We left the hotel and walked over the Trang Tien Bridge onto the side of the Perfume River which hosts the Citadel. HuÃ© is essentially divided in two, with the older part of the city still surrounded by walls on that side. There’s an enormous flagpole (the largest in Vietnam) which flies the national flag outside the main “inner citadel” gates further south. Apparently for a couple of months in 1968 the National Liberation Front flew their flag from it. It’s big, but not as big as the Jordanian flag you can see from Eiliat (the flagpole is in Aqaba). Given that it’s the world’s largest flagpole at 130m (426 feet), that’s not surprising. The one here in HuÃ© is a “mere” 37m.
Over the bridge, we fended off the cyclo drivers who tried ton convince us it was a long way to the structure we could already see and walked further inland up to the moat. There we took a left and passed many small local fooderies and houses with the green water to our right. The old walls are crumbly-looking but solid and gates are placed every hundred metres or so.
At the Ngan Gate, we entered the Citadel area at a patch of what would be grassland in a cooler country. A quick left past there, again dodging cyclos, took up across a courtyard and to the Imperial Enclosure. This is effectively a “citadel within a citadel” – if Lonely Planet didn’t call it this, I’d have used the same words anyway. It’s the old royal residence which houses several temples and palaces, though much of it has been destroyed over the years, mainly by war. The good thing is that it’s currently being restored using traditional techniques with the aim of rebuilding the entire complex in its original form.
55,000 Dong will get you into this place and it’s worth a wander, even with the tourists milling around. Some of the structures are the originals, some repaired, some being built from scratch and some just don’t exist any more / yet. The main gates passed through on entry have five portals, each used for different ranks and there’s a royal balcony above that used to be used for presentations and so forth.
Inside, the first building that will strike you over the bridged ponds is the Thai Hoa Palace. This was a reception hall and is made mainly of carved wood in a traditional “two buildings jammed together” style. All very grand. There’s a CGI video on constant looping play in the rear room, behind the throne room which is worth watching. It details the areas being restored and what the whole complex looked like originally and how it can be expected to look when work is finished. It’s only five minutes or so and does give some good information.
Behind the Palace are the two Halls of the Mandarins, essentially preparation rooms for the royal receptions. They’re now used for more touristy things. Want a photo dressed as a Mandarin? Hire a costume and click away. Spend more money and you can get to sit on a throne or even be carried around by some “slaves”. Prices are displayed outside.
After this is a huge courtyard which was once the Forbidden Purple City which was reserved for the emperor alone. The Emperor’s reading Room is a gorgeous building, but you can’t go inside. Lovely to look at, though. Around the back of it is a large still pond where you can get some excellent photos of dragonflies if that’s your kind of thing. Well, I was pleased with the snaps I got. It’s not often they’ll pose for you and let you use the super-macro function of your camera.
Leah rested in the shade of a small pagoda while I snapped some pictures of a dragon on a phoenix up on a plinth, then we walked down the west side of the complex taking in the Dien Tho Residence (Queen Mother’s house), Phung Tien Temple and the wonderful To Mieu Temple Complex in the south west corner. This is one of the areas where restoration has been completed. If they can get the rest of the place up to this standard I’ll be very impressed.
Again, Leah wilted here and we sat for a few minutes wondering why nobody had thought of placing an ice cream stand right in front of is. Food and drink was definitely needed, so after a quick look from the royal balcony area, we walked back out the citadel gates and onto more public streets.
A small cafÃ© on a corner caught our eye and we followed the waitress upstairs. The menu said that they were recommended by Lonely Planet, but they’re not in my edition. Well, changes to occur and the food was very good so if you want a snack then you can’t go wrong at the Lac Thuan at number 06 Dinh Tien Hoang. The view’s good as well, and you can watch life pass you by on the streets below.
Recharged, we took a walk back into the Citadel to see the two lakes. The first, Tinh Tiem, is split in two and has bridges going across. The bamboo one to the north was closed, but we spotted people on it – and found out they’d climbed round the outside of the bridge to get some peace and quiet! The other bridge takes you to a small island with a nice view over the vegetation-shrouded waters. Locals sat on the banks (or in one case on a small boat) and fished.
A little further up is Tang Tau Lake which has one island in the middle. Lonely Planet reckons this is some kind of Buddhist retreat, but when we walked up we saw a load of kids playing football outside and families cooking. It certainly appeared more residential than reverential. As we walked back into town, some well-groomed boys outside a hairdressers pointed and tried to wave us in. I removed my cap to show I had more hair on my face than on my head and they had a good laugh!
We freshened up at the hotel then looked for somewhere for dinner. Cathi 24 got a good write-up for muchines in Lonely Planet but we couldn’t find it where it’s supposed to be on the map. Down another street we found “Cathi”, which isn’t the same place but where we had a good couple of meals while a young kid on another table tried to burst our eardrums with a whistle. Around the time I was wondering if I could insert it somewhere on him which would make him whistle each time he farted, the family left. Thankfully.
On the road back, we popped into Bar Why Not? where I had a locally brewed beer (they have a couple in HuÃ©), then a Johnny Walker. Then a local whisky/rice wine – which was pretty darn tasty. Certainly not as harsh as I’ve ever had and definitely something I’d consider trying again.
And that was the end of our one full day in HuÃ©. A lot of walking, but it’s an easy city to get around. You don’t need to worry about cyclos and motos here.