The Great Vietnam Trip: Where (Not) to Visit in Hue

Warning: A long entry, and a picture depicting non-halal food that maybe offensive to Muslim readers.

During our 10-day backpacking trip in Middle and North Vietnam, Cat and I covered: Hoi An (Quang Nam province), Hue, Halong Bay (Quang Ninh province), and Sa Pa (Lao Cai province).

In other words, we were heading northward.

In the previous entry, I mentioned about taking a sleeper bus from Hoi An to Hue. The downside of the sleeper bus option was that there were only two bus rides from Hoi An per day: one at 7.45am and the other one at 3.30pm.

As we were on a tour to My Son and could not be back by 3.30pm, we therefore had to forgo the intention of taking the 3.30pm bus and opt for the 7.45am one early next morning.

That also means that when we arrived in Hue, it was already 1pm or so.

We didn’t want to spend much time in Hue and decided to just visit a few places before leaving for Hanoi the very next day on a 16-hour “soft-sleeper” train (will blog about this in the next entry).

We didn’t spend much time in Hue, but definitely spent a little too much money on a tour there.

Ok lah to be fair, maybe it wasn’t all that expensive by Malaysian standards, but still a little overpriced by Vietnamese standards. PLUS, I feel the experience didn’t justify what we paid for.

What happened was we were persuaded by a tour agency into booking a chauffeur driver taking us to 3 prominent but nearby sites: the Tomb of Khai Dinh, the Imperial City (Citadel), and Thien Mu Pagoda. The charge alone cost us RM100.80 and this had not yet included the entrance fees.

Not saying the agency was cheating, just that we were rushed into making an almost immediate decision due to time constraint – we had to visit all three places before the night fell.

Oh well, nothing is perfect I guess but nevertheless I’m still thankful to have been able to see the signature spots of Hue before leaving.

The luxurious car we sat in:

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For some reason Cat looks like an aunty trying to shoo away a cat or something haha. Forgive me, Cat!

Tomb of Khai Dinh

It had to be the most impressive site we had visited in Hue!

The bombastic-looking royal tomb was built from 1920 to 1931 by a Nguyen emperor (also last member of the Nguyen Dynasty) called Khai Dinh, who is linked to the second site that we visited – the Imperial City.

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Since we didn’t hire any guide to explain about the mausoleum, I actually found out later on the Internet that there are 127 steps up from the street level, and they were purposefully designed in order to make access to the crypt more difficult!

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I was totally impressed by how well the mausoleum was maintained and also the tiny details they carved or decorated on the building surfaces.

Almost a century after building it, the tomb of Khai Dinh was, during my visit, still in an amazingly proper condition, with no visible damages whatsoever!

From the courtyard of the Tomb of Khai Dinh, occupying both sides of the forecourt are each two rows of stone bodyguards, as well as some stone elephants and horses.

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Another flight of stairs that takes you to the apex of the mausoleum:

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The Thien Dinh palace is situated at the top terrace of the mausoleum, which houses the emperor’s crypt and a shrine.

Posing in front of the Thien Dinh palace:

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The picture below shows the inside of the Thien Dinh palace, where you get to see a shrine dedicated to Khai Dinh. Behind it is the actual crypt of the emperor.

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I was COMPLETELY mesmerised by how colourful and detailed the wall and ceiling decorations are. All the walls were covered in stunning and colourful ceramic mosaic, which I observed had a little western (French?) influence on its subjects matter.

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If you intent to visit this place, bring along some water and a cap.

The weather can be nastily hot and a stall inside the mausoleum was selling a big bottle of mineral water for freaking 50,000 VND (RM8), and Cat bought one before coming to realise how costly it was!

Imperial City

This royal complex, built by the Nguyen Dynasty and consisting of three major parts of Kinh Thanh (Capital Citadel), Hoang Thanh (Royal Citadel), and Tu Cam Thanh (Forbidden Citadel), was such a HUGE disappointment.

No doubt the area is huge – much, much bigger than the Tomb of Khai Dinh, but LESS THAN ONE THIRD of the buildings in the Imperial City had been destroyed.

How?

I am not 100% clear, but I read that destruction was a result of French, imperial, and communist forces contending for power. Also contributed to the destruction were the US troops, typhoon, a fire, and termite damage.

Below are some of the very few pictures I took because there was nothing much to capture.

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So saddening!

Super hate it that heritage sites cannot be in an undamaged condition!

Thien Mu Pagoda

The Thien Mu Pagoda, situated on a hillock and built by the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, didn’t impress me that much at first glance, as it looked like yet another “Tiger Hill Pagoda” I saw in Suzhou.

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However when I got on top of the hillock, I began to slowly be impressed by the beautiful the Perfume River that runs along the road to the Thien Mu Pagoda:

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Apparently there is a reason why they call it the Perfume River, and I quote from Wikipedia: “flowers from orchards upriver from Hue fall into the water, giving the river a perfume-like aroma.”

Besides the Perfume River that I got to mesmerise from top of the hillock, I also discovered the Thien Mu Pagoda is not simply just any random, empty pagoda – it has several buildings at the back of it that houses resident monks – some as young as maybe 12.

I felt a sense of serenity there and kept telling Cat that I wanted to be a temporary resident monk there.

I loitered about the whole area for quite a while to capture some rare and interesting scenes of the monks indulging in sports.

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The tour ended in the evening, and I was glad it did because that means we would have more time to get around the Hue city to witness its night life.

Sometimes you get bored after doing too many tours and you wish to just slow down and wander about according to your own pace.

Cat wanted to take a proper photo of the driver and his luxury car but didn’t manage to do so. Haha!

A spot not to be missed while in the center of Hue would be the night market that runs along a small stretch of the Perfume River and also under the Trang Tien Bridge that connects two riverbanks.

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Many lovebirds were dating away at the night market!

Not too sure about the idea leh. Doesn’t it feel weird that while dating your girlfriend, many other couples around you are also doing the same and acting lovey-dovey?

Anyway, a slow walk from our guesthouse to the night market aka part of the Perfume River (also where the Trang Tien Bridge is located) took us only about 15 minutes.

Cat and I went home empty-handed as we didn’t find anything we liked.

On our way back to the guesthouse, we passed by this little store, of which I just realised the name really is “Healing the Wounded Heart”.

Later I learnt that the store, selling handmade items by physically-challenged individuals, is actually set up by The SPIRAL Foundation, a non-profit humanitarian organisation doing work in developing countries.

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For sure items sold were a little expensive, but as long as it was for charity, I really wouldn’t mind buying from them to show support.

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I was so deeply touched after realising the shopkeepers, who were so keen in serving us, were actually mute! They must have wished to be able to talk like us too.

Cat and I bought a bookmark each, and I left the store with such a heavy heart.

The next day Cat and I took a morning walk across the Trang Tien Bridge to get to the Dong Ba Market situated at the opposite bank of the Perfume River.

We took a picture at the pedestrian walkway of the Trang Tien Bridge, and the river in our background is the famous Perfume River.

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I didn’t smell anything fragrant from above the river though, but one great thing about it is that they government had kept it real clean and we actually saw a worker removing rubbish from the river (the pek-moh government of Sarawak please take note ok).

Cat said cleaners should be paid a wage higher than what they currently are getting, and I couldn’t agree more. It is freaking unfair how cleaners are often looked down upon by the majority in the society, who are always giving themselves reasons to stereotype against them.

They society would relate them to being less educated or uneducated (even if this is factual, there is no need to paint their image this way); they would advise their kids against working as a cleaner the next time they grow up, as if it was a shameful profession.

EH, WHAT ABOUT ALL CLEANERS QUIT THEIR JOB AND YOU DO YOUR OWN CLEANING?

I BET YOU CAN’T HANDLE THAT.

Ok, rants over. Back to the Dong Ba Market.

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Not sure about Cat, but the Dong Ba market didn’t live up to my expectations. It was, to me, just an ordinary market targeting the locals and not tourists, as major stalls were seen selling groceries and spices and food items.

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BTW avocados and many other fruits were sold really cheap there and I wished I had more time in Hue to be able to try them out.

On a different note, what is worth mentioning about Hue is that while hunting for food in the center of Hue, we somehow discovered this stall near our guesthouse and for two afternoons in a row, we went to the stall to have lunch.

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The experience was truly great – with friendly stall operator and customers welcoming us like VIP’s and cheap and nice food served in a big, refillable portion, until I bit some nasty stuff in the meal.

Guess what it was.

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The freaking pig intestines!

Not that I had never eaten pig intestines before. I used to love them before turning more of a vegetarian (now I take only vegetarian meals at home and in most occasions).

I usually had no issues consuming anything edible, including the Balut egg and stunky tofu and seafood of any kinds without being allergic or sensitive to them, but the pungent smell of the pig intestines and their gravy sent me an IMMEDIATE vomiting sensation and it took me a while to recover.

Cat was utterly stunned as she never expected that to come from me.

I offered the portion with the pig intestines to a lady, who happily accepted it.

Our stay in Hue was only slightly more than 24 hours, after which we caught a 16-hour soft-sleeper (still hard) train to Hanoi at 2.45pm.

Major expenses in Hue:

  • Personal car an driver service (Tomb of Khai Dinh, Imperial City, Thien Mu Pagoda): 630,000 VND (RM100.80)
  • Entrance fee to Tomb of Khai Dinh: 80,000 VND (RM12.80)/pax
  • Entrance fee to Tomb of Imperial City: 80,000 VND (RM12.80)/pax
  • Train tickets for 2 pax (Hue to Hanoi – via agent and to be booked in advance): 1,890,000 VDN (RM302.40) + 100,000 VND (service charge)
  • Trishaw service (guesthouse to Hue train station): 50,000 VND (RM8)

Speaking of trishaw service, the operator made both Cat and I – with our backpacks! – sit on the trishaw that has a tiny space like what you will see in the picture below and rode us all the way to the train station.

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The journey was so uncomfortable, hot, and unusually slow I swear that had to be the last time I did it. No thanks I would prefer a cab given the same situation!

Update: The Great Vietnam Trip: Did Halong Bay Live Up to Expectations?