Thursday, July 12, 2012

Wandering in Vietnam - Part 2 - Hue and Central Vietnam

Ngọ Môn - The Emperor's Entry to The Citadel at Hue.

Bidding Adieu to Hanoi’s charms, the Traveler moves on, Southwards. The old Imperial City of Hue being the next port of call. Shortage of time precludes driving down by road, so its Air Vietnam to the rescue again. Internal flights in Vietnam are reasonable and reliable. 
Boat on 'Perfumed River'

Inside the Citadel, Hue.
Hue, the capital of Thua Thien Hue province in Central Vietnam is located on the banks of the Song Huong- Perfume River. This old Imperial city was luckily spared a major part of the horrors of the Vietnamese war and most its old buildings remained intact. It was only during the Tet offensive, that the Citadel was shelled. The old city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Author in a Trishaw.
Comfortably ensconced in one’s hotel, the author enquired as to the best way to see the old Citadel, Hue’s crowning glory. Most advised a man-powered, cycle rickshaw “xich lo”. There were qualms about the manual labour involved for the trishaw driver, pedaling around with the heavy author, but these were soon set to rest and one set out with a fit rickshaw pedaler, who scarcely worked up a sweat while showing the sites.  
The Citadel and it's Guardians!.

The Citadel is located on the north side of Perfume River. There were four citadels that defined the Capital City: Hoang Thanh the Imperial City with royal palaces and shrines; Tu Cam Thanh the Forbidden Purple City where the royal residences were located; Dai Noi the Inner city and Tran Binh Dai, the ancient city with old architecture.

The main attractions of the Hue Citadel are, Ngọ Môn. The main southern entrance to the city, built in 1833 by Minh Mang. The central door, and the bridge connecting to it, were reserved exclusively for the emperor. 
The Thai Hoa Palace, Hue.

Thái Hòa Palace. The emperor's coronation hall, where he would sit in state and receive foreign dignitaries.

Trường Sanh Residence.
Trường Sanh Residence. The "Palace of Longevity", the Palace's protective moat, decorative man-made rock formations and mountains, bonsai gardens, and the palace gate are under renovation. It is not officially open to the public, but with a little persuasion – ‘cash to day and promises tomorrow’ – it is possible to enter the grounds and should be seen, as even in it's overgrown state, it's beauty is worth seeing.
The ruined 'Forbidden Purple City'.

Tu Cam Thanh (Forbidden Purple City) was unfortunately destroyed during the Tet offensive and only the two damaged palaces at each end remain.

Sand Mining Perfume River.
The Tombs of the Emperors and the Thien Mu Pagoda, the other great attractions in Hue, which are located along the Perfume River, south of the city. Though accessible by road, the best way to see them is to hire a boat. Though slightly expensive if done on an individual basis, it provides a great way to see the tombs and pagodas, while also experiencing facets of life along the river for residents.  
Work Boats on Perfume River.
The Emperors, in 19th and 20th centuries had been reduced to figureheads under French colonial rule. They had little else to do than design and build elaborate tombs for themselves.
The tombs, however, are worth the cost and effort. The older ones have been allowed to crumble into picturesque semi-ruin, although some are now being restored.

Pavilions and Gardens of Tombs.
The main tombs, definitely worth a visit are, the Tomb of Minh Mang – this is an elaborate complex, comprising of the main buildings, a courtyard surrounded by warrior statues and several temples and pavilions.
Tombs, Moats and Bridges

Several bridges cross two lakes along the axis to the vast fenced burial mound. The mausoleum features large gardens and lakes: a pleasant place to sit and relax.

There are many souvenir sellers here, some of whom have very good examples of the black and white pen and ink paintings typical of Vietnam. Haggle to your heart’s extent if you want to buy any.
An Emperor's Tomb.

The Tomb of Thieu Tri this simple but elegant tomb is of a much loved king and queen. It is not opulent but has a quiet dignity. 

Moats, Bridges, Pavilions and Gardens.

The Tomb of Tu Duc, this complex served as a parallel 'Imperial City' where the Emperor went for "working vacations". A vast, sprawling complex set around a lake, with wooden pavilions and tombs and temples dedicated to wives and favored courtesans - the emperor Tu Duc reportedly had only a modest 104 to choose from - so he probably had enough time to plan this elaborate layout. There is a mixture of ruined buildings and well preserved areas. The Emperor's tomb itself, at the back, is quite modest. 
Entrance to the Emperor's Tomb.

  Garden Pavilions.
The Tomb of Khai Dinh –  is relatively modern and dates from 1925, this is the best preserved tomb. Its compact, quite grand with some European influences. The tomb itself is incredibly detailed and has opulent mosaics of cavorting dragons and battles. 
The Thien Mu Pagoda of the ‘elderly celestial woman’ as per the legend; is perched on a bluff overlooking the river, and has some very fine gold and silver Buddha images. 
Thien Mu Pagoda Bell.

Thien Mu Pagoda Tower.
The Pagoda is the official symbol of the city of Hue. The 21mtr high octagonal tower of the temple is visible from afar.

Other attractions along the river are the house of Ho Chi Minh, a surprisingly modest building.
As this is a travel and food blog, it may interest readers to know that Ho Chi Minh or Uncle Ho as he is popularly known, was a trained chef, specializing in patisserie.

Cafe on the Beach. 
 There are hot springs and
spas near Hue. Speaking of Spas, for those so inclined, there are an abundance of massage parlors in Hue,

Plaque, Uncle Ho's Home.
 where you can avail of a variety of services with your massage.
Recommended excursions from Hue are the Thuan An and Lang Co beaches. These are nice white sand beaches with clear water and are not crowded.
The Actual Home of Ho Chi Minh. 
Royal Food Presentation. 

The 1450mtr high Bach Ma Mountain is about an hour and a half drive away, is another scenic place worth visiting.

Hue is considered the gastronomic capital of Vietnam and its Imperial Vietnamese cuisine is justly famous.
Royal Hue Food. 
This cuisine is famous for blending of flavors along with elaborate presentations. 

Les Jardins de La Carambole and Royal Food Presentation, Hue. Ancient Hue Royal Cuisine and Gallery are two of the well known Imperial Cuisine restaurants that the author tried.
While expensive, as each meal can easily touch USD 40 per person, with drinks, these restaurants are highly recommended at least for one meal.  Khong Gian Xua is a good moderate choice.

Imperial cuisine is defined by elaborate presentations which are a visual delight and also artful blending of flavours, textures and tastes. Hue being the capital has preserved the tradition of food that was served to the nobility and Emperor's, blending traditional Vietnamese cooking with French colonial influences, to develop a sophisticated cuisine, unlike any other in Vietnam. 
Com Am Phu (4 Kinds of Pork).

 Com Hen
Popular Hue dishes are, 
Com Hen - rice with mussels this dish blends rice, boiled mussels, star fruit, fish sauce, cabbage, onion, pepper, peanut, chili, and a variety of herbs. The cold ingredients are assembled and hot mussel broth is added to the same along with some shrimp sauce. Delicious!.
Bun bo Hue - Hue style beef vermicelli or Bun bo gio heo - beef and pig's knuckle vermicelli, is a popular typical food of Hue, a combination of fish, meat and or vegetables in a delicious spicy broth with vermicelli and fresh herbs decorated with Banana flowers.
Bun Bo Hue. 

Bánh Bèo Chén. 
Banh Beo - Water fern cake is a small steamed rice pancake shaped like a fern, nearly transparent. Filled or covered with savoury ingredients like dried or fresh shrimp, scallions, mung bean paste, crispy fried shallots, fish sauce, rice vinegar, and oil.

Banh Khoai. 
Banh Khoai made from rice flour, water, turmeric powder, slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and then pan fried. Banh khoai and Banh xeo also are wrapped in mustard leaf, lettuce leaves or rice paper, and stuffed with variety of herbs, like mint, basil and served with a sweet and sour mixed sauce. In Hue, Banh khoai is placed open-faced instead of being folded in half, and is served with fermented soy.
Hue Street Food.

Street food is cheap, tasty and widely available in Hue. It is patronised by local blue and white collar citizens and adventurous tourists like the author.

Vegetarian Food, Hue.
 Vegetarians, are easily catered for, in Vietnam and also Hue. There is a great variety of vegetarian dishes, with or without eggs. The Vietnamese make great dishes with soy and gluten shaped into fancy and artistic looking dishes, which resemble meat dishes but are actually vegetarian.

Tofu Banh Xeo (Veg Crepe). 
Mam Tom Chua. 
Mam Tom Chua is the famous sour shrimp sauce of central Vietnam. An accompaniment to most dishes, the best version of this red coloured sauce is made in Hue, with whole shrimps, fresh herbs and spices.

Night Street and Market, Hue.
Night life in Hue is nothing to write home about with about the only place being the anaemic 'Night Street' or Market and a few seedy bars.That, however, was not an issue with the author, as his next port of call is Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now known, which defines night life in Vietnam.

More of that in the next episode. Happy Travelling and until next time. Caio.
The Forecourt - Hue Palaces, with Restoration work in the Background.