As we pushed our rented bicycles through the muddy rice field, almost loosing our flip flops on the way, the rain started to fall. We were probably lost and Ryan’s bike had a puncture…this trip was not going well. Once we found the main road again and washed our feet in a nearby puddle we walked to the nearest building to ask for some help. This roadside shop appeared to have a tyre outside and with some gestures and sound effects (the hissing of the flat tyre) the owner realised what the problem was. And in no time at all he’d fixed the two punctures and only charged us 60p for his services! All with minimal english from him and less Vietnamese from us…
We had decided to get to Hue from Da Nang over the Hai Van pass, made famous (fairly) recently by a Topgear episode, but in the past as an important defensive line during the American War. We opted for jumping on the back of an Easy Rider Tour guides motorbike to get the most out of the views and also so we didn’t have to negotiate the pass on tiny automatic mopeds. After our driver had strapped our bags onto the back we were off, climbing the mountain and cruising around bends, all the while staring down at the beautiful bays below.
We reached Hue, the capital city throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, and were excited to explore the imperial capital and eat the dishes the area is known for. The Nguyen Dynasty which ruled Vietnam set up an elaborate and hierarchical royal court, centering around the Forbidden Purple city, the emperor’s residence. Unfortunately much of the palace was destroyed during the Vietnam war, though restorations are stills ongoing and you can walk around the city to get a sense of the scale and grandeur of what remains. We learnt Emperors had sometimes hundreds of wives and dozens of concubines, while being presented with fifty dishes per meal, though only choosing a few to eat. Not a bad life I suppose!
This leads us on to why Hue has some of the best food and most unique dishes in the country…mainly to keep the king from getting bored, as he could only have the same thing a couple of times a year. Luckily for us lowly peasants many of the dishes still survive in local restaurants today and we set about finding some of them. Hue is famous for its spring rolls, where the meat is grilled on lemongrass spears and comes with a peanut dipping sauce, as well as Com Hen or mussel rice and savoury, crunchy pancakes called banh khoai. Delicious!
Further south a tropical storm was scheduled to hit and the winds and rain had found their way north to Hue…and like that our ten month trip of heat and sweat is over…it was been nothing but jumpers and socks since. Braving the elements we hired bicycles and set out to find the tombs of some of the most prestigious Nguyen emperors. Interestingly when things at court got too much the king would go and relax at his tomb many of which had lakes and living quarters, even theatres attached. While he was there the emperor could also check up on how his mausoleum was progressing…maybe a little morbid! After our problems with muddy fields and punctures we didn’t get to see as many of them as we planned but we made it to Minh Mang’s tomb, impressive in its dilapidated elegance. We also trekked out to see the Arena, where elephants were made to fight tigers for everyone’s enjoyment. Though the gates are locked you can still look through and see where the animals were released into the fighting pit. Some local kids had climbed through the blocked entrance and played around in the open green space, having a whale of a time…I suspect they had no idea what used to happen there.
With the rain still falling we headed inland to see some caves..but thats for next time.