spending more than expected, in some cases feeling a bit ripped off and not impressed with what we got in exchange (be it food, admission to a site, or transportation). Of course this is all relative. Folks back home will probably laugh at the idea of being scammed by paying $10 for a meal for two when we expected closer to $4.
In addition, my (Gregor’s) phone decided Huế was the place to keel over and die. This is unfortunate because I was using it quite a lot as a map / camera / translator / notepad / newspaper / tour guide. I actually suspect the aforementioned heat contributed to its demise as I was taking pictures in the sun at the Imperial City. Perhaps it has done me a favor by further separating me from distractions beyond my immediate surroundings… here is its last photograph. RIP.
We traveled by train from Da Nang (near Hội An) up to Huế. I was excited about trying out the train somewhere in our South-North transit of Vietnam and we read that this leg is especially scenic. The train was quite a bit late arriving at the station so we waited for 2.5 hours in the midday heat, passing the time with a couple beers and some cards. We then almost got on the wrong train – fortunately the attendant was paying attention to our tickets! After boarding we sweltered in the crowded car for a while until we got going and the air con kicked in. It wasn’t exactly clean or nice-smelling inside and the coastal views were obscured by passengers lowering the shades to understandably block the sun. So, not the greatest train experience, but we made it to Huế intact.
When we arrived at the train station we dodged the touts trying to gouge us on a taxi and walked a couple blocks to catch one for a sixth of the price. Then down to the riverfront to catch the sunset, chat with a few local students who wanted to practice their English, and an attempt to find some cheap food at the night market (no success).
Of two full days in Huế we took the first to go see the main sight in the city, the 200-year old Imperial Palace. it’s a large complex of buildings and gardens surrounded by a massive wall and moat where the emperors of Vietnam did their thing. Some of the structures were leveled to their foundations during the war and walls everywhere are pockmarked from the heavy fighting that occurred there. But many buildings and objects remain intact (or have been restored) so we had an interesting if sweaty morning walking around, going from from temples surrounded by gaggles of Vietnamese and Chinese tourists to quiet open boulevards and trees.
We hit up the day market for lunch. We found a nice place to sit down and try bun bo hue – a local soup variant – which was pretty good, but the canny stall lady snuck in some extras without us realizing and then charged us quite a bit more than we expected. A better food experience was found that evening where we enjoyed skewers of grilled squid and vegetables while watching busy street action from a balcony table.
The next day we toured three of the imperial tombs that are scattered on the outskirts of the city. I was originally thinking of biking out to a couple of these but the heat caused us to replan and hire some wheels. This was a good choice – it was already very sunny and steamy when we hit the first site and by the time we finished at 11 it had hit 40°. So we saw three tombs – Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, and Tu Duc. The first and third are expansive grounds of small buildings and waterways that acted as getaway locations during the emperor’s reign and became tombs afterwards. These were quiet locations with a few buildings each worth seeing. Admission of 100,000VND ($4) each felt a bit pricey.
Khai Dinh’s tomb, however, is quite unique. Dark stairs surrounded by towers and statues lead up to a main structure with a fantastically opulent interior. Apparently the design was inspired by French aesthetic and it indeed felt like we were suddenly in an Asian-styled corner of Versailles. We also learned that this emperor was not exactly a good guy and this added to the otherworldly and slightly ominous feel. Though both smaller and more crowded, we found this visit to be well worth the time and cost.
we took advantage of the effective house arrest that the midday blaze imposed by working through some trip planning, attempting to resuscitate my phone (fruitlessly), and occasionally venturing out for an iced Vietnamese coffee. Met up with some new friends for dinner – Josh and Liz, who also quit their jobs to travel for a year – and shared some travel suggestions which was great! We leave you on the way to Phong Nha, a national park with jungle and immense cave systems. Expect the next post to be quite different…
Specifics: we stayed at Hong Thien Ruby Hotel. The room wasn’t especially comfortable but service and breakfast were good, and the location is near many dining options catering to both Westerners and locals (if you look down the side streets). Usually we’d suggest hitting the markets for good, cheap food but in this case skip them and instead find a busy hole in the wall somewhere with the typical tiny plastic chairs. For the Imperial City – apparently they just started opening in the evening as well as daytime during the summer which we did not know about, but some friends said it was great to see lit up in the dark (they also almost were locked in at closing). For touring the tombs we spent 500,000D for a private car but you can actually see more stuff for less if you go on a cheap group tour (we didn’t want to be out that long in the heat).