After surviving our first (of many) overnight bus rides, we arrived shortly after sunrise in Huế. It didn’t take long for us to realize that Huế was completely different from Hanoi, between the culture and history of the city to the physical environment of it. This was a sentiment we experienced throughout each city we visited in Vietnam, which always kept us on our toes and falling more in love with the country.
Huế is known for being the seat of Nguyen Dynasty, and with that, it boasts historically rich sights like the Imperial Citadel and more royal tombs than you can count. I would imagine the imperial background of the city contributes to the polished, developing landscape you can witness there today, which is best experienced while standing on one of the several bridges over the Perfume River. From there, you can soak in a 360-degree view of the citadel on one bank, the city on the other, with colorful boats cruising back and forth across the waters, all encompassed by lush, rolling mountains in the background. Not a bad place to catch a sunset, either.
HOW WE DID IT
We stayed at Ngoc Hung Backpackers Hostel, right in the heart of the backpackers district. It was a much better fit for us, as the hostel was small, quiet, and owned by an incredibly friendly group of locals. The free breakfast featuring massive plates of exotic fruit and omelettes was great of course, but the real treat was the accommodating staff that was always available to offer help.
After checking our bags upon our arrival, we dedicated the afternoon to visiting the Imperial Citadel. This place was like, the Versailles of Vietnam, to give you an idea of scale. However, the impressiveness of the architecture and design no longer meets quite the same standard after taking quite a beating following the war. Many of the buildings on this site, as well as around all of Huế were completely leveled during the war, but it’s inspiring to see so many of them undergoing total restoration. The magic of the Nguyen Dynasty certainly still exists within the citadel walls, though. As we were perusing through the brilliant red and gold galleries, live traditional music filled the air and Nick, Grace and myself quickly found ourselves pretending to be back in time when this royal palace was at its prime.
There is so much in and around the city of Huế to see and do. We never got around to renting motor scooters, but if you did, there are plenty of royal tombs and hidden gems scattered across town and the outskirts in the mountains. Because we were literally melting in the heat, for our second day, we decided to take a cab 15 minutes out of town to the nearby Thuan An Beach. And when we arrived, we found we had it completely to ourselves: a strip of powdery soft sand and gentle warm waves lapping the shore, it was our own personal paradise. While it wasn’t quite a cultural experience by any means, it was the perfect place to soak in the sun and relish in utter gratitude, if that's something you're into ;)
WHAT WE ATE
When searching for good restaurants in Huế, Nina’s Café was a top hit so we decided to find out why. Hiding in the back corner of an alley, Nina’s is a quaint, inviting spot that had us enthralled for hours ordering a number of items off the menu. Can’t really go wrong here, and I encourage you save room for dessert. Don’t worry about blowing your budget, either.
There’s coffee shops just about everywhere you look in this country, but I can say Tree Coffee was a unique café we happened to stumble into with a great selection of strong, flavorful iced coffees.
The main riverside street, Lê Lợi, makes for a beautiful stroll. Between the parks, the archways, and the selection of store fronts and restaurants, there’s quite a lot to be seen in just a few blocks. There’s loads of trendy bars with gorgeous second floor views, as well as loud karaoke clubs, so take your pick, have a Huda and move on to the next one.
In order to prepare for this backpacking adventure, we of course had to watch at least one episode of an Anthony Bourdain show to get the inside scoop on where to eat. Well, following his advice lead us to a tiny plastic table full of one of the best meals we experienced throughout the entire trip. On the street front side of the Dong Ba Market, local vendors set up shop wherever there’s a square inch of concrete available and serve every type of authentic regional dish you could imagine. We ordered one of everything in site, which resulted in a plate of grilled pork skewers on sticks of lemon grass that you could fashion into a fresh roll, a chicken and rice soup with bone marrow and pig’s blood, and a bowl of beef and noodles. What we paid: $10 for it all. What I would’ve paid based on how delicious it was: a lot more than that. What was the real indicator of how good our food was though, was the fact we sat surrounded in a sea of locals who were all dining along with us and not another tourist in site. This was the real deal. Definitely a highlight of the trip.
I just wanted to take a moment to branch off on this topic though… In some of my upcoming posts, you’ll start to notice the theme of traveling while maintaining authenticity and preserving local cultures. This became a really big deal to us, constantly critically analyzing the way we traveled. As I was preparing this post, I caught a Reddit AMA with Bourdain himself when he touched on this point in regards to food.
Reddit user griffin3141 asked,
Tony, you really inspired me to travel the world. I spent 6 months backpacking in Southeast Asia last year and always made a point to seek out restaurants you'd visited. Thanks for what you do. That said, how do you feel about the impact of a small local restaurant appearing on your shows? Do you ever make a point to not reveal the location of a restaurant? I remember visiting the Soup Lady in Saigon, and it had become a pretty big tourist hot spot. This wasn't the case everywhere you'd been, but the impact was definitely visible at times.
"Yeah, that's a hard question that we wrestle with all the time on the show. I understand there are places that I love because they're sort of untouched, beloved by locals, undiscovered. That's exactly the type of place I love to celebrate. On the other hand I understand that very often the fact that we put those places on TV changes the nature of the business. Next time we go back there are tourists there, they added an extra dining room, the place is less charming. I imagine the locals, who have been going there for years, are kind of pissed at us.
There have been occasions where someone has taken us to a special place of theirs, that is just so awesome, and they express have reservations about putting it on TV. They don't want to see the place ruined. We have referred to places as "restaurant X" or said "we're just not telling you the name of this bar." A few people do the extra work to find the place, at least they have to work extra to find it. There are places that are just so awesome that I will just look into the camera and say "look I'm just not telling you where this place is or what it's name is. I just don't want to ruin it." More often than not, there is an element of destroying the things I love."
I like to see how aware Bourdain is of this idea of preserving a place's magic is when visiting it as a tourist. I think it's safe to say we can solidly trust his judgement as when to promote a hidden gem, and when not to, and ideally follow his lead in the way we promote the places we visit over time, as well.
Budget traveler tip: Next to the Dong Ba Market is a huge grocery supermarket, where you can load up on cheap bottled water and snacks. A major key when you can buy a gallon of water there for the same price as a small bottle at a convenience store. I also discovered a Taro Passion Fruit ice cream there that will forever live in my heart.
And we say, Hue! What a wonderful place to stay :) Two days was all we had, but of course, we easily could’ve stayed longer. Find out where we went next in Chapter 3!