Arriving in Hue

Our time in Siem Reap ended with a US$4 tuk-tuk ride to the airport and a flight to Hue, Vietnam, with an unavoidable six-hour layover in Saigon. Our trip was not well planned and I confess to my mistakes in the hope you won’t repeat them. We had intended to start our Vietnam tour in Saigon, meander north by land to Hanoi and fly home from there. We quickly found some cheap-ish tickets (C$998 on Air Canada with a 12 hour layover in Beijing) and snapped them up. So far so good.

Later on, while looking at a map, I realized how close we were to Cambodia and had the bright idea that we should do a side trip to Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat. That was fine, the bus was easy and cheap but we had to get back to Vietnam and the only realistic method was flying. We didn’t want to re-visit Saigon (though it deserves more time) and decided to resume our northward trek at Hue which correctly seemed like a good place to visit. To further complicate things, when we got to Hue, we persuaded ourselves to visit Hoi An, just a bit further south past Danang. So we ended up doing a lot of backtracking which cost time and money and could have been avoided. Not a shining example of trip planning.

With the benefit of hindsight, we should have flown to Bangkok (lots of cheap-ish flights) headed to Cambodia and Vietnam by bus (lots of choice including sleeper buses) and then up through Vietnam one bus trip at a time. This would have been a sensible arrangement but our flexibility vanished when we bought the air tickets. Live and learn!

Planning errors aside, we were off to Hue, Vietnam’s “former imperial capital” and the nation’s educational, religious and cultural heart. Unfortunately, in 1968, Hue also became a bloody and destructive battlefield during the Tet offensive which is seen as the turning point in the Vietnam War. If you look back at scenes of carnage from 50 years ago it’s hard not to be very impressed with the rebuilt city today. It’s a lovely place with 450,000 people, full of charm and a testament to the resilience of its people.

We had booked a room at the Purple Hue homestay through Airbnb and were a bit concerned when, the day before we arrived, the owner told us the original property was unavailable due to plumbing problems and that he would give us another place which he was sure we would like. Hmmmm… it sounded a bit sketchy but there wasn’t time to make other plans so we carried on. Our concerns were stoked when the taxi driver couldn’t find the address and, as we slowly cruised down a street looking for the address, a young woman dashed to direct us down a dark lane to an open field. Hmmmmm again. All worries vanished when we got out of the car and met our hosts — a very lovely young couple with two young daughters — who showed to our room in their extraordinary new house near the Citadel. They designed and built their house on a sliver of land and it really is impressive. We enjoyed our stay and the photos speak for themselves.

There’s much more to say about Binh & Tinh, our hosts at Purple Hue. They both work for NGOs, Binh with the Mines Advisory Group, a landmine clearing operation, and Tinh with Football for All. They welcomed us into their home, shared their knowledge of Hue, gave directions, arranged tours, booked taxis, were always available by phone, provided great restaurant advice, cooked delicious and filling Vietnamese breakfasts and invited us to join a family gathering. We were very happy staying there. Hospitality doesn’t get better.

We were a bit hungry after arriving so the first task was to follow our hosts’ directions to the nearby Lẩu Bò A Bình restaurant. A ten minute walk, authentic food, simple and cheap with very friendly staff. We sat outside overlooking a large pond and recommend giving it a try.

Tinh’s mother’s breakfast at Purple Hue. Hard to describe… kind of a porridge but much more. Very tasty and very filling. Along with some local fruit and strong Vietnamese coffee, it set us up for the day.

Next morning, fortified with our hosts’ breakfast, we headed out to spend the day exploring Hue or, more specifically, its Citadel and well-restored Imperial City. Some sources say you can ‘do’ the Citadel in two hours but we were happy to take most of the day exploring. It covers a large area and much of it has been restored after the destruction of 1968. This was the home of the Nguyen dynasty (pronounced ‘win’) that ruled Vietnam from 1802 until the defeat of the French in 1945. Bao Dai, the last Nguyen king, was, as the last ones often are, a weak pleasure-seeker who seems to have earned his place as the final ruler of a puppet regime. Bao Dai’s private tennis courts have been preserved, presumably as an object lesson in how not to govern. The Citadel was a great place to photograph so I’ll leave it at that.

We ended the day by exiting on the eastern side of the Citadel through the Cua Dong Ba gate. We stopped at the Banh Khoai Hong Mai restaurant for sustenance — good local food — and headed around the Citadel to the northwest corner to get salt coffee at the Ca phe muoi café. Good stuff and a Hue invention. Another half hour of walking took us home and to bed.

Ca phe muoi café. Large, busy and the inventor of salt coffee. It’s worth a visit.

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