Saturday, September 29, 2012

Hue and Hoi An, Vietnam: Forbidden Cities, Open Markets

Although both respective cities start with an "h", they aren't particularly alike. This may come as a grand shock to those who presumed that cities beginning with the same letter must be, in some way, similar. For most us, however, it will come as no surprise at all. And some individuals may even think that those who thought the former probably shouldn't be allowed to travel on their own and form such silly presumptions in the first place. Although, Hue and Hoi An are similar in that they are both located in Vietnam and have a distinctive charm. Furthermore, both cities are definitely worth a visit if you happen to find yourself on this side of the globe. Let me tell you why.


Hue's best known as a former capital of Vietnam during the early 19th century all the way up to middle of the 20th century. I bet many of you didn't know that when World War Two struck in Vietnam the capital was Hue, and not Saigon or Hanoi. And, quite honestly, I wouldn't blame you, but if you did know, then I congratulate you with a virtual pat-on-the-back that will likely (never) be delivered in the near future. As a former capital, it possesses an heir of importance and authority that you can't necessarily build or buy. It wasn't the capital for all that long, historically speaking, but nonetheless it still held the title, and that's worth something in my books. 

The most striking evidence of Hue's former glory is the Imperial City. It served as both a citadel and a palace, and it's defensive prowess is immediately observed even from the street, as well as it's historical value. 

The Flag-tower of Hue's Imperial City

As you may have noticed, the first line of defense began with a 10km moat and 2 metre thick stone walls. The interior beyond these walls is simply enormous. It took us several hours to walk around the enclosed area. In the middle sits the "Purple Forbidden City," which was essentially an enclosure for the royal family (the short lived Nguyen Dynasty). It was rewarding to walk around, but I was overcome with the notion of what this might have been. This area was initially spared from the American offensive because of its intrinsic historical value to humanity, but eventually that was ignored (not surprisingly). From the looks of it, this gorgeous area was mercilessly bombed. It was terribly sad in that regard, but it's encouraging to see that there is a large-scale restoration project underway. To put it in perspective, only 10 major buildings survive of the original 160. No restoration project can repair such immense damage. Personally, I would have had a difficult time there if I'd been an American. The photo below shows the beauty of the sight, but keep in mind that the view in front should have included several immense palaces in symmetrical order, and not a vast open area.

Renting a scooter was a definite highlight for me. Unfortunately, Bri was under the weather, but after ensuring she was alright, I stepped out the door, rented a scooter, and was whipping through the streets in no time. As Jeju insinuated, I have an infatuation with these vehicles, so it's lucky that the rest of Southeast Asia seems to share my passion. 

I stopped at a few places on route (namely Nam Giao or "The Temple of Heaven"), but my goal was to reach Tu Duc Tomb, which was located just under 10km outside of Hue. I'm not going to lie, I was loving the wind in my face on that scooter, despite its ultimately questionable cleanliness. It was also surprisingly delightful  to be a direct part of the chaotic Vietnamese traffic. It's difficult to watch from the sidelines, but I felt as if I was in the "eye of the storm," so to speak. Tranquil Tu Doc Tomb impressed me in the first five seconds. The compound is separated into the "temple area" and the "tomb area," and you enter directly into the beauty of the temple area with a gorgeous view of Xung Khiem Pavilion perched on Luu Khiem Lake. The withered water-lilies on its surface served to make the view all the more enchanting.

Like the Imperial City, this complex was also rather large, but it was a pleasure to take a moment to walk these grounds. In fact, it's the only way to properly view a place like this. I took well over an hour to peruse both the temple and tomb areas and was completely enveloped by what I saw. While the above picture was my favourite part of the temple area, I'd have to say that my favourite part of the tomb area was the Emperor's Grave. As the name of the whole complex would suggest, the tomb belonged to Emperor Tu Duc, who was the fourth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty and reigned from the mid to late 19th century. Elaborate structures guide you to the tomb where you're confronted with a simplistic, yet powerful, stone tomb. It's very straightforward, but I think that's what makes it remarkable. 

I departed from this tomb to headed to another. It was a significant distance from where I was, but with a scooter, distance isn't a worry. However, the sun was fading by the time I reached Minh Mang Tomb, so I wasn't able to give it a proper viewing, which is disappointing because it's quite renowned. My late arrival was somewhat a result of the expedition I embarked upon with my scooter. I often took back roads to see where they would lead, and they often led to interesting places. 

I've seen my fair share of pagodas while in Asia, but it's worth noting Thien Mu Pagoda, seeing as it's Vietnam's largest. It was only a few kilometres from the city centre and, overall, I appreciated my time there. It's not necessarily anything to write home about, but it possesses great meaning for the people of Hue and Vietnam, and that's reason enough to take a moment of my time and pay my respects.

Honourable Mentions 

I simply must give a big shout out to the fantastic Jade Hotel in Hue. This place cost us about 12 dollars a night, but I would have paid ten times that had they asked. The rooms were clean and comfortable, the food was delicious, and the kindness of the staff was unparalleled. Literally unparalleled. When you came back in from the heat, you were lovingly bombarded with cold towels and the sweetest lemonade money could buy. Not to mention that it's centrally located. An absolute steal, that's what the Jade Hotel is. 

We had yet another rendevouz with our Dutch friends Robin and Ilona who we met in Ha Long Bay. Once again, it was a great evening of dinner and drinks that ended at a lively bar in Hue known as Brown Eyes. That place is good fun, especially when they bring out the free shots. They hand out free shots and the drinks aren't even expensive. That's classic Vietnam hospitality right there. 

Hoi An

I'm not entirely sure why, but Hoi An is likely my favourite city from my time in Vietnam, and Bri seems to concur with that notion. There wasn't really all that much to do, but that may actually be why it's my favourite city. Cities like Hanoi and Saigon constantly bombard you with noise and pollution, but there's a little more room in Hoi An to control and appreciate your surroundings. It doesn't hurt that your surroundings are drop dead gorgeous. 

We were only in Hoi An for a few days, but it has left a lasting impression upon me. It is unquestionably the river that gives Hoi An its charm. Apparently, the river has been charming for quite some time as well, because Hoi An was Southeast Asia's largest port all the way back in the 1st century. The entire city is actually a UNESCO World Heritage sight, which I whole-heartedly agree with. For me, it took one view from a bridge to fall in love with this city. It puts a smile on my face to know that "Hoi An" roughly translates to "peaceful meeting place."

I could easily envision the same murky, brown water aiding the trading ships down river from the first century on. It's difficult to establish where exactly the new town in Hoi An would be, but we spent a fair bit of time in the Old Town or Ancient Town. Conveniently, you can purchase a pass to visit any five historical sights in that area, thus forming your own tour based on your own interests. We entered the Old House of Quan Thong, which was somewhat interesting, but I certainly enjoyed the Quang Trieu Assembly Hall significantly more. Honestly, it's not any one, two, or five sights that make this place special, as Hoi An is already packed full of special. However, the Japanese Covered Bridge happens to be the only known covered bridge in the world that has a Buddhist pagoda on it. I'm not entirely sure how many other bridges are vying for that feat, but it's worth noting! 

In recent years, Hoi An has become somewhat legendary for its shopping, especially in the old town area. Specifically, Hoi An offers cheap custom made suits, dresses, and any other clothing you can imagine. While tempting, I passed on the custom suit in order to maintain some semblance of a budget in the early part of my travels. No jokes aside, people come from far and wide to clad themselves in custom attire. I didn't purchase much, but the streets provided a joyful sanctuary for a stroll. 

I've always been a sucker for canals in cities, but this river was especially fitting, and the unique ornamentation of the bridges added to the effect.

If a river is simply too measly a body of water for you, then you're nicely covered by the seaside Cua Dai Beach. Bri and I rented bicycles to reach the beach and it made a fine afternoon, as you can imagine. I'm not a beach connoisseur, but it seemed to me as if Cua Dai had everything you'd need. Warm sand, an endless view out to the sea, and a fairly good tide aiding waves to the shore. The Thu Bon River is right nearby if you change your mind and decide that smaller bodies of water are better after all. I'll post a photo of both to adequately portray your options, although I probably wouldn't recommend swimming in the latter.


Honourable Mentions

The cuisine is Hoi An is delectable. Its proximity to a number of seafood filled bodies of water ensure that the restaurants are offering up succulent treats from the sea. I'd never tried crab in a noodle dish before, but the restaurants of Hoi An pulled it off with flying colours. I've made myself hungry again just thinking about the food there. 

The Windbell Homestay was as luxurious as the Taj Mahal. I've never been to the Taj, but that's what I imagine. Last minute, I spotted this place at 40 percent off, and man am I glad that I did. The villa we stayed in was at least two times bigger than our apartment in Korea, and about fourteen times nicer. The unbearably cute puppy that snoops around the premises happens to be an added bonus. 

So there it is folks. Two cities in one swoop. I hope that it wasn't too much for one post and you didn't succumb to boredom and click on another page. Although, if you'd done that then you wouldn't be reading this in the first place, which would surely be your loss. In all seriousness, life is treating both Bri and myself extraordinarily well right now. I'm writing to you from Ayutthaya, Thailand, and adventure lurks around every corner. However, the clock has just peeked past midnight, so let me bid you farewell, wherever you are in this crazy, wonderful world of ours. 

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