Our bus ride and border crossing into Vietnam was fortunately a lot more civilised than previous experiences between Cambodia and Laos. Despite being a little worried that our e-visa’s wouldn’t be accepted, we were soon fast-tracked (much to the annoyance of the locals) between the Laos and Vietnamese officials. Conveniently, they literally sit alongside one another, removing the need for us to walk long distances across no man’s land, which is often the case at land border crossings. No corrupt bribes requested either!
Arrival – Dinner (and getting addicted to Banh bao)
On arrival into Hue we were fought over by the circling taxi drivers, like vultures do with scarce pieces of meat. Nothing new there then! Our hotel was well situated on the edge of the backpacker area, full of bars and restaurants. Although our room was a little noisy from the traffic outside, at least we were an easy walk away from all the lovely grub and ice cold beers. Ironically however, we soon discovered that sometimes one doesn’t need to go hunting for good food; it often comes to you…
While reclining in the many tiny seats and stools that sprawl out on to the street in one of the more popular bars in town – Ta Vet, we heard a sound we’ve become accustomed to in South East Asia: a loud recording played repeatedly from a passing motorbike selling some sort of street food. Initially, as per usual we found this fairly annoying and ignored it, not interested in risking food poisoning to save a couple of dollars. But this time was different, and we couldn’t help but notice a number of bar staff lined up to purchase the food on offer.
Feeling inquisitive, a little more confident and a lot less cautious after our beers, I hailed a nearby waitress to ask what the guy was selling. She looked puzzled, then ran over to her colleagues, returning with a piece of paper with “Bao cake” scribbled across it. Based on our love for Bao (mentioned in our Phnom Penh post) we couldn’t let this opportunity slip away, so within a flash I’d grabbed a piece of the action. It was truly scrumptious: a sweet, soft, pillow like doughy bread, encompassing a lovely minced pork and onion filling, along with a boiled egg hidden inside. Within seconds we’d devoured it and were left frustrated for the rest of the evening, not having purchased two each as our entire dinner!
We spent the rest of our time in Hue failing to track the Banh Bao man down again; instead hearing him go past our hotel late at night after we were already in bed. It seems Banh Bao is like love, you’ll only find it when you’re not looking…
Later that evening, while reluctantly eating dinner not including any Bao, we were reminded just how small the world can be. A friendly Ozzy sounding bloke (check out my attempt at Australian lingo) by the name of Brian, offered to take our photo. After getting chatting to him, we soon learned he now lives in Adelaide but was in fact originally from Colchester in Essex, only a few miles from Billericay where Joella is from!
Day 1 – Exploring Hue’s Imperial City (and greasy baguettes)
Rather than grabbing breakfast at our hotel as per usual, we decided to venture out and have it en route to Hue’s biggest tourist draw: the Imperial City. This turned out to be a comical mistake. After opting for scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon, I was served up a rather minimalist offering, consisting of a quarter of a sausage and half a rasher of bacon. At least they’d included a nice tasty looking baguette. I mistakenly asked for butter, and the waitress disappeared with the whole baguette, only to return with it’s ENTIRE surface area smothered with a thick coating of lard. There was nothing left to do but have a chuckle… and stuff our faces of course 🙂
After a half hour walk in the scorching sun (July – August is the hottest time of year to visit central Vietnam), then purchasing tickets, we entered through the imposing gates of Hue’s famous Imperial City. Hue’s Imperial City, built in the 19th Century under instruction from Emperor Gia Long, is a 4km square walled palace consisting of a variety of beautiful residencies. Although only 10 major sites remain out of the original 160 (bloody wars destroyed the others), it was still incredibly interesting, beautiful and at times very peaceful, despite the many tourists. Getting lost within the tranquil gardens and ancient palaces certainly made a nice contrast to the buzzing streets outside!
On the way back to our hotel we discovered why everyone raves about Vietnamese coffee. While sitting at the usual midget tables and chairs in a rather understated cafe opposite the exit to the Imperial City, we were served up authentic Vietnamese style coffees. This included the necessary drip filters, condensed milk and separate glasses of ice to pour over. I do not know how this isn’t more of a thing back in the UK, especially eclectic London during the summer!?!? Perhaps my next business venture, alongside Bau…
That evening we partook in my newly invented form of dining: a Tapas-crawl. This, as the name suggests is derived from the concept of pub crawls, and consists of sampling various small sized portions of foods at a variety of eateries within a given evening. The highlight was most definitely ending up in a local bar with no other Westerners about, eating the only food stuff available; which was squeezed out from tiny plastic sachets. It was a little like spicy, chewy pate. We were never quite able to uncover what it was, and potentially never will (and probably will never want to know…)
Day 2 – The Thien Mu Pagoda (and sweaty cycling)
On our second day we braved the hectic roads and the relentless sunshine on bicycles, while losing what seemed like our body weight in sweat. At first this was a little daunting, given the rather lax attitude to any sort of road rules. But soon we were loving it, and at least I was treating it like a game, of life and death I suppose. On the whole, drivers are very aware of their surroundings and don’t drive too fast, so trundling along on bicycles often felt safer than it does in the UK. You just need to avoid waiting for what you’d normally consider as safe gaps at junctions, otherwise you’ll literally be there forever!
Our destination was the impressive Thien Mu pagoda, situated a few miles South West from Hue. This 7 story pagoda (pagodas always have an odd number of levels to banish evil spirits, unlike the pagoda in Kew Gardens in London – silly…) is the unofficial symbol of Hue. It has been refurbished and expanded upon a number of times since the 17th century when it was first built; including the addition of a giant bell that is said to be audible over 6 miles away! The Pagoda is also home to the car that a Buddhist monk (Thich Quang Duc) was driven to Saigon in, where he burned himself alive in protest of the way that Buddhists were being mistreated by the South Vietnamese regime at the time.
After exploring the lovely Thien Mu pagoda, we spent the rest of the day enjoying more sweet and tasty Vietnamese coffees and bowls of Pho, in between a quick trip to the local market that felt far more authentic and less touristy than those we previously visited. We also suffered another casualty of the trip – my sunglasses 🙁 One of the lenses fell out, leaving me looking like a pirate on holiday…
Shockingly, Hue was never originally on our itinerary, and we were only made aware of it thanks to an Ozzy bloke with size 12 shoes we met back in Phnom Penh. Thank God (and the big Ozzy lad) we adjusted our schedule and made the visit, it would have been gut-wrenchingly annoying had we missed it!
Next stop – Hoi An (not Hanoi that Joella, and I’m sure many others get it confused with)…