Hue and Hanoi
Our next stop on the Vietnam tour was the city of Hue located a few hours north of Hoi An and would serve as a few day stopover before taking an overnight train up the country to Hanoi. Perhaps it was the fact that we had such an amazing time in Hoi An or the fact that the heat index was 112 degrees the entire time we were there, but Hue paled in comparison to our last stop. We were told by other travelers that Hue was a nice city to spend a few days, but we felt a bit trapped in the city whereas I think a lot of other travelers shell out the money for a tour of the nearby countryside or rent a motorbike. But with our tight budget and still nursing our wounds from our moped fall in Cambodia, our plan was to walk whenever possible...
After arriving and dropping off our bags we made our way straight to the Imperial City or Citadel, Vietnam’s ancient capital. Listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO, Hue was the political, cultural and religious center under the Nguyen dynasty until 1945. The huge, walled complex, complete with a moat surrounding it is filled with both restored buildings and also monuments in states of ruin making it a very interesting place to explore.
Unfortunately, we only lasted about an hour and a half at the Citadel before feeling like our faces were about to melt off. After hiding in our room for a couple of hours in the air conditioning, we made our way outside to explore Hue’s evening atmosphere. Unlike Chicago, a city constructed with a nice grid-like structure, Hue was very difficult to get around with all its diagonal streets and alleyways that dead-ended at many points. It was unlucky (for Jeremy) that I got a bit hangry, and we stopped for mediocre soup before we found the lively backpacker scene with better food options. Still it was fun to walk around the area and have a beer before heading towards the scene on the Perfume River filled with lots of souvenir stalls and boats offering you a cheap ride on the river.
The next day was extremely hot as well so we decided to take a taxi to some of the well-known pagodas just outside of the city center.
The cab driver that took us there was actually nice enough to wait around for us to see the sights and then take us back to the city, dropping us off at the local market for us to explore. At some point once you’ve seen multiple markets in multiple different Asian cities, they all sort of start to blend together. Especially when you’ve got vendors grabbing your arm trying to direct you into their specific stall for goods you’re unlikely to ever use. That evening we discovered that there was a popular seafood restaurant just outside of our hotel that was reasonably priced so we decided to give it a try. We ended up getting some great crab, fish, and vegetables and were treated to several serenades by local vendors with microphones and BYO karaoke hawking peanuts and gum.
Our overnight train to Hanoi didn’t leave until 6:00pm so we had a lot of time to kill before heading to the train station. Since the heat was so oppressive, and we’d felt like we’d hit up most of the touristy things to do in the city we decided to hunt down one of our new favorite things in Southeast Asia, a tourist movie theatre. We were lucky enough to find one close to our hotel and they had Zoolander 2 available, a movie we’ve been wanting to see since we left the states! So we passed away the afternoon in our own private theatre and then found a café where we had some delicious Oreo frappes before heading to the train station for our first Asian overnight train experience!
We were both a little bit nervous for how things would go and I almost freaked out a bit when we got on the train and saw these tiny beds covered in not the cleanest sheets. But, we ended up in a cubby with a very nice (and quiet) older Vietnamese gentleman and then later on a woman about my age. So after having a few beers and eating some rice and chicken (pretty decent) from the food trolley, we watched a movie we’d downloaded on Jeremy’s iPad and then tried to sleep for a few hours before our 5:30am arrival in Hanoi. We both managed to sleep for a few hours, but at some point around sunrise the older Vietnamese gentleman confused what stop he needed to get off at and woke us up, and then once he did actually leave, a family of three got on and took his place on the bunk. Needless to stay, we didn’t really sleep after that.
When we arrived at our hotel in Hanoi we discovered the hotel was still full and our room wasn’t ready,and probably wouldn’t be until early afternoon. So, we dropped off our bags and did what the locals do, had some Pho for breakfast. We choose a popular Pho restaurant just around the corner and the broth was delicious filled with tons of fresh herbs and to my surprise cuts of very nice looking and clean chicken! Feeling reenergized from our Pho and some strong Vietnamese coffee we were off to see Hanoi’s famous Hoan Kiem Lake, “Lake of the Returned Sword.” (Pictured in our first photo).
The lake is one of Hanoi’s most popular landmarks and has a small island that houses the Temple of Jade Mountain; the temple was built in the 18th century and honours the 13th-century military leader Tran Hung Dao who distinguished himself in the fight against the Yuan Dynasty. This was also the first place we experienced a strange phenomenon our friends had told us about...random Chinese people wanting to take a photo of you, but not be in it themselves. My sister had told me that this happened to her all over China, and we have been waiting for it to happen. What these people plan to do with a photo of a random American couple, I have no idea!
Afterwards we decided to head to Hoa Lo Prison where American POWs were held during the Vietnam-American war; it is known sarcastically by soldiers as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Originally the prison was used by French colonists to hold Vietnamese political prisoners. During this time the prison was often overcrowded and the conditions subhuman, torture and execution were common. During the Vietnam-American war there were many American pilots held in the prison including 2008 Presidential candidate John McCain and the museum exhibit even includes his flight suit from the day he was shot down over Truc Bach Lake. The museum displays artifacts stating that prisoners were treated humanely during their stay, but prisoner testimony over the years has contrasting information. It was still a very interesting and informative visit learning about both uses of the prison over the years.
Before heading back to our hotel for an afternoon nap we stopped by two different bahn mi places we heard had the authentic Vietnamese pate we’d be searching for since we arrived. One of the best things about traveling with someone else is getting to share all your food and try twice as much! The first bahn mi we had was from a place called Bahn Mi Lan Ong that has been making the same type of bahn mi for decades and is famous throughout Hanoi. The next bahn mi place, Bahn Mi 25 seemed to be very popular with tourists and locals alike thanks to its TripAdvisor rating and we wished we had enough room in our tummy’s to try another one of their many options.
Rejuvenated after our nap, we headed to a place we’d been looking forward to visiting since we arrived, Bia Hoi corner. At this wonderful little intersection, you’re able to get bia hoi (fresh beer) for only about 25 cents a glass! We chose a storefront with a little old Vietnamese woman and posted up on some colorful plastic stools for a beer or two, or three…
The next morning, we decided to try and have a go at seeing Ho Chi Minh and his tomb, but unfortunately as soon as we got there they closed off the line and we were out of luck. Since we had paid to take a taxi there we decided to walk home and happened to come across a lot of the embassies and consulates in Vietnam as well as some cute alleys filled with shops and restaurants. We also happened to come across another place that does coffee-cookie frappes our new favorite drink! Even though we’d only spent a day and a half in Hanoi so far, we knew we already liked it better than Ho Chi Minh City in the south.
As soon as we arrived in Ho Chi Minh there’d been an air of excitement because President Obama was in town to discuss the Vietnam-American relationship. The excitement level rose even higher when President Obama dined with Anthony Bourdain at a local bun cha restaurant in Hanoi. Of course, bun cha immediately was added to our “must eat” list while in Vietnam. We’d heard of a place through another blogger near our hotel called Bun Cha Dac Kim Hang Man that supposedly had some of the best bun cha around. Bun Cha is a Vietnamese dish of grilled pork patties, noodles, lots of fresh herbs and a sweet and savory broth, or dipping sauce-depends on the restaurant. It was absolutely delicious, filling and the broth/sauce was addicting.
In the afternoon before dinner we decided to check out a water puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, known to be a completely unique Vietnamese experience. The tradition of water puppet theatre has its roots in an art form that dates back to the 11th century. The tradition stems from a time when rice paddy fields were flooded and villagers would entertain each other by standing in the waist-deep water with puppets performing over the water depicting the daily life of rural Vietnamese. Today's puppeteers are highly skilled and really seemed to make the puppets come to life. In addition, a traditional Vietnamese orchestra section to the side of the main stage provided all the music and commentary to the show
We ended the evening again by hitting up bia hoi corner once more before calling it an early night; the next day we were due to be picked up for our tour of Halong Bay, considered one of the natural wonders of the world!