More or less midway from Hoi An to Hue the bus stopped at some rest station located by a lake. We didn’t get the coffee we wanted, but we got something far better and totally unexpected: a spectacular view of a lake surrounded by mountains with little boats adrift, perfect for a postcard.
On arrival to Hue we took a taxi to reach the hostel as soon as possible, as in Vietnam online booking is not a guarantee, even if an internationally acknowledged website confirms your reservation using your credit card number, still it’s very likely that when you arrive in the evening your room will be sold out and the receptionist will be sorry. This time, however, we got there in time and got a cramped room with a bathroom so small that it looked like a shower cabin with a water closet and a basin somehow squeezed in. Being great lovers of Vietnamese coffee, we were quite enthusiastic about the promise of a coffee bar included in the room price, so the instant nescafe we found on the table was somehow disappointing. Anyway, we left our stuff and went out to see the Imperial Palace of Hue, that our guidebook was quite ecstatic about. On our way, we stopped at a street food stand and asked about the price (I don’t know why because there was a big label saying 20 000 VND stuck to the window) of some undistinguishable mixture of rice, pasta, vegetables and something that looked like some sort of animal remnants and tofu.
To our great surprise the price we were told was almost twice as high and when we pointed at the label, the girl selling the food turned red and nodded inviting us to take a seat. It was probably the most insolent and absurd attempt of money theft that we experienced (we were also quite stupid to ask to be honest), though I must admit that for the small price we paid we got large portions of really tasty food. When were are already writing about the prices, I think that I will not cheat you if I say that Hue was the cheapest of the large cities of Vietnam that we visited. We also drank there, right on the doorstep of our hostel, the best and the cheapest Vietnamese coffee ever: 12 000 VND for a huge glass in a pleasantly air conditioned café belonging to a photographer. The owner was very kind to show us his impressive pictures, some of which decorated the walls of the café, unfortunately I lost the address of his website. As for the food, Hue lies too far away from the coast to offer cheap and tasty seafood, yet, as I have already mentioned, you can buy meat and rice at a reasonable cost at almost every corner.
The Palace itself is quite a quite remarkable complex of gardens and traditional Vietnamese architecture, though the renovation, started by Kazimierz Kwiatkowski in the nineties, is still in a very early stage so it’s not as spectacular as our guidebook made us believe it was. The heart of the palace, a few wooden buildings painted crimson, called the Purple(?) Forbidden City, which was once restricted only for the use by the Emperor, his wife, his concubines, and their eunuch servants, is the most interesting part of the sightseeing. The whole palace is part of the UNESCO heritage so it is quite astonishing, that one can find a modern tennis court inside. Maybe because of the incredible heat or because of the fact that there is no place to buy a bottle of water inside or next to the palace, at least not for less than six times the usual price, we were not amazed by the place. It will take years to restore its original magnificence.
We gave up a boat tour to the tombs located along the banks of the so called Perfumed River, which is claimed to be the other must-see for tourists, as after having paid 10 USD for a boat ticket we would have to pay an extra entrance fee for each tomb, which we didn’t find very exciting to see. Instead, we went to the great city market, vibrant with hundreds of voices, colours and scents of vegetables, fruit, fish, spices and other goods. We bought huge coconuts to drink, though actually everything looked so colourful and fresh that we were almost tempted go back to the hostel with bags full of food. The heat was incredible so the smell of meat and fish was not very pleasant, yet we had the feeling of having experienced a real Asian food market, such as the smaller one we visited in Hoi An. In the afternoon of our second day in Hue we got on the night bus to Hanoi. To be honest, if you just skip Hue on your way through Vietnam you will not lose anything spectacular.