La Residence is a luxurious place to stay, and the breakfast platter was no exception. A huge range of fruits, yoghurt, and a charming Irish chef that’ll prepare eggs however you want. Probably the best selection of all the hotels we stayed at. It’s all very decadent, and colonial.
Sam’s book, “Over the moat”, is set in Hue, and she already knows a lot about the place. We had a quiet morning, and at 11ish we ambled out of the hotel to explore Hue. It was already very hot, temperatures were in the mid thirties. Outside, a couple of tuk-tuk drivers waited at the front gate, hassling everyone for business. We smiled and walked away, down to Perfume river (Song Huong).
At the river’s edge we walked towards town. Swan boats were moored, tied up and unused in the quieter rainy season. The river was quiet, as were the well tended pretty gardens we walked through, with their artistic and obscure sculptures. The distant towering flag pole, the symbol of Hue more than anything else, grew closer.
We reached the busy white Phu Xuan bridge and crossed the river. A motorcycle stopped and asked if we wanted a lift, there’s always someone on the lookout for business, we politely declined. The roads were thriving, and motorbikes streamed past, each rider with their dainty thin as an egg shell helmet, occasionally on their arm rather than their head.
At the end of the bridge the huge 37m flag pole towered above us. We walked left, down another busy road, over a moat, through the Quang Duc gate and into the citadel, a walled city that is the heart of Hue.
At the gate there are five cannons, representing the five elements, and at the opposite gate, Ngan, there are four, for the four seasons. We studied them, mainly as means of staying in the shade. Then, in the heat once more, we strolled in front of the imperial enclosure, along another moat. This is a fortified citadel within a citadel, and its entrance is behind the flag pole, you just have to walk the long way round to get there.
We entered through the grand Ngo Mon gate, with its billowing red Vietnamese flags. Though visitors enter through a side gate, the main opening is reserved for emperors, of which today there are none.
This enclosure, and the citadel, were all built in 1802, when the then emperor, Gia Long, founded the Nguyen dynasty and the capital moved south from Hanoi to Hue. But of the 148 structures in the ornate enclosure, only 20 have survived the French and American wars, with much of the area obliterated right at the end of the American war.
The enclosure itself is enormous and we intended to spend most of the day here. Already roasting, sweaty, tired and hot, we were thankful every time the sun escaped behind a cloud, a little temporary shade never went amiss. It wasn’t the right day to wear a tight black London 2012 t-shirt.
The gate leads directly onto the grand Thai Hoa palace, where photography is forbidden. It’s a single large room, red and golden, an empty echoey chamber with red painted pillars and Chinese decorations. In the centre sits a throne, golden and raised higher than everything else, with ornate creature like feet.
Out the back a Samsung TV runs on a loop, showing a video which explains the layout of the enclosure, complete with 3D computer models showing how it all might have once looked, and functioned.
The palace opens out onto a courtyard; sitting pretty in the middle lies a great golden dragon, both menacing and bemused, and perhaps in need of a dentist, its teeth splayed out awkwardly. On either side were old imperial offices, now tourist shops and art galleries. One room let’s you dress in traditional imperial clothes and have a photo taken, for a fee. The corridors and buildings immediately beyond are being renovated, many of them completely rebuilt, with new wooden pillars and roofing just going up.
From these new buildings we headed West, and found ourselves looking out into a grassy field where two elephants were roped up, waiting for someone to pay for a ride. The larger of the two was missing a tusk. A donkey and cart trotted by, the cart a red and golden affair. There wasn’t anyone taking the ride, but given the size of this place it would probably be worthwhile. At a little hut, seemingly a restaurant, but without any food, we took pleasure in our fast melting ice lollies. Sam won a MacBook Pro, apparently.
We double backed and visited what once was the Forbidden City. Beyond the courtyard and an eight foot wall, where there would have been a royal enclosure, a citadel within a citadel within a citadel (this is all a bit Inception-like), the gateway instead opened to grassy mounds and ruins. It was all overgrown and waiting attention, all signs of any royalty were gone.
Only the galleries seemed to have survived, and much of that was newly built. Between them, and away from the sprawling grasses, some perfectly trimmed tortoise topiary has been added. Walking about the ruins, you find shards of ornate tile work, intricate decorations blown apart, scattered, amongst grass, or mud, or part buried.
We kept stopping in shade to rest. It was hard going and we were hungry. We stopped by the emperor’s old reading room, then beneath some trees, then beneath some stands with cool tiled floors and a light breeze.
We stumbled onto the rebuilt Royal theatre, a music and dance show was in mid swing, it looked good through the slit wooden panels as I sipped on my cold 7up. We decided to come back another day and watch the full show. Slightly beyond lay an area filled with scaffolding, and old building parts, marked with green numbers. Renovations in full flow.
4pm now, and we were desperate for some food. Despite the size of this place, all you could buy were ice creams, and a lowly packet of crisps. We searched high and low for more food, and kept uncovering huge parts of the enclosure we hadn’t seen. Eventually, amidst the gorgeous To Mieu temple complex, which we realised we weren’t taking in, we decided to head back. And come back another day to finish it all off. A giant spider, waiting in the dark, on the wall of a temple, helped us make that decision.
Stupidly, we walked all the way back too. And here the roads are much more difficult to cross. When crossing, find a local and use them as a shield, trust they know what they are doing. We still haven’t got the hang of it yet and it still feels so remarkably dangerous. We took the main road back, going West, past the national school where Ho Chi Minh had studied, and the Ho Chi Minh museum next to our hotel.
Exhausted from the days trek, the heat and the sun, we took a dip in the very deep pool and ordered some poolside comfort food. Though the pool was too deep for me, the shallowest part two metres deep. And when I came to dry myself off, I found myself being bitten. My towel has been next to something sticky and had been covered in ants, now I was covered in ants and the ants weren’t happy. Ants just bite you to hurt you. Our beer came, we moved to another table and I angrily ploughed into a large plate of special fried rice.
Up in our room the sun was setting, and twilight across the river and the pool was lovely. In the evening we really did relax. We sat in the bar with some cocktails, planning tomorrow, reading about some tours, writing about Hoi An and listening to the bar’s chill out music (from a Spotify playlist no less).