24 Mar Hué – it’s Definitely no Hanoi
Stepping off the overnight train at Hué station, we weaved our way through the crowds of persistent taxi drivers to find our free hotel pick-up. The sky was colourless and leaden but at least it wasn’t raining, which is apparently a common occurrence in this ancient city. Sore-eyed and groggy from the long journey we gazed half-heartedly out of the car window at the grey river running alongside us, its surface merging with the flat, dull sky above. I sighed. From the looks of things, Hué was definitely no match for the glitz and bustle of Hanoi, the city we’d loved and left behind.
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It’s always wise to have a nap after an overnight journey before heading out to explore, as a sleep-deprived brain doesn’t inspire the best first impressions of a place. For some reason we ignored this advice and made the forty-minute walk into the old town of Hué, shadowed by rickshaw drivers offering us rides. Restaurants were similarly pushy and on seeing us approach a waiter would be out on the pavement, trying to propel us inside before we’d even seen the menu. By the time we’d gotten a look at the outside of the ancient Citadel complex we’d had enough of the humidity and hassle and were ready to head back to our hotel for a nap.
The Hué City Tour
Vietnam as a country seems to generate wildly different opinions – some people hate it, others love it. We fall decisively into the latter category but still, there were parts of the country we didn’t feel a whole lot of love for and Hué was one of them. Maybe we didn’t explore the city in enough depth or perhaps it just wasn’t our kind of place but I know other travellers who absolutely love the city while others share our feelings – leave it to Vietnam to divide opinions so fiercely!
Given our less than favourable first impressions, we decided to see the main sites of Hué in one day and head onwards the next; the easiest way to do this was book a day-tour through our hotel which was extremely cheap at only £5.50 per person, including lunch. We generally tend to avoid group tours when we travel, preferring to make trips independently, but we found they were often the cheapest, easiest and sometimes the only option in Vietnam. It was incredibly difficult to visit Halong Bay, for instance, without booking a package cruise – which didn’t turn out quite as we’d expected it to.
Our Hué tour started on the outskirts of the city, where several old tombs of past emperors are located. We annoyed our guide from the get-go by refusing to pay him entrance fees to see three Hué tombs and the Citadel (also known as the Imperial City) as we knew from our research that you could buy a much cheaper triple ticket, costing £5.25 each, to see three attractions. So, we sat out one of the tombs before exploring the other two, which were quiet and picturesque, one set next to a wide man-made lake, the other on top of a hill.
After lunch we visited the Citadel, the emperors’ old palace complex. In the main reception room of the palace there was a statue depicting the four sacred animals of Vietnam; a dragon to symbolise power, phoenix for peace, tortoise to represent longevity and unicorn for intelligence. Yes, three of these beasts might be imaginary but they make for a pretty statue. The Vietnamese government are in the process of rebuilding the palace complex, which was destroyed by American bombing during the war so much of the area consists of simply crumbling ruins; there’s a good model inside showing what the complex used to look like though.
Our final stops were at an old Vietnamese water garden and an impressive pagoda before we sped back along the river in a Dragon boat, taking in the drab views as we went. The day tour certainly hadn’t been a waste of time but after the incredible museums, sights and atmosphere we’d experienced in Hanoi, we found our lasting impressions of Hué to be grey, dull and underwhelming. We left full of hope that our next stop, Hoi An, would rekindle our love for Vietnam.