The List / Travel / Vietnam

Hue, Vietnam: It’s a Festival!

If you check out TravelFish’s description of Hue, the imperial capitol of Vietnam, you’ll see that the tagline reads, “Hue: Not as Fascinating as You Might Expect.” I have to admit, it left me a bit less than thrilled about our upcoming time in the city, but it did serve to lower my expectations for our days there.

The train ride from Da Nang to Hue is worth getting a seat on the right-hand side for the views in the first hour or so: the train tracks skirt the cliffs, providing incredible, though slightly scary, views of the coastline. It was an unexpected vision of Vietnam for me; I had nothing but rice paddies firmly entrenched in my imagination.

Hue is, first and foremost, busy. The amount of motorbikes, bicycles, cyclos and cars is overwhelming, more so even than Saigon. We reached the city in the early evening and after depositing our bags at the hotel, set off to explore. For a Tuesday night, we were amazed by the steady stream of traffic that never seemed to wane. Of course, there was a festival occurring this week.

After seeing the lineup of events in Hue, I decided to rename it, “City of Festivals,” as it seems that there is always some sort of celebration going on. In the three days that we were there, we saw a beer festival, a national cultural celebration, the lighting of the Citadel (which was very cool, and I’m glad we were there to see it), a drum/traditional music exhibition and I can’t even remember what else.

The city is dominated by the Citadel, which encloses the Imperial City, Thai Hoa Palace, Forbidden Purple City and other structures. The Ngo Mon gate is impressive, as is the other restored elements of the walled city. The true grandeur of the area is described and shown in a short video after you walk through the throne room; it does a fantastic job of showing what it looked like originally. Not all of the structures are restored and the Forbidden Purple City is in ruins; I thought something “forbidden” would be more…scenic. However, exploring the grounds was interesting and the ancestral alters were truly inspiring.

My attention was caught when we first walked through the Esplanade of Great Salutations: I saw elephants. With people riding them.

I’ve always wanted to ride an elephant. I’m not sure why…I think it might go back to early days with The Jungle Book, or maybe Just So Stories. In any case, I’ve always pictured myself on the back of a noble pachyderm, swaying gently on the platform, looking serenely into the jungly distance (I have a very detailed imagination).

I thought this was the perfect chance to get a ride, especially in the Old City, the former seat of Vietnam’s capital. I patiently waited my turn, graciously stepping back when two little girls and their dad were ushered ahead of me by their tour guide (well, I didn’t say anything. But my face shows everything, so I think the pushy tour guide got the point. I tried to be gracious with my face). Finally, it was my turn and I was on the elephant, swaying gently along with his lumbering strides, just like I’d imagined.

But, to be honest, it was not exactly as I’d imagined. It wasn’t terribly exciting, and really, I felt ashamed of myself. Here I was, on top of an elephant whom I’m sure wanted to be anywhere else but here. He would stop and contemplate the cobblestoned path for a while. He’d turn around and head back to the sugarcane pile and the mahout on his neck, guiding him, would bonk him on the head with a mallet. Another boy came along in front and coaxed him into walking again with big armfuls of grass. Which the elephant would munch happily and then stop once again. All of a sudden, the mahout was brandishing a long pole with a wicked hook at the end–he’d catch the top of the poor elephant’s ear with this device and yank until he started moving again.

Thankfully, it was over soon. I’d smiled for some pictures, but I gratefully disembarked and hurried off. My stomach was in knots for the elephant (who was now happily crunching on more sugarcane and getting a bath) and I was mortified that I’d contributed to even a little of his pain and discomfort.

So yes, I can cross “ride an elephant” off of my List. But I’m not proud of it. Instead, I’m going to add a caveat to that item: learn how to take care of an elephant. Because that, I think, will be infinitely more rewarding in the long run.

On another hand, I did finally get a ride in a contraption that I’d had my eye on since Saigon: a cyclo. Just a short ride, but it considering the amount of traffic whizzing around us, it was quite thrilling. And no, Heather and Brian didn’t join me. Instead, they bundled me into the cyclo with glee, snapping photos and laughing.

I’m just glad that I can provide such a source of amusement.

We stayed in Hue for two nights, which was plenty of time for me. Yes, there were mausoleums that we skipped, and we didn’t take a boat trip on the Perfume River, but we saw a fair bit of the city. The best part of Hue, though, was some of the people that we met: Lum, who worked at our hotel, shared freshly brewed beer and rice snacks with us while telling us about his family. Mr. Cu, the owner of Mandarin Cafe, gave us postcards of his photographs and signed them for us, pressing a walking map of the city that he’d designed into our hands. And Mr. Tu, whom we ended up not taking a motorbike tour of the mausoleums with (we just didn’t have time), was sweet enough to walk me across the street so that I wasn’t run down by oncoming traffic.

While it may not be as fascinating as I thought before we arrived, I boarded the train to Hanoi with baguettes in my hand, contented with the time we had in Hue.

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