Our second stop in Vietnam was Hue, the capital of the country from the 19th to early 20th centuries. We wanted to book the tourist class Livitrans from Hanoi but since we were unsure about going to Sapa until the last minute, we waited a bit too long and the Livitrans were sold out. We then moved onto our second choice, the regular 4 bunk sleeper cabins, but even those were sold out! So we settled for the 6 bunk sleeper cabin and I was disappointed and worried. I’ve taken trains many times in China but the last time I rode in a cabin with 6 bunks was in the 90s and back then I was much smaller.
Henry’s family took us to a BBQ/hotpot feast on our last evening in Hanoi and sent us off on the train with an assortment of fruits, drinks, and other snacks. They also bought silk “cocoons” for us to sleep in on the train so that we wouldn’t have to touch the dirty sheets or get bitten by bugs.
The train ride turned out to be worse than I had hoped but better than Henry expected. 6 bunks leave very little headroom on each level so no one could sit up when we got on. Luckily, once it was daytime, we propped up the middle bunks so that we didn’t have to slouch any more. Our cabin with 6 bunks only had 4 occupants and although we don’t speak Vietnamese, the other two passengers tried to communicate with us through a combination of charades and pictionary. They were so friendly and we all traded snacks for the duration of the trip. We arrived in Hue around 11am and headed to the Jade Hotel. Our room only cost us $20 per night and included a delicious breakfast of Hue special beef noodle and amazing service. Every time we came back into the hotel from the outside, we were given cold towels (believe me, you need these in hue), fresh fruit juices and fresh fruit. The staff was excellent and this hotel truly deserves its high rating on Tripadvisor.
The hotel was certainly the highlight of Hue, as we soon found ourselves being ripped off left and right. Perhaps the same would’ve happened to us in Hanoi but with Henry’s family guiding us everywhere, we didn’t have to worry about anything until now. We rented a motorbike for 80,000 VND ($4) and headed for the imperial tombs SW of Hue. I thought we would be ok with a map and iPhone, in reality, there are many more roads and paths than the maps show and the points of interest are poorly marked. We found Tu Tuc’s tomb with a little help and ventured inside to see the tomb. Even though Hue’s tombs and palace were built less than 200 years ago, they are all covered with a thick layer of black mold from the moss and humidity in the area. It’s something you won’t see in East Asia. After a vendor tried to charge us twice for parking our motorbike at Tu Tuc’s tomb, we went off in the search of Minh Mang’s Tomb.
This tomb is further out of town and we were completely lost. When we finally found the wall that surrounds Minh Mang’s tomb we couldn’t seem to find the entrance and a young man stopped us on the street and told us that we already passed the entrance. So we turned around and headed back only to be flagged down by a lady with a roadside stand. She told us that the entrance to the tomb is 200 meters behind her stand and asked us to park our motorbike there. Even though we were unsure, we were tired of hunting for Minh Mang’s tomb and decided to follow her directions. We walked down the dirt path that she told us to and when we clearly passed 200 meters and didn’t see an entrance, we headed back as quickly as possible hoping that she hadn’t messed with our motorbike while we were out.
We gave up on Minh Mang’s Tomb and got onto the motorbike to head back into town, stopping at some food stalls on the way. Since Henry’s family paid for everything while we were in Hanoi, we really had no idea how much things are supposed to cost. Our first banh mi cost us 20,000 VND ($1). We found out later that banh mi is supposed to cost 10,000 VND ($0.50).
The next day, we rode the cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) to and from the Citadel, Vietnam’s version of the Forbidden City. Despite our clearly negotiated rates both times, the cyclo drivers tried to charge us 40,000 VND ($2) per person versus per cyclo. We learned quickly that the best way to avoid a long drawn out argument is to have exact change so just pay and walk away. We arrived at the Citadel at 7:30am, right when they open so we were the only tourists in the palace for the first half hour. Despite how early it was, we were already sweating profusely from the heat and humidity. We’re just not cut out for this Vietnamese weather. The Citadel was a victim of US bombings during the Vietnam War and unfortunately, the vast majority of the structures were destroyed. The government is in the process of rebuilding but it is a slow process and only a fraction of the original palace has been restored. We had a good time exploring and were out of there by 9am.