DESTINATION VIETNAM: IMPERIAL CITY HUE

Imperial Palace Hue

You can arrive at Hue in several different ways, by train or flight from Hanoi. We traveled from Hanoi to Hue via Danang Airport. Based on our experiences, by all means avoid flying Vietjet Airlines as they apparently are notorious for cancelling flights, causing us a “common” 5 hour delay.  From Danang the supposedly scenic route became a grueling night drive through roads full of road construction and huge trucks whirling rocks and dust. Our driver tried a slight shortcut resulting in a shredded tire around midnight with endless rows of speeding trucks passing by on a dangerous construction corner in the middle of seemingly nowhere.  The car’s spare tire was installed by the dim light of our Iphone’s flashlight and turned out to be only partially inflated.  Our driver continued at a speed of 10 km per hour.  The drive seemed endless and our 4 star hotel seemed to be fast asleep with staff sleeping on couches in the lobby-that is a first experience during my frequent travels. 

Why visit Hue?

Imperial Palace Hue
Part of the stunning Imperial Palace entrance across from the Citadel

Hue is designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site and has an intriguing past as both former Imperial City and National Capital.  It was both the residence of emperors and the national capital from 1802-1945, until the communist government moved its government in Hanoi.  Hue’s central location very close to the border between the North and South during the Vietnam War placed the city in a very vulnerable position during the Vietnam War.  The city suffered double damage, due to a combination of the American military bombing of historic buildings held by the North Vietnamese, and also by the massacre at Hue’ committed by the communist forces. After the war ended, many of the historic features of Hue’ were neglected as they were seen by the victorious communist regime and other Vietnamese as “relics from the feudal regime”.  Many historical areas of the city are currently being restored after the designation as Unesco World Heritage Site.  The Imperial City occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the Perfume River.

Imperial Palace Hue
Spectacular ceramic roof ornamentation adorn many of the restored buildings

The vast 19th century Citadel and Imperial Palace are delightful to visit, surrounded by a moat and thick stonewall fortifications, encompassing some well restored palaces and shrines as well as parts of the forbidden Purple City, once the Emperor’s home.  Only the emperors, concubines, eunuchs and those close enough to them were granted access-alive.  Throughout the Citadel visual and written descriptions provide good insight into the cruel and lavish lifestyle within the walls in multiple languages.  The architecture is spectacular.

Imperial Palace Hue
Part of a wonderful reception hall
Imperial Palace Hue
Study the details: Intriguing roof ornamentations
Imperial Palace Hue
Exit gate to the Imperial City

Outside the Citadel bicycle rickshaw drivers are uncomfortably aggressive trying to drum up a business opportunity.  One driver tried to block the pedestrian intersection.  In my opinion there is really no need to use a rickshaw as most hotels are in walking distance and the area beyond the Citadel appears to be of limited visitor interest.  Perfume River seems almost unused, only one café’ has taken advantage of the location almost across the Citadel as well as a smaller night market mainly geared on tourists.  

Dragon river boat

Primitive colorful family owned river boats with dragon painted tin decorations were lined up along the river, and as this was a quiet time of the year the boat owners were hawking business.  Truly a family business, many boats were hawked by the older daughter, while the mother or father were running the boats, and their younger daughter would try to sell tourist souvenirs and refreshments while cruising the river.

Riverboat Hue

Families seemed to be living on the boats, which were only outfitted with loose plastic chairs arranged loosely on vinyl flooring resembling imperial carpeting.  

Riverboat Hue

Along the river are monuments, including the tombs of several emperors.  The tour along the river is not the most charming adventure, but can offer plenty of opportunities for future tourism development.  We took a tour to the Thien Mu Pagoda which was beautiful and in a stunning location at a river bend.  I have seen many much more stunning pagodas in other parts of the world, but this location was spectacular. Unfortunately this pagoda structure was not accessible.

Pagoda Hue
A majestic entrance to the pagoda from the river
Pagoda Hue
Thien Mu Pagoda

Hue remains a tranquil and conservative city, without much city life, and in my opinion is worthy of a full day of visiting, but not much more during the colder time of year.  Supposedly there are several good beaches about 15 minutes away.  The somber history of the Vietnam War era can be explored by day excursions to the tunnels dug by the Vietcong forces. We skipped this tour and only saw the scenic route driving to Hoi An.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

 

DESTINATION VIETNAM: EXPLORE HANOI

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A country so rich and diverse in culture: a cruel past with horrifying wars, wonderful hardworking and generous people and with so much potential for recreational and resort destinations. Diverse adventures and explorations await in different cities, Unesco World Heritage sites and stunning nature for the adventurous destineer and traveler.

Having recently returned from an intense one week exploration so full of diverse impressions my mind and camera are so full of impressions.

HANOI turned out to be completely different from my preconceived expectations. I expected to find formal French Colonial architecture juxtaposed with communist style concrete soulless buildings and wide streets jam packed with cars, an auditory inferno and assault on all senses. Instead I found a vibrant, exotic, vivacious, small scale and colorful urban life unfolding in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

Old Quarter Hanoi
Street dining at Old Quarter hanoi
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Street entertainers in Old Quarter Hanoi

Saturday evening in Old Quarter. The streets become pedestrian zones, inviting locals and tourists to share the ambiance on tiny low plastic chairs. Many small restaurants offer BBQ Korean style, where you prepare your own meet and vegetables while watching the street life unfold.

Intriguing coffee houses lure you with a reminiscence of romanticized rustic salvaged vintage combat furniture, worn out tile or concrete flooring flooring, bright and vibrant hues of wall colors, and-the best coffee in the world.

Food is being barbecued at tiny tin cans on low tables Korean style at the sidewalks while cheerful people are gathering for coffee, drinks or food on tiny kid sized plastic chairs.  The fumes of burning hot chestnuts merge with grilled corn on the cob; charcoal flames are being whipped to perfect intensity by old squatting ladies with banana leaves. The tantalizing mouthwatering sniffs of barbecued meat and onions interspersed with the scent of incense create a mysterious layered impact of scentsations. while live music and dance performances add to the auditory fusion.  Brightly colored lanterns and string lights add to the layered romantic experience.  We were lucky to experience the Old Quarter during the weekend when large areas are closed to traffic and Old Quarter becomes a large pedestrian zone

Old Quarter Hanoi
Street food

Beware, Hanoi can be cold and humid. Arriving from Bangkok’s hottest season in sandals and thin clothing was a thermal shock, but fortunately the Old Quarter is full of stores selling North Face feather jackets.  Comforted by cozy down jackets all street life activities can be thoroughly enjoyed.

Old Quarter Hanoi
Street life in Hanoi

At daytime the sidewalks are completely overtaken by parked motorbikes and you jump for your life trying to navigate the narrow streets full of motorbikes, bicycling rickshaws and vans.  The city is best enjoyed by bicycle rickshaw.  The elderly male rickshaw drivers are agile dare devils, going against intense traffic, honking cars and motorbikes with whole families of 4-5 on top.   We covered the major sight seeing venues and the rich variety of Old Quarter streets by rickshaw.

explore hanoi by rickshaw
Explore the city by bicycle rickshaw

Each street has their own type of businesses: one street of bamboo vendors, one for auto spare parts, one for motor bike repair shops, one for Chinese temple accessories, one full of vibrant baskets filled with garment dyes, one for fabric vendors, one for tailors, one for chrome metal manufacturers, one for lock makers, one for bird and fish vendors, one for tombstone, etc.

Some of the biggest sightseeing’s are the Women’s Prison but the line of tourists waiting to buy tickets was too daunting for a sinister experience.  The Library Temple Gardens was quaint and poetic. The monumental Ho Chi Minh Monument and museum turned out to be closed on a Monday. The lake is charming. Time for another Vietnamese coffee!

Conc Cafe, Hanoi
Conc’ Café: a coffee place with overtones of the Vietcong era

Hotels in the Old Quarter are tiny and can be a “hit-and-miss”, as even 4 star hotels can be rather unimpressive at the least and the photos on travel sites can be very deceiving.  Spas can also turn out to be less than a glamorous experience.  I recommend to book a hotel for the first night only and then explore some hotels by foot in person to find one that live up to your expectations.  With the large amount of tourists in Hanoi, new smaller independent hotels seems to have a great target audience. Most hotels can arrange junk boat excursions at Halong Bay and city excursions, but do search Trip Advisor first to read the reviews.

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Mysterious Halong Bay covered by clouds and drizzly rain

A tour to Halong Bay, a Unesco World Heritage site, is a must. The drive takes about 4 1/2 hours and is rather nauseating as the roads are still less than desirable and some of the excursion vans offer very little legroom.  Modern rest stops are surprisingly clean and sell all kinds of souvenirs plus some limited food choices. Once you arrive at your cruise junk boat and start your excursion through the stunning freestanding rocks and mysterious caves you forget about the hurdles of getting there.  Our day was poetic, interspersed by a thick layer of fog and a light drizzle. Elderly ladies in bamboo row boats will take you through beautiful secret photogenic coves-or you can choose to kayak yourself, but cannot take photos.  I strongly recommend to take the bamboo boat to support the lovely Vietnamese hardworking women.  You may even get a song.

Halong Bay
Bamboo boating in Halong Bay
Halong Bay
A wonderful Vietnamese woman and her bamboo boat

After a delightful fresh seafood lunch on the junk boat, we entered a great huge stalagmite cave which was fantastic and mysterious, although a slightly distressed experience as the cave was packed with groups of very loud Chinese tourists. The caves were used to hide troops during the war.  The stalagmite formations were truly stunning and offered myriads of photo opportunities.

Halong Bay
Magnificent Karst Caves at Halong Bay

Halong Bay

I highly recommend to take the 2 day junk boat trip in lieu of the one day trip.  One day just gave you an initial impression, whereas sleeping on one of the red-sailed junks will leave you with truly memorable experiences.  The 4-5 hour drive back to Hanoi was rather grueling as the minibuses were designed for Asians and not for westerners (No leg and shoulder space).-and the traffic congestion was gridlocked getting back into Hanoi.

Written by Zia Hansen.  Photos by Zia Hansen