The Imperial City

Trip Start Oct 15, 2010
Trip End Jan 11, 2011

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Where I stayed
Tran Ly Hotel

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Friday, December 17, 2010

I take back what I wrote about Vietnamese buses in the Dalat entry. Our bus from Hoi An to Hue was an entirely different experience. It was old and rattly, smelled of rotten fruit and before we departed it was loaded with several birds in cages, which at least provided a nice background of bird song. Despite the fact that it was pouring with rain and regardless of road conditions the driver kept the bus hurtling forwards, overtaking on corners while tooting his horn every two seconds. My heart was in my mouth for half the journey.

I've never heard of anyone who has experienced good weather in Hue and our time there was no exception. Armed with umbrellas we made our way across the river to city's primary attraction: the citadel built by Emperor Gia Long, beginning in 1803. This consists of a square of city enclosed behind a moat and a tall, thick, 10km long wall. Inside, behind another wall forming the shape of a square (2.5km circumference) is the Imperial Enclosure. Housed within are several palaces and temples and yet another square walled-off enclosure, called the Forbidden Purple City. This was the emperor's residence and the only eunuchs were employed to service it, in order to protect the purity of the ruler's many concubines.

Hue was came under heavy rocket fire and bombing during the American War and the vast majority of the buildings in the citadel were destroyed. A restoration process is underway but it's a huge job so progress is slow. As a result we didn't expect much from the citadel and were surprised by the beauty of the spaces and buildings that are in tact. These were different from anything we have seen on our trip so far, thanks to the Chinese influenced architecture. Those parts of the enclosure yet to be restored were also beautiful, if a little eerie.  We found it wonderfully peaceful to spend a couple of hours strolling around the striking, overgrown ruins.

For lunch we headed to Lac Thanh Restaurant, a simple eatery just outside the citadel that Santiago, our friend from the Hoi An cooking class, had recommended. The imperial city of Hue is known as a food destination and we were keen to sample some of the local specialties. The most interesting of these was called 'shrimp and meat wrapped in banana leaves with sticky rice'. The rice and shrimp form into a glutinous white and orange-brown jelly inside the leaf. Eaten with a drizzle of fish sauce and chili the texture is incredibly odd. Every spoonful I popped in my mouth I expected to find repulsive, but was instead surprised each time by how much I enjoyed it. We were served by the owner of the restaurant, who is deaf-mute. Having used improvised sign language to communicate his entire life he is well practiced at 'talking' to customers and we found it easier to understand him than some of the Vietnamese we have met who speak a little English!

By our preferred pace two nights in a town is not a lot, but we found we managed to see what we wanted of Hue in that time. Although the town itself is not terribly attractive, it's worth a stop to see the citadel and taste the local food, once you find the authentic stuff. Our visit was a somewhat clouded by Nathan's ongoing tummy troubles, which were not terribly severe but had been dragging on since we were in the Central Highlands. I was pleased that, when I put my foot down, he finally agreed to see a doctor on arrival in Hanoi the following day.
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