Pronounced Hway or even Hey, Hue was our last stop of 2017. Exhausted from the ‘experience’ of the overnight train we thankfully were able to get into our rooms at the hotel where we would be for two nights. An interesting room. The bathroom was separated from the bedroom by a LARGE pane of glass and as far as I could see, absolutely no curtain to maintain dignity if sharing. I jumped straight in the shower relieved to feel slightly more awake and, well err clean. Slight issue on the exit from said shower – there were no towels in the room. I looked literally everywhere. Thankfully I travel equipped with a travel towel from the days of the Great Wall of China when we were told the towels were the size of tea towels just in case the same happens again in a foreign country – never needed to use it again until now! Blimey, the organised packing was TOTALLY paying off now!
On arrival at the hotel we were pointed to Mr Fix It who owned a little shop next to the hotel where was good for a basic authentic lunch and did laundry on the cheap and if you needed pretty much anything – Mr Fix-It was your man! This was welcomed news and I put in several bits of laundry and when I came to get a beer and lunch found the majority of the rest of the crew also dining there. What a lovely friendly chap and tasty lunch for very little, man just a sandwich, bag of crisps and a drink back at home was the same as a 3 course meal for two here with beer. Crazy. But then I am also a millionaire here (sadly only in Dong). It’s a nice feeling seeing in the new year as a millionaire!
We set off on a trip down the Perfume River before our walking tour of the Imperial City. By boat of course. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting but I think perhaps something slightly more picturesque and perhaps more floral along the banks? We thankfully had the boat to ourselves and we chugged down the river to the Thien Mu Pagoda which was built on a hill overlooking the river. This Pagoda is deemed to be another icon of Vietnam and symbol of the city of Hue almost as much as the citadel itself (which I’ll come to later). With a wide stairway leading up to the Thap Phuoc Duyen sits impressively at the top with its 7 storeys standing at 21m high and dedicated to a manushi-Buddha (one that appeared in human form).Originally constructed in 1844 the tower itself was a built during the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri. The Pagoda itself was believed to have been originally founded in 1601 by a gentleman called Nguyen Hoang who was the governor of the Thuan Hoa province at the time. Sadly over the centuries many of the surrounding buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt on numerous occasions and since the 60’s it has been a key spot for several political demonstrations. To the right of the tower is a pavilion which contains a stele which is thought to date from around 1715. It’s located on the back of a giant turtle – a symbol of longevity in Vietnam as I have mentioned in a previous post.
To the left of the tower stands a six-story pavilion which houses an ENORMOUS bell from 1710 which weighs 2052kg and can be heard from an amazing 10km away!
The actual temple itself is found in an inner courtyard past the triple gated entrance where there are three statues of Buddhist guardians stand keeping watch. It was a very serene and tranquil location and there were a few Buddhist monks around and at one point started a small ceremony in the temple which really was rather calming, I could have stood and watched the goings on for hours but sadly time was pressing on and we needed to see the rest of the site before moving on to the citadel in the centre. There were a number of monks tending to the trees pruning them ahead of spring and collecting wood and I even witnessed a class of children being taught as I peered over a wall at the sound. All of the different colour of robes denoting their rank or perhaps status is a better word within the religion. There were HORDES of people (well more than we had seen or even encountered at our other tourist spots) and trying to get photos without them in was quite an accomplishment to put it mildly!!
The coach picked us up outside and we headed towards the citadel which is based in the centre of the city. Built between 1804 and 1833 it is heavily fortified with 2m thick walls that are 10km long and there is a moat that is 30m across and 4m deep surrounding the citadel and it’s 10 gateways. There are several sections to it, the Imperial Enclosure and the Forbidden Purple City are deemed to be the most important and formed the epicentre of Vietnamese Royal life at the time.
We entered the Imperial Enclosure through the Ngo Mon Gate which faces the huge flag tower and reminded me hugely of the gateway to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The central passageway, noted by its yellow doors was reserved for the use of the Emperor only as was the bridge to it across the lotus ponds in front. Anyone else coming into the Imperial Enclosure came in through the other gates seen on the sides as well as the pathways around the pond. On top of the main gate is Ngu Phùng (Belvedere of the Five Phoenix) and a massive drum and bell right on top. It was at this gateway in 1945 when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated and the Nguyen dynasty came to an end. The Imperial Enclosure itself is pretty much a citadel within a citadel as the walls 6m high and 2.5km log walls surrounding the emperor’s residence, temples, palaces as well as the main state buildings. It was sadly bombed during the French and American wars and so what is left is sadly only a fraction of the original with 20 out of the original 148 buildings surviving in tact. It all felt rather run down in general, well what was left obviously, with weeds often popping out of random places, a lot of rubble and broken masonry but yet none the less I could almost picture the Emperor and his dignitaries wandering around in their gowns. We passed several places where small restoration projects were taking place – clearly wisely using the money that they had to the bed of their ability.
The Thái Hoa Palace (Palace of supreme harmony) dates back to 1803 and it was where the Emperor would receive guests on state visits as well as to welcome other important ceremonies and official receptions whilst sat on his the throne on a small raised platform in direct line to the entrance gate I mentioned previously. It’s essentially a large hall with a highly ornate timber roof all a deep reddy colour and amazingly the majority of it original, just a few pillars were in the process of being restored.
The seemingly most in tact area of the citadel was the To Mieu Temple Complex, mainly as it has undergone some significant restoration. The temple itself houses a shrine to each of the Emperors, identified by their photos. A solemn peaceful place of worship and respect to times gone by. Outside of this building stand the Nine Dynastic Urns which are dedicated to only one of the Sovereigns. They are HUGE things – standing around 2 meters high and weigh apparently 1900kg and 2600kg. They each symbolise the strength of the power and stability of the Nguyen throne at the time. I had my photo taken here next to one so that you can see how tall they really are. (The main photo of this in particular blog post). There were also some really random dragons in what looked like telephone boxes that I didn’t really quite work out.
We headed back to the hotel via one part of the Nine Holy Canons on the way out which are located either side of the flag tower. They were never intended to be fired and weight about 10 tonnes a piece – I’m not sure how many people it would take to move each of them into position if they did want to use them but it would certainly do my back in!
We went out to Elegant Restaurant, chosen by Hung, as our New Years Eve meal. It was in a street which was a hive of activity compared to our hotel a little out-of-town. They were gearing up to celebrate the New Year further down the street with THE MOST god awful singer RUINING a number of well-known ballads from across the years. I was THIS close to going over to either pull the plug or take over myself. Even Hung was getting wound up with it and went off to identify what all the racket was. After the meal we headed back to the hotel where a ‘party’ was being held by the manager of the hotel in the foyer to celebrate new year with all of the guests. There was red wine for all and we were given, very thoughtfully, a present each. Wrapped in a box that was totally different to the contents it was all rather bizarre. I got a compact mirror – as someone who barely looks in a mirror apart from to put contact lenses in or, more recently, pluck out the odd whisker off my chin, it was going to be hiding in a drawer never to see the light of day again. The gesture was gratefully received and we all stood round sipping the fairly offensive red wine that we were given and everyone kind of wanting to piss off to a bar or head back to where we had just come from to see the New Year in with some what more atmosphere than there was at the hotel. I, however, was blooming grateful and as a loather of New Year festivities when I’m just not in the mood for it found it TOTALLY acceptable to actually slip off to my bed. Tucked up I was by 1030pm enjoying the fact that the bed wasn’t constantly moving around & that it was quiet after the journey on the train the night before. I left a fair few of the group all ready to see in the New Year, somewhere. I’d be waking in 2018 with a clear head and rested.
The penultimate night of the year was spent on the overnight train from Hanoi down to Hue. A 10 + hour journey. We boarded the train for a 10pm departure, unsure of what jollities lay ahead, apart from the fact that I was highly unlikely to get much sleep!
Split into couples in one 4 berth, the boys (with Hung) in another, 4 ladies in another and the remaining ladies (myself included) in the final with a random stranger that could be male or female – there was no knowing. The higher priced tickets (that we had) involved a ‘soft’ bed in a cabin with bedding, water and a wafer biscuit included. I was VERY thankful that we weren’t in a lower class where we could have literally had a board to sleep on – oooo the thought!!!
Thankfully we had a lovely lady join us in the cabin who was the tour leader for a group travelling with Intrepid travel doing a similar thing to all of us. She had her work cut out though, come the morning time there were several of her group who had been drinking all night & were to be found in their bunk lying in the foetal position!! Her comment to it was, oh well, they are Australian (as if that explained their behaviour!).
We suddenly realised that beers were needed to be purchased before the train moved and spotted a little shop on the platform and so Paul, Chris and I darted off to go and get a few each. Not that we were planning on getting plastered but more that it might help us sleep. I didn’t really fancy the idea of getting up umpteen times in the night to try the loo. Many a giggle was had as doors were ‘jammed’ shut and the general hilarity of the sleeping conditions got too much. There was no elegant way to get up and down from the bunks and I was glad that I was a demanding madam and requested bottom bunk owing to my insomnia/ often need to visit the loo in the early hours – TMI? Oh well!
The morning came and I guess I must have got some sleep – amusingly the Fitbit begged to differ and recorded precisely none despite repeated synching as a result of not quite believing it! The night had been entertaining all round, mainly so on the comments from Hung who said that he didn’t realise that it was actually possible for anyone to snore louder than the noise of the train 😂 and that he had 2 hippos in his cabin ALL night!!
A fun must-do experience for sure but I’m not sure I’d want to travel a country purely by sleeper train like this as I’d get LITERALLY no sleep – even according to FitBit! One of the group was saying how he thought it would be a lovely peaceful way to travel – and he too was sharing with the so say hippos. Each to their own I guess!! I’m quite happy that I turn 40 soon & REALLY don’t feel like I’ve missed out in life by only encountering this experience whilst 39!