We say farewell to Hanoi – laters, you crazy city – and head for Hue. Hue! That’s pronounced ‘Hue’, not as in Hugh and Cry, or Hue as in Hughie and Louie, but Hue as in ‘hooray’ when said by Jonathan Ross.
But first, here’s some slo-mo footage of a crossroads in Hanoi Old Quarter that I think is a thing of beauty. Turn your speakers on.
It’s an early morning, 70 minute flight from Hanoi to Hue. You wouldn’t have thought they’d bother offering breakfast, but they do. That’s the first surprise. The second is that I’m willing to give it a try, my last breakfast being three hours ago. The third surprise is what’s on offer. I can’t have heard the crew member right and ask her to say it again.
‘For breakfast is chicken pie.’
This is perhaps the last thing I’d expect for breakfast, and the least Vietnamesy thing I’d expect at any time. Would I like a drink with it? Well, I’m on holiday AND I’m about to tuck into a hearty, warming pie, so I ask for a glass of red wine. The server looks at me as if I’ve asked for the bottled tears of Ho Chi Minh’s widow. ‘No wine!’ she says. I say to myself that’s probably just as well, wine would be silly, what was I thinking, but she says ‘You can have beer!’ I settle for coffee. The pie has a surprisingly crisp pastry crust. I later learn from my friend John that Ho Chi Minh was once a pastry chef on English cross-channel ferries. Perhaps chicken pies are served in his memory. It’s that sort of country.
We arrive at the Eldora Hotel and check in using an iPad. How modern. There’s a Renaissance feel to everything else, though. It’s a lovely place. Well done Mrs Mills.
The amazing thing was how little the place cost, offering 5-star luxury but being comparable to the rate of a Travelodge back home. We could stay in the hotel all day, but we have Hue to explore. Let’s go!
For about 150 years until 1945, Hue was the capital of Vietnam. The Citadel, or Imperial Palace, was built for the Emperor and his family. A bit like China’s Forbidden City, it once comprised many courtyards, temples, pavilions and pagodas, but many of them were destroyed during and after the Tet Offensive in 1968. (Hue is where the second half of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was set, although as everyone knows it was actually filmed in London’s East End.)
We have a guide for the day and he escorts us around what’s left, explaining the significance of this statue and that building. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Vietnam and Cambodia it is that anything with a royal or religious element is rich in symbolism. Everything has a meaning. I suppose it’s not that surprising when you consider who’s responsible for the buildings. There’s the client – in this case a self-proclaimed Emperor – and his architects; then you have to add to the mix buddhist monks, who tell you things like how many levels you need and where the serpents need to go; and a geomancer, a kind of mystical town planner who determines the layout of your construction using a pointy stick and some divine inspiration.
First up, Thien Mu, Vietnam’s tallest pagoda. After checking that is has the requisite number of sides and levels we move on to a smaller edifice containing a giant cast iron bell.
The trick with 1,700 kg cast iron bells is to refrain from striking them with your knuckles. Any sound you get from the bell is easily drowned out by your sudden cry of pain.
Next we pass the 1950s Austin Cambridge that a Buddhist monk called Thích Quảng Đức used to drive to a busy Saigon road junction in June, 1963. Upon alighting…hang on, wrong choice of word… Upon leaving the vehicle, he doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire. It was his protest at the South Vietnamese government’s treatment of Buddhist monks. The car clearly receives a lick of paint now and then, as it used to look like this.
We check out the various other buildings, statues, gates and elephant-shaped bushes found within the walls of the citadel.
That evening we dine by the side of the Perfume River before returning to our strangely guest-depleted but ever-so sumptuous hotel.
It’s a Saturday but, because we’re on holiday, it’s indistinguishable from any other day. We don’t lie in or anything. That comes soon, I hope. Because today we’re leaving Hue and looking forward to a few days’ chill time at a coastal resort. We jump in the back of another Toyota Camry and ask the driver to point the car at Hội An, about 120 kms south east.
He’s a guide as well as our driver so we stop a few times at local points of interest. There’s a lakeside fishing village, the Marble Mountain (lots of steps, lots of tat merchants selling trinkets made from stuff that isn’t marble, but also some beautiful roofs); and a beach at Da Nang where American servicemen used to go for a bit of R&R during the Vietnam war.
The beach is mightily popular but, unless the coachloads of tourists disembarking there have some connection with the place and are returning for old times’ sake, it’s hard to see what the attraction is. It’s just a stretch of beach, although I later learn that it’s a good surf spot.
These are old American aircraft hangars at Da Nang. There’s loads to see and do in both Cambodia and Vietnam for those with an interest in the Vietnam War. You can visit a B-52 Museum in Hanoi, hold a rocket launcher in Cambodia and even shoot an AK-47 in Ho Chi Minh. Maybe next time… for now, let’s hit the sunbeds!