August 10, 2007

Vietnam: August 3rd Hue

Got a wake-up call at the unfeasibly early time of 3:30 am as requested to allow enough time to get everything sorted out to check out in time for the taxi at four. Why was I up at such a ridiculous hour of the morning? The plan was to go to look around Hue, the former capital, and unfortunately at such short notice (i.e., trying to book a ticket the day before) the only flight with any space on it was the 5:40 departure.

The taxi arrived in good time and set off in the direction of the airport. Just as we reached the main road leaving the city for the airport, what traffic there was slowed almost to a standstill, and I was amazed to see that most of the lanes of the road were packed with hundreds and hundreds of people, some unloading trucks laden with fresh produce and others bartering and haggling over the prices of goods they would be selling in the streets or shops later that day.

The rest of the journey was uneventful and the flight was smooth and by 7:45 I was sitting in the lobby of the Hue Queen Hotel (a definite step up from the Camellia) waiting to check in. For a small fee I could get the key early and have some breakfast that morning at the hotel. After that it was time for a shower and a quick nap to catch up lost sleep. (Below you can see the view from the room. It's worth coming back to this later for a comparison with a shot taken the next day to follow in this blog.)
Got up refreshed late morning and asked the hotel to organise a bicycle rental for the day to make it easier to explore the city. It turned out the 'contact' they had for bike rental had possibly the oldest and ricketiest bikes you could imagine (either that or the newer ones had already been rented out), but I guessed that I could survive for the day.

Before heading off to the sites, I decided to have some lunch at Pho 24 ~ a kind of chain specialising in the famous Vietnamese noodle dish. I had pho bo (beef noodles), which was pretty good.

After refuelling, it was time to cycle over the Perfumed River towards the main attraction of Hue ~ the Citadel, which dates from the 17th century, though many of the palaces and other structures inside were built later in the 19th century when Hue was the capital of the country.

Near the river is the imposing flag tower (the tallest in the country) that has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times over the years (most recently in 1947). It was also a significant landmark in the 1968 Tet Offensive, as Hue was the only city in the south to be occupied by the VietCong for any amount of time, and for almost a month, their flag flew defiantly from the flag pole as the US and South Vietnamese troops bombarded the Citadel.

Inside the Citadel area, the main attraction is the Imperial Enclosure, which is effectively a citadel inside a citadel. The main gate, or Ngo Mon Gate, can be seen below.
Inside the Imperial Enclosure, visitors can see ruins, partially restored buildings or reconstructed versions of many of the old imperial palaces and buildings.

Thai Hoa Palace.

Part of the ruins of Can Chanh Palace.
Another crumbling ruin ~ standing in front of some old steps.

For me, the most impressive thing was the Emperor's Reading Room, shown above, with its ornate mosaic decorations. Apparently this was the only building inside the Forbidden Purple City (the innermost sanctum of the Imperial Enclosure) that managed to survive both the French re-occupation of 1947 and the 1968 Tet Offensive more or less in tact.

In the southern part of the Imperial Enclosure is the To Thieu Temple complex (above) which was painstakinlgy restored about ten years ago, and now looks very impressive.

From there it was a hair-raising, yet totally exhilarating ride back through the rush hour traffic with a slow puncture to add to the excitement.

In the evening, it was dinner at a place called Club Garden, where I had a set meal with plenty of delicious food, though I was really full at the end. Walked off the meal a bit and the stopped for a drink on the small terrace of a bar called Why Not?, which seemed a popular draw with other foreigners in town.

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