Hue is a popular spot in the tourist guidebooks. They’ve all been here. Frommers, TripAdvisor, and of course Lonely Planet. How do I know? Every restaurant and guest house in town has their @mentions printed on a sign out front. That’s all well and good, especially if Hue delivered the goods. But in my mind, it just didn’t.
Tourists have been coming here for a long time, and the local hawkers are skilled at drawing you in, monopolising your attention, and conning you into paying way too much for whatever it is they’re selling.
Motorbike ride, taxi, pedalo, sunglasses, silk paintings, boat rides, “very good ganja” or just a bite to eat. You never have to want any of it, because it’s in your face at every turn. We couldn’t walk more than 10m without being hassled about being taken somewhere, and it got bloody annoying when I just wanted to go for a stroll along the river.
Hue is a small city, situated on the lovely sounding Perfume River in central Vietnam. We knew right away that it was a university town, given the disproportionate number of young adults and coffee shops everywhere around.
Away from the tourist restaurants that are all huddled into one street, are the real centres of Hue’s night scene. Restaurant / Bars occupy an entire street corner, and tiny tables with even tinier stools are set out on the sidewalk right up to the roadside. Like if you stick your foot out, you will get run over by a motorbike or even a bus. Students are crammed in cheek by (butt) cheek, debating the state of the world and planning for how they will change it.
The music pumps loudly from inside the restaurants, competing with their neighbours across the street. Scores of students huddle around the tables drinking cheap beer, and snacking on fried pork skins or Hue’s specialty – ground pork, barbecued around a stalk of lemongrass, and then wrapped in fresh herbs and rice paper. The atmosphere was alive with laughter, conversation and food, and is the best way to spend an evening in Hue.
Touristing in Hue
Hue’s claim to fame is the Citadel, the former residence of the kings of Vietnam before the monarchy was abolished by Ho Chi Minh. Also known as the Imperial Palace and the Forbidden City, it can be a little confusing as to whether there is one place to visit here, or several. It’s more or less one huge complex, built in the 18th century, and rebuilt several times until the last and final time when many of the good parts were destroyed by the Viet Cong as they camped out here, using it as a makeshift military base.
Surrounded by a moat and a truly enormous outer wall, it was a well protected city within a city. Add a few more special cities within the city within the city and you have an impressive complex just to keep the monarchy living in their own splendid isolation. We visited the Citadel on a blazing hot day, so we didn’t cover the entire grounds, but the parts we did see were really special.
The site would have been about an hour’s walk from our hotel on a hot day, so we were “coaxed” into taking one of the colourfully painted dragon boats across the river to get there in 15 minutes. I say coaxed , because we were hounded by one boat driver after another, as we entered the park that runs alongside the river. We talked one nice looking lady down to 80,000 dong from 100,000 (£2 from £3).
We giggled as we boarded the wildly painted boat, shaped like a huge aluminum dragon. But the joke was on us. The real sell started when we pushed off from shore. Covers were ripped off of displays of souvenir tat along both sides of the boat, and this high pressure sales lady went to town. When we didn’t seem to like what she had on display, she started pulling things out of cupboards and boxes.
Everything from lacquered bowls to fridge magnets, dolls and silk pyjamas were paraded in front of us. We got away with a set of magnet dolls, making those souvenirs multitask for us!
Of course we weren’t deposited on the other side at the boat dock. That would have been too easy. Nope, the boat pulled up on the shore at the makeshift restaurant that the boat lady’s friend runs. It was another booby trap, designed to monopolise our transportation, our stomachs and our wallets! We ducked our heads and made a run for it.
As we looked back at the boat pulling away, we saw “Tourist Boat Ride 15,000 per person” painted large on the side of the boat. We had negotiated our way down into paying almost double the clearly advertised cost.
Winning. At. Travel.
We entered the citadel through an impressive set of gates over the moat, over which sat a ceremonial “stage” for important events. Behind us was a massive fortress, much more modern, with gold coloured canons and one enormous Vietnam flag waving over it. There was nothing else around this odd mound of rocks apart from the outer moat, and it seemed very out of place with its surroundings.
Once through the ornamental gates, we passed over a causeway between two koi ponds filled with golden koi and snaky looking dragon fish. From there, we walked up a terrace or two, until we reached an entire building that housed the throne room, and blocked the way into the Forbidden City – the royal residences – beyond. In its time, only the king and his eunuchs were allowed in this room. Everyone else had to wait outside in the sweltering heat, in order of importance. Women, of course being last.
I couldn’t help wondering though. Why Eunuchs? Why are these kings always surrounded by “memberless” men? Throughout history, many kings have insisted only castrated men were allowed contact with their wives and concubines, just in case anyone had any funny business in mind.
Were these kings so insecure in their power that they had to exercise complete control down to the most basic of human functions? The last monarch in Hue had commissioned a set of twelve magnificently enormous canon that still surround the Citadel today. There was never any intention of firing them. They were there for looks. And they were huge and rather phallic. I sensed a theme.
Anyway….the throne room was a large open space, with high vaulted ceilings supported by huge wooden pillars, painted in red and gold. The sole piece of furniture in the room was the gilded throne, which sat under a decorative canopy. (No photos allowed inside).
It was here in this spot, that Austin decided it was time to lose his second tooth. He stopped in his tracks, turned toward the throne, and announced “I want to lose my tooth here”, and proceeded to pull it out of his mouth. My son is certainly developing a taste for losing teeth at UNESCO monuments.
The rest of the Citadel was comprised of a few pretty teak and ceramic temples, and gorgeous red shuttered walkways, surrounding the barely visible foundations of the palace rooms before they were levelled.
After about three hours, we were hot, tired and hungry – and at least one of us was getting increasingly cranky. So we left for lunch and a nap in our room during the heat of the day.
We’ve noticed that the Vietnamese respect the siesta, and you can find them basically asleep wherever they might have fallen during the middle of the afternoon. Sleeping on a motorbike, park bench, in the shadow of a building column, or even on the back of a water buffalo…all totally acceptable.
Lessons in language
I had agreed with our hotel owner that I’d have a coffee with his friend who is learning English, but somehow misunderstood that the whole family was invited. Once we got that worked out, I trudged back up to our room on the fourth floor with no lift, to round up Mark and the boy, and back we went to meet not just one friend, but two.
We were introduced to a bubbly English teacher and her pupil, who was due to have an English language proficiency interview as a condition of her Canadian Visa so she could go to University abroad. Spending an hour making small talk with native speakers is an excellent way to hone your language skills, and we had a brilliant time chatting with these two lovely ladies about our own respective cultures, and the opportunities that travel gives us. It was a chance meeting, and I’m grateful to our host for asking the favour of us.
Afterwards, we were taxied to the “Walking Street” along the riverside – basically a collection of wooden shops set up along the promenade, much like a Christmas market might be in London, but with prettier woodwork. We didn’t find anything to eat or buy there, but we did meet the most extraordinary 9 year old Vietnamese boy.
We’d been struggling with Austin for a while at this point. His behaviour, his attention span, tantrums and general attitude had been deteriorating to the extent that we were trying to decide whether continuing to travel at the pace we had been going is the right thing for him.
It had resulted in a lot of negativity, and we’d been focusing far too much on his faults than his strengths, talents and qualities. He’s a different brand of kid…spirited, strong minded, and with a such a strong sense of balance, justice and equality that I’ve not seen in many humans. He has only maximum speed, maximum volume and maximum intensity, and his switch is on or off – he has no dial that can be turned down. He lives life on full blast, and when you’re around each other 24 hours a day, with no breaks for yourself, it can start to be a bit much.
As we strolled down the riverside promenade, we were greeted by a chubby smiling kid who made a beeline for Austin. Besides the fact that the child spoke perfect, nuanced English, it was immediately obvious that he and Austin spoke the same language. They hit it off straight away, running, playing, being silly, and lecturing each other on their favourite bits of knowledge.
They had a deep conversation about plastics and the oceans, and at that moment, I realised that there is hope for the planet. Their generation is coming of age in the time of climate change, plastic bag bans, and floating plastic islands in our oceans. This is the generation who will always recycle, always look for alternative materials, and will always make resource decisions based on the whole picture and not the needs of the few.
The two boys were cut from the same mould – or so it seemed. Soon Kai (the boy’s name) showed another level of intensity that we hadn’t yet seen, and quickly surpassed Austin’s “full blast”.
He oscillated between gregarious kid and professor. He showed me a little weed called a dog plant, and explained how to make a tea out of it to cure disease in your liver. He told me that dogs will eat the plant after they give birth, but not at any other time. And he showed me how the leaves close over the seeds at night to protect them. And he told me all of this in perfect English.
He told me that marble is a metamorphic rock. In English. He described to me, in terrific detail about his favourite zombie video game. In English. He explained comets and meteor showers. In English. He described kidney stones, and what causes them. In English.
It was obvious this child is on another level to absolutely all of us. He was just delightful, and never stopped talking. We suspected that his parents bring him out at night just to get a bit of a break for themselves. We identified with those parents. He’s a special child, and their love for him meant they provided an outlet for his talents that they alone couldn’t provide.
In the context of what we’d been experiencing with Austin, we were humbled at the creativity of how these parents have handled their extraordinary 9 year old boy. We vowed to do better.
They said that he took a single English course, and has in insatiable appetite for information about any and all topics. They were educated, but their English was nowhere near his level. We fell in love with this child immediately, and spent about an hour and a half just enjoying the experience — and giving Austin an outlet for some of his energy.
It was just what we all needed.
Eventually, the parents triggered their “out’, and prompted Kai to enquire whether we had had dinner. He gave a well practiced apology for monopolising our time, and gave us permission to take our leave. But not before he spontaneously gave us each a bear hug – this kid clearly doesn’t have gradients either.
We walked away knowing that Kai was Autistic, and likely settled a question in our minds about whether Austin may be himself. It’s a spectrum of course, but Kai broke apart our perceptions of autism and opened our eyes to possibilities. Maybe Austin is, maybe he’s not. It doesn’t matter either way. But we owe it to him to find out, and we’re committed to doing so.
The universe has a knack for sending you just what you need, when you need it. And we needed Kai in our life at that exact moment in time.
We left Hue the next day – grateful for the experiences that had nothing to do with the sights of the city.
Our train out of town was at 9:30 pm. With a day to kill, we spent the entire afternoon at a pretty little cafe next to the river, and the evening at a corner bar/restaurant/hostel in the middle of town. The staff played Jenga and pool with Austin, and Mark and I snuck in a few beers to go with our delicious Banh Mi.
The train gave us one more opportunity to be extorted as tourists in Hue. We were occupying 3 beds of a four bed cabin, and within minutes, the conductor came to our door, phone in hand, with a paragraph written out in Google translate.
“At the next stop, I will assign someone to the fourth bunk, but you can pay me 300,000 dong (£10) and I’ll let you keep the room to yourself.
Mark told him to fuck off, and he immediately dropped the price to 150k. We rolled our eyes, and handed him 100,000 dong, and shut the door in his face. We kept our private room, and were violently rocked to sleep as the train bumped along the tracks through the night.
In the morning, we woke up to spectacular limestone karst hills jutting straight up from green flat rice paddies tended by people in pointy hats. The quintessential Vietnam landscape. We were finally leaving the city and heading into the countryside of Ninh Binh, and were excited to see what rural Vietnam had in store for us.