A Travellerspoint blog

July 2013

The Forbiden City, the cuisine and the Citadel in Hue.

sunny 36 °C

We can’t believe it’s nearly August! Everything so far has gone so fast. In a few day we will have been away for 8 months.

So, we arrived in Hue and after leaving the noisy and stressful train we were greeted by motorbike taxis touting for business, the usual pushy men who are obligatory at every transport hub in Southeast Asia. We walked straight past them and although we don’t normally we decided to walk it to our guesthouse. It was 1.5k and a bit hard towards the end with our big bags in the heat but we found our place. The walk was mostly by the perfume river which is really nice. All along is a park and although the streets are wide and busy with traffic it was immediately less crazy than Hanoi. We enquired at Binh Minh sunrise 1 Hotel and were shown two rooms of differing prices which were both lovely. The hotel is a short walk to the main tourist area which we always try and do as we can’t be bothered with all the hassle in the busy areas. They do a twin room for $8 with en-suite and fan. For $12 you can have a big double room with air-con and breakfast. All the rooms are nice though and they all come with a fridge and a kettle and cups. We checked into the better room and showered and relaxed. Chelsea had not slept well on the train so she was tired.

We went out for an explore and ventured towards the main tourist area for lunch. There are a lot of places to drink and eat, all relatively expensive compared to local food or street ford and all with happy hours to bring in business. We saw a board which offered a burger, chips and drink for a happy hour price and decided to have one. It was nice but we were constantly approached by people selling things, mainly sunglasses and paintings but also motorcycle tours. On our way back to our hotel we called in a place with 5000 dong (15p) beers and had a couple in the midday heat. We didn’t really do much else on our first day.

In the evening we tried to find a cluster of Bia Hoi places that we had read in our guide but they were nowhere to be found so we went to our cheap 5000 dong a beer place and ordered a few snacks to have with our beer. We had the obligatory spring rolls and had two Hue specialities. The spring rolls in Vietnam are way better than any other spring rolls we have ever had. We tasted versions of these in Malaysia and Thailand but the ones in Vietnam are amazing, they don’t even compare… we can’t stop eating them. Soon we are going to turn into chubby spring rolls! We had Banh Beo which is small circular steamed rice pancakes in tiny bowls topped with savoury flavours, we had shrimp. It was really strange and is a sort of flour and water paste that is steamed and then served cold with the topping with a pork scratching on it. The texture is sort of gluey. We also ordered something similar, another Hue speciality where the same rice flour paste is steamed but in a banana leaf with a savoury topping and we had crab. This was even more gluey and sort of slimy and they are both served with fish sauce to flavour. We are glad we have tried them but we were not really a fan. Afterward we set of in search of a main meal and were lured into a happy hour place where we got buy on get one free GIANT beers and shared an awesome pizza. We were in need of some home comfort food and have now had our fix for a while. After we had savoured our pizza we played pool in the bar which was a change and headed back.

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Today we were up nice and early and sat in the hotel restaurant having breakfast. It is a nice change to be staying in a nice hotel as we normally go for small guesthouses. The main perk for us is a kettle so we can have unlimited cups of Yorkshire tea in our room! The TV is a hindrance though because Liam can’t be dragged away from it. Breakfast was ok, bread, cream cheese, toast, jam, butter, fruit, juice, coffee and omelette.

After getting our fill of breakfast we decided today to visit the citadel. Hue is the former imperial city of Vietnam and before it was bombed during the war housed an elaborate royal citadel where the ancient emperors lived. It is in walking distance to our hotel so we crossed the river and walked down the other side towards the old walls. The river has a park running alongside of it and vendors line the walls selling all sorts of things. One man just sold birds in cages, there was a lady who sold orchids and there was a shop to buy pet fish. Also there were men sleeping in chairs selling war memorabilia, water canteens and medals and others selling Vietnamese pottery.

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The citadel is surrounded by city walls and a moat and we crossed the water into the ancient town. Inside is now residential and a normal part of the town but inside the main citadel is a smaller citadel where the king lived. Sort of like a citadel within a citadel. Surrounded by walls and another moat is the forbidden city of Hue. We walked towards the citadel and noticed that inside the walls is considerably quieter and greener than the town.

On the way we were continually approached by men trying to get us to go on a cyclo ride around the city. They were telling us things were closed and that it was 10Km away and telling us that it was in the opposite direction. We just ignored them as we knew where we were going and they were trying to con us, conning seems to be a theme of Southeast Asia. On the way we went past a war museum where they had old tanks, planes and helicopters from the war on display and we enjoyed having a look.

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The interior citadel’s moat is beautiful and the water is covered in water lilies. The entrance fee is 105,000 dong (less than £4) but count your change as the lady tried to con us by giving us change from 250,000 dong not 300,000 dong which we pulled her up about and she gave us the money.

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As you enter it is lovely, the gates on the walls are especially impressive with multiple doors. The central door could only be used by the emperor and the doors furthest from the centre were used for less important people, the end doors were used for the elephants. On entering you cross a bridge over a carp filled pond and you can buy some fish food to feed them which we enjoyed.

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We looked around the Thai Hoa palace which is extremely ornate and walked around the Forbidden City and citadel grounds. It is a little strange. The buildings that are there are in various states of restoration. Some have been totally restored and have shining, painted ornate exteriors where as some are crumbling beautiful ruins, relics of Vietnams former glory.

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It was interesting to walk around the complex and it almost feels a little deserted and barren at times. Some of the gardens have been kept but some have been left to become overgrown, strewn with old chunks of building.

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We really enjoyed it. The only criticism that we had was the terrible restoration the complex is currently going through. It seems like they have decided to restore a lot of the citadel at once so a lot of it is crudely tarp lined with fraying, multi coloured tarpaulin. The people working on it seemed to obviously be living there and so their litter was strewn over the areas being restored while they just laid around, sleeping, eating and socialising with each other.

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We spent a long time walking around the grounds and it has been really sunny today so after a few hours we were struggling. We exited one of the beautiful gates into the town and found a little street drinks stop to sit and have a rest looking over the park. Liam had a sugar cane juice and Chelsea had lemonade and we recuperated our energy in the shade. We walked back through the citadel on the way back to our hotel, calling at another place on the way home for refreshments and cookies.

We would really recommend a visit to the Forbidden City if coming to Hue and it is definitely worth the entry fee. It was not particularly busy with people and was quiet and really interesting. They show a video in the palace which explains the different areas and is really informative.

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The late afternoon consisted of us sat in our lush hotel room, updating our blog and drinking copious amounts of Yorkshire tea. Tonight we are crossing the river and eating over the other side away from the tourist area for a change. We are spending one more day in hue and have decided we think to rent bicycles and cycle around the citadel and down the river, maybe calling at a royal tomb on the way or maybe to go on a boat down the river. We’re not sure yet but we will keep you updated.

Posted by Chelsandliam 03:15 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hue Comments (3)

Our last day in Hanoi

Hanoi to Hue by train

rain 32 °C

This morning we were not surprised to find that it was pouring it down, monsoon rains has been the theme of our trip in Vietnam's capital. We checked out and the hotel said it was no problem for them to take care of our bags for the day. We stepped onto the streets in our rain coats and with our umbrella and tried to find a money exchange service where we could exchange our leftover Lao kip but it became an epic pain in the bum when several places refused to exchange kip. Walking around the busy streets in the thrashing rain suddenly became an unpleasant experience, especially when having to dodge the motorbikes in the tiny narrow streets filled with obstacles. We were finally directed to a pawn shop who actually gave us a better rate than we had researched on the internet but we were a little wary walking in.

After we headed to old town to find something to eat and sat down at in inexpensive street-side place, one of those places with the plastic childsize chairs and tables and ordered some grilled chicken and rice. It was actually really delicious succulent chicken with rice, vegetables and pickled salad. We sat relaxing and watching the streets. They are chaotic. Motorbikes race up and down, weaving around big cars who just beep their horns. Street vendors wheel their carts up and down and women with baskets sell fruit. We were approached by around five different men all selling a plethora of lighters but the shop was small and the nice lady fussed over us.

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We decided that even though it was raining we were going to do what we had planned and have a walk around the French district. The French district is beautiful, it has lovely colonial buildings which house all the upmarket shops and hotels in Hanoi. The streets are lined with sparkling posh shops, Gucci, Omega and Hermes all centred around the central area where the opera house is. The opera house is a huge building with columns directly opposite the stock exchange. It is like wandering around a different city compared to the small, busy streets of the old district. We found a coffee house and sheltered from the rain with a warm drink until the rain had settled a little bit. During the walk Liam’s flip flop had broken but we managed a quirky rubber band fix and were set to go again.

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Since it was still torrential and we were totally drowned we though why not just sit in a café all afternoon and headed back to a nice café we had previously found looking onto the cathedral called Marylyn’s. It is a gorgeous little colonial building overlooking the square that St Josephs is in. Downstairs is a boutique shop but upstairs is a little café where you can sit for hours and watch the world go by. The coffee in Vietnam is some of the best we have had, really strong and tasty and it is accompanied by thick sweet milk, really delicious to have over ice. There are even street-side stalls set up where you can pick from hundreds of coffees, including the famous weasel coffee. We sat all afternoon drinking and talking and when we were ready to go the rain had thankfully stopped.

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Our train was at 7pm but we had heard from travellers we had met a few months ago that the trains just go whenever so it can be an hour late or it might set off an hour early. We collected our bags and headed for a restaurant near the train station we had read about. It is an outdoor area covered by rain protection with lots of tables in the centre and lots of different micro restaurants around the edges. It was described as a collection of street food restaurants with one menu where you can order bits f different things you want. We ordered BBQ pork, rice, green papaya and cured beef salad and spring rolls. It was nice but in our opinion not as tasty as the real thing even though the atmosphere was lovely. We walked to the train station and tried to find our platform. There is no platform on thee ticket just a train number so you have to wait in the waiting area until the train is called. They then put a sign up with the name and the platform. They check you tickets on exiting the waiting area and you can only go through when the train is called. We only had to wait half an hour and pur train was called.

We had bought the cheapest sleeper tickets we could get, hard, third bunk beds which were still really expensive compared to what we normaly pay to travel but we just couldn’t face another overnight bus. The trains are really nice, there are 6 beds to a cabin, two rows of three level bunks. The bottom bunks are the best and most expensive but the middle bunks are quite good too. The top bunks are very shallow and very close to the ceiling, a bit like laying in a rocking coffin. We inelegantly clambered in giggling to each other and with the lad that was below Chelsea. There are no ladders, just little tiny metal notches on the wall to cling to. There is a baggage storage area up on the top bunk and you get a duvet and a pillow. Once we were in we were shocked at how small they are and repeatedly banged our heads on different things.

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The train set off promptly and Chelsea who never normally needs the toilet very often needed the toilet three times, disturbing everyone in our cabin and apologising for having to walk on their beds. We got a short but very loud blast of the national anthem, a story about Vietnam and then we were on our way. We arrived in Hue at 9.30am ish as we were a little delayed. We were worried that we would sleep through our stop as it goes all the way down to Saigon but there was no danger of that. Even though there is no call for the stops telling you where you are they blast the national anthem and tell a story at every stop. However we would still recommend an alarm just in case as no-one lets you know what is going on. Once we realised we would soon be pulling in we got our bags down and shoes on and stood with everyone else departing at Hue in the corridor. The talking and music was deafening and could not have been more grating, unless there was also a screaming baby next to us… which of course there was.

The train journey is one hundred per cent the best way to travel long distances. You can actually sleep, unlike when you go on a bus and they keep turning the lights on a beeping the horn and it is fun and easy.

Posted by Chelsandliam 01:42 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hanoi Comments (1)

Visiting Halong Bay........In the Rain

rain 26 °C

We woke early this morning as the trip we had bought to Halong Bay started at 8am. It has cost us $25 each, and after looking into it we would have struggled to do it cheaper on our own, plus we would have had to worry about what bus, what time etc. With the tour we can just go and follow the guide, plus we get lunch.

Our guide picked us up from our guesthouse on time, we then had to walk through some of the city to the lake where the bus picked us up. We collected several other people on the way which involved a lot of waiting which was annoying but we just followed suit. The first thing we noticed was that there was a lot of people on the tour, at least 40, which we think was too much. It was a very diverse group, and we even had the obligatory screaming baby to contend with. Within 5 mintutes of getting on the bus the heavens opened, we were not that bothered at this point as Halong Bay is 3 and a half hours away from Hanoi so chances are it would not be raining there also.

We were wrong....

The journey to Halong Bay was not too bad, we had a break after around 2 hours where we got a coffee and some biscuits, the we carried on our way. The closer we got to Halong Bay the worse the rain got. Some of the roads were even flooded as we neared Halong City, but this was the least of our problems. With the rain came very overcast skies, mist and even fog, meaning you could not see very far at all, not ideal when you are going to be out at see looking at a natural wonder. We were a little disheartened but there was nothing we could do about it so we decided to make the best of it.

When we finally arrived we were a bit shocked by the wharf. We expected something a bit special but it was just like a very busy ferry terminal. Perhaps if we could have seen the view through the windows and we were not running to take cover from the rain we would have had a different opinion. The whole port was mobbed with hundreds of people waiting to board boats and there was 200 plus boats on the water. We boarded our boat around 1pm, and found a couple of window seats. We had to be seated with six at each table for lunch so our guide sat an elderly Chinese family at our table which turned out to be great, Although they didn't speak a word of English we communicated best we could. Lunch was served and we followed the Chinese families example of how to eat it. It was delicious, we had rice, a clam broth, steamed fish, spring rolls, nuts, an egg dish and stir fired vegetables. We seemed to be the guests of honour at our table and the family loved showing us how to eat each dish. We ate lunch as the boat pulled out of the harbour, as w got closer we could see the limestone cliffs of Halong Bay and it was an awesome sight to eat lunch to.

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Our fist stop after lunch was at a floating village. The boat meandered through the limestone cliffs and pulled up next to the village. You could go on kayak or pay for one of the villagers to row you into a cave under one of the larger limestone cliffs. It was still bouncing down so we opted out and just admired the view around us. Most of the group went on the boats and all came back drenched, not ideal when you have to sit for another few hours in wet clothes.

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The mist was still thick by this point, and you could not really see the limestone cliffs until you were upon them but the views were still amazing. In every direction big limestone islands tower above the seas, some small mounds, others vast rocks outcrops with greenery on them. The mist gave a eerie atmosphere and we could not see that far so we could not get a scale of how magnificent Halong Bay was. We were a little disappointed but did not let it ruin our day. The boat took us to see some of the more famous shaped cliffs such as the 'Fighting Cock', so called as I looks like two fighting cocks.

Our final stop was a cave which was our favourite part of the day, Although a tough climb up some steps to the entrance the cave was vast, full of stalagmites and stalactites, inside was illuminated by hidden lights in various colours, the walls were as smooth as glass where water had run over it for years and formed some distinct shapes. We got in front of the rest of the group so we did not have everyone in our photos and made our way through. We were in there around half an hour and when you emerge at the other end you have a vantage point over some of the bay. The view would have been great had it not been for the mist.....

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We had been on the water around 4 hours and then our boat made its way back. Thankfully, or sods law, the mist started to lift as we made our way back so we could final get a scale of the place. It is astounding seeing the cliffs spread all the way to the horizon and as far as you can see left and right. Unfortunately the overcast skies meant the light was poor and our photo do it no justice but it was beautiful.

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We set back off around 5:15pm, and the bus driver we had decided to drive as slow as possible so we did not get back until 9pm. We were starving by this point so stayed out and made our way to another of the beer joints and ordered beers and food. Tonight we shared, spring rolls (yes again), pork dumplings, pork kebabs and fried chicken, It was awesome. On the way back to the guesthouse we called at a weekend night market and browsed the stalls.

Although the weather was against us we have enjoyed today. It has been a long day, and we do not think that group tours are really for us, mainly because we do not like waiting for everyone, but we are happy to have seen Halong Bay after looking forward to it for so long. Tomorrow night we move on to Hue, via train, we have thee day to spend in Hanoi, a city which although manic we have grown to like, mainly due to its culinary scene, but there is a lot of charm here too. We are looking forward to the rest of Vietnam.

Posted by Chelsandliam 09:34 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hanoi halong_bay Comments (2)

Getting rained on in Hanoi

rain 31 °C

Today has been a soggy day of sightseeing. We got up nice and early to find Hanoi was overcast with stormy skies and heavy rain. We got ready and stayed inside hoping it would clear. By 11am it still had not cleared and we were eager to get out so we put on our rain coats and braved the rain. We walked through the back streets and went into a small cafe for a morning coffee. Vietnamese coffee is very strong and sweet as they put condensed milk in it and it was delicious. After half an hour in a cafe we went in search of some brunch. We had previously read about these sandwiches with pâté and different meats and we spotted on in a small alley. It is called Banh My Pâté and we weren't really sure what to order as there was a cooler full of different things. We just asked for two and the lady said 'meat' and we said yes. She then said 'everything' and we obviously said yes. She warmed up some bread in her street side oven and then fried an egg in a pan. She added pâté to the pan and let it cook. She then filled the warm baguette with three types of meats and salad and added the cooked egg. It was yummy and really tasty, a great brunch meal which we ate in shelter from the rain under a shops tarpaulin. 

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We then headed for St Joseph's Cathedral as we thought it would be worth a visit but it was closed until 2pm. We decided then to walk to the train station and have a wander around the french district which according to our guide book is in that area. The walk to the station was quite long and very wet as it poured with rain the whole time. The streets are mental, continually full of traffic weaving in and out and beeping their horns. All the paths are filled with parked motorbikes so you have to walk on the road and the pavement is uneven and muddy. When we arrived at the station there was a queuing system like Argos. You took a ticket with a number and waited to be called. It soon became apparent that no one gave a flying frig about the system and it was just a free for all so we joined a huddle that had formed around a kiosk. When we finally got to the front a man tried to barge in front but Chelsea said 'no' and we were seen next. we bought a ticket to Hue for the 29th as we had read the trains can book up and it cost 703000 dong.  It is quite expensive for us but we just can't face another overnight bus journey so soon after the horrificness that was the journey from the border to Hanoi. 

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After paying for and collecting our train tickets we set of in search of the French district. It very soon became clear that our guide book was garbage and that the French district it pointed out was a collection of big French buildings on big wide traffic polluted streets and did not transport you to Paris like it promised. A word of advice to anyone wondering which guide book to take to SEAsia. Do not buy a rough guides one, they are crap in every way possible. We are hoping to find the real French district before we leave as our other guide book points to a different area of the city. After a wet and disappointing walk around the city we headed back to the Cathedral.

 The area around the cathedral is lovely. It is full of small streets that all meet at the cathedral and that are full of really small eating houses, cafes and shops. There is everything from small Vietnamese street food style shops to expensive boutique clothes shops and posh cafes. We went into a really nice cage overlooking the cathedral and had a drink to get dry out of the rain. We sat for a long time lingering over our pricey drinks, talking and watching the street. It was lovely. 

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After we went into St Joseph's and were surprised by its interior. The outside is quite an unattractive concrete building but inside is really nice. Wood carvings, stained glass and high ceilings. It was nice and peaceful and we sat on one of the pews for a while admiring the architecture. It was a nice change to see a church and we haven't seen one for months. 

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By this point it was late afternoon so we headed back to our guest house. We relaxed and showered, dried our rain macs and washed our muddy feet. For tea we walked to the old district. We are still shocked everything we go out at just how busy and frantic the city is. We walked around for a while overwhelmed and not sure where to eat and settled on a Bia Hoi place for a 5000 dong beer. We ordered several snack bits to share for food and it was gorgeous. We ordered crab spring rolls, steamed pork dumplings, fried chicken, and a sort of chicken stir fry an rice meal and we shared them all over several beers. It was a great, relaxed meal and the best way to enjoy Hanoi we think, sat on small tables on the street trying several different nit-bits. 

After 4 Bia Hois it was time to come home as we have an early start tomorrow. We have booked on a trip to Halong Bay. It has cost $25 but we don't think we would be able to do it ourselves for that price so we though we would book onto a stress free trip and let someone else take us. We are looking forward to it and have been since we were back in England so hope the weather is a bit better and we can actually see it. 

Posted by Chelsandliam 09:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hanoi Comments (3)

Day One in Hanoi

sunny 34 °C

After recuperating in our room after our sleepless bus journey we were ready to go out and explore. There is only really one word to describe Hanoi, manic. We have not experienced anything like it, the streets are jam packed, there is a constant heavy flow of traffic which mainly consists of motorbikes. The sidewalks are apparently not used for people to walk on but for everyone to park their motorbike on, the small room that is not taken up by bikes is used by shops and small restaurants that spill out onto the streets. We explored the Old quatre today, the streets are narrow but this does not deter the traffic, junctions are like nothing we have ever seen, no one stops, there are no traffic lights, everyone just drives and somehow avoids each other. This makes crossing the road incredibly difficult as because no one ever stops you just have to go for it and hope they somehow miss you. All of this chaos is accompanied by the soundtrack of blaring horns. Each one seems loader and grates on you more than the last.

Apart from this obvious shock, we have quite enjoyed our first day here. We went for a stroll this morning, and called at a street restaurant for brunch. We went to a restaurant that only serves 'bun cha'. There was no menu we were just given enough for two people. The meal consisted of BBQ'd meat and pork patties that come in a thin stew, another bowl of a pickled vegetable that we can not agree what it was, noodles, herbs, chilli, garlic and some crab spring rolls to share. We had enough food to feed half a dozen people but it was utterly delicious and we made a good dent in the giant portions we were served.

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This kind of stuffed us up and made walking around a bit too difficult. We took a break from the stress streets and headed to a small lake that sits in the centre of town. Apart from people trying to constantly sell us, fans, drinks, and food it was calmer and we took our time making our way around. After this we ended p going back to our guesthouse, we were still slightly tired from the previous night, the temperature had gone through the roof and we were totally stuffed from our epic brunch.

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A few hours later we were ready to brave the streets again. Tonight we decided to call for some of the super cheap beer we have heard so much about, and visit a street food restaurant in our guidebook. The streets do not quieten at night. It did not put us off though and we walked for around ten minutes to the first bar. There is a beer in Vietnam that is called Bia Hoi. It is incredibly cheap, we bought two tonight at two different bars and they were 25p each. They seem to be a kind of home brew as they both tasted drastically different. we have read the beer is so cheap as it does not last very long so it has to be sold within 24 hours or so. That is fine by us.

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For dinner we called at a place called Bittek. It specialises in beef, so we ordered what we thought was beef steak and chips as this is what other people were eating. Instead we got a stir fry beef with veg and chips in a kind of gravy. It is not at all what we ordered but it was strangely delicious, and we can not think of why we have not though of stir frying chips before. After another super cheap beer it started to rain so we made our way back.

Our first day has been slightly overwhelming but we can see the appeal of the city. For how busy it is it is still charming and the food going on todays evidence is spectacular. We plan to explore in the opposite direction tomorrow. We have not 100% decided on how long to spend here yet, but we do plan to do a day trip to Halong Bay before we start our trip south.

Posted by Chelsandliam 07:04 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hanoi Comments (2)

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