Said to be the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual heart of Vietnam, Hue is full of palaces, pagodas, tombs, temples, and a dash of French colonial flair. It was the country’s political capital from 1802-1945 under 13 emperors of Nguyen dynasty and their decadence is largely what makes the area so beautiful. Just 80 miles from Hoi An, the city is set along the Perfume river and anchored by a massive moated citadel (above). We explored Hue and its surrounding countryside by bike (pedicab then a single-speed) over the course of three days and found the place as colorful as its name.
In a visit to Hue (pronounced huweigh), the natural place to start is the early 19th-century Citadel. Though it was bombed heavily during The “American War,” this royal complex still has plenty to see. It is a UNESCO site with many facets, including the Forbidden Purple City. This is where the emperor would live his private life, being waited on by concubines and servants (eunuchs only as to not tamper with his ladies or lineage).
In our exploration of the citadel we stumbled upon a ceremony where this man was adorning the altar with offerings of roast pig, beer, flowers, and sweets. We can’t say much else about this photo except…how amazing is this guy??!!!
Sometimes to add another layer of adventure into our days, we’ll go Geocaching. If you’ve never heard of Geocaching, it’s this amazing global treasure hunt using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates (usually via a smart phone) and then attempt to find the geocache hidden somewhere at that location. There are over 2.2 million caches in the world so we figured there was likely to be one in the Hue Citadel, and low and behold there was! We followed our iPhone GPS through the courtyards and wound up at an old pagoda platform. Looking in every crevice, we found a container with a log of all the geocachers that had been there. Looking at the list of names, orgins, and comments was a trip and worth the hunt.
We left at rush hour which would have normally been a bummer but when you are in an open pedicab it’s a great way to see a whirling city at a slower pace.
For our stay in Hue, we were lucky enough to base camp at La Résidence, the former Art Deco home of a French colonial governor and now a fabulous boutique hotel. The grounds, the suites, and the French-Vietnamese-fusion cuisine were all fabulous but our favorite part was our traditional Vietnamese massage. This technique is called Cupping and it involves setting a series of alcohol-swabbed glasses on fire, then placing them on your back. The change in pressure sucks in the skin and supposedly takes the toxins out in the process. Mike and I had a couples cupping massage and when I looked over mid-session, I couldn’t even believe what was happening to him and in turn me (have a look …ours wasn’t quiet this brutal and actually quite pleasant but still left some crazy circular marks).
The next day we took the hotel bikes out for a major ride to the Nyguen tombs along the Perfume River. The most impressive was the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, built from 1864-1867. Set on a lake with frangipani and pine trees, the series of ornate temples and tombs were surreal against the blue sky.
Half the fun of seeing the tombs was the bike ride to get there. Once you get a bit out of the city, the landscape turns to jade-green rice fields and traditional villages with the occasional overgrown ruin.
We biked down this street and saw a man meticulously raking dirt…or as it turns out, ground sandalwood for incense production. We stopped to observe and noticed there was also a group of ladies in the yard molding the sandalwood goop into sticks and dipping them in dye. The motioned us over and showed us the ropes…so cool!
Later that day when we passed the stalls of incense by the tombs, we had a new appreciation of where they comes from and the hands that made them.
With so many tombs and so little time, Mike and I decided to cover more ground by splitting up (a rare occasion but it had to be done!). He saw the forested Tomb of Minh Mang and I went to the over-the-top tomb of emperor Khai Dinh. This guy was a puppet to the French and an ego maniac who tricked out his tomb with intensely opulent detail. Mosaics, frescoes, carvings…every square-inch was bedazzled with something.
We biked 16 kilometers back to town and toward the all-important Thien Mu Pagoda. Built at the turn of the 15th-century, this slender beauty towers over the river and is the symbol of Hue. Adding to the scenery, a group from the Vietnamese tourism board was there posing in gorgeous traditional dress. Smiling and giggling, they left us with a happy memory of Hue.