Next stop on our trip was the old Imperial capital of Hue (pronounced Hway). There is an airport at Hüê but it was closed so we caught a bus from Da Nang airport, a journey of around three hours. The bus ride was an event. Vietnamese roads aren’t great and, as mentioned, the driving is terrible. It’s sometimes best not to look – seeing a fully laden tourist coach or truck heading straight towards you on the wrong side of the road is both scarily common and just plain scary!
The bus driver had no teeth. Which I’m sure is an occupational hazard of driving up and down those potholey roads all your life. After a while, I guess your teeth just jolt out. I’m surprised he had bones! The only solace from the bumping and the impending doom was that I had a Buddhist monk sitting next to me. Surely nothing bad would happen to us with a man of God on board. After one particularly scary near miss he took out an Ipad and began typing away. I took a peek over his shoulder to see if he was maybe sending a terse email to the guy upstairs but he was just on Facebook.
Hue is a great place to soak up some of the culture and history of Vietnam and the ideal way to do this is via a Monuments Tour. First stop was the tomb of the Emporer Minh Mang. This was pretty sensational, consisting of three main areas – the main gate, the temple and the tomb. The Minh Mang tomb was very elegantly laid out, very orderly and symmetrical. When we were there, these ponds were filled with lotus flowers which was gorgeous.
Minh Mang was quite the lad; fathering a total of 151 children from his 40 wives. Not so Khai Dihn, whose tomb we visited next. On his death, one of his concubines said that Khai was “not interested in sex” and “physically weak”. This, along with his love of fashion design has lead to speculation that he may well have been the gay prince of Vietnam.
If the Minh Mang tomb is a model of restraint and orderly design, then the interior designer of the Khai Dinh tomb, was to steal a phrase from the Luxe Guide’s description of the Cao Dai Temple “clearly Liberace or on drugs or possibly both”. It’s awesome!!!!! An absolute riot of gold and the most lovely intricate mosaics!
There was also a third tomb but you know, after you’ve seen the Khai Dinh, there’s only one way to go…and it’s not up. Also, the open air café next to where the bus stopped was selling freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and who doesn’t want a bit of that?
Me actually, it wasn’t great. Freshly squeezed sugar cane juice tastes, quelle surprise, like sugary water. Still, the prevalence of the fresh stuff could explain why the mojito’s in Hüê were the best I had.
In the afternoon we went to the Thien Mu Pagoda which was beautiful – we reached this via a boat ride. The Pagoda is situated on the banks of the river in some very pretty gardens. The complex does have a dark heart though. In one of the outbuildings is a car from the 1960’s one of those ones with the fins you always see in the movies. “Cool” you think. “Even the monks in the ‘60’s had wicked style.”
Then you read the plaque on the side and find out that this was the exact car that a monk, Thich Quang, drove to Saigon in 1963. When he got there, he stopped the car, sat down in the middle of an intersection, poured petrol over himself and set himself alight in a protest against religious persecution. Those monks from the ‘60’s were hardcore. No arseing about on Facebook for them.
The actual act is on You Tube for anyone who wants to see it – I haven’t watched it (and won’t be watching it) because it’s a person burning themselves to death and hence the type of thing that is likely to give me the screaming heebie-jeebies for months. But the link is here.
If you’re so inclined, knock yourself out. For those of a not so psychopathic
more sensitive disposition, you can learn more about Thich Quang and this fascinating piece of history via a BBC podcast here.
There was a detour on the way to the pagoda. We were ushered off the boat into a garden and I guess, like me, a few of the others assumed we were at our destination. We were greeted in the garden by an old lady who told us to follow her. Which we did because she was going to lead us to the pagoda right? Not so much. We start walking through the garden. Then she pauses and points at a tree. “Mango” she says, pointing at it. “Nice” we say, nodding.
We walk on. She points out other trees. “Apricot…lychee…banana” and we continue to nod. “Yes…I see…interesting”. We keep walking. She keeps pointing out trees. We keep nodding and agreeing. This went on for a while – possibly too long – there was a moment towards the end where I think both sides were just phoning it in. She gave us a bit of “Mango….mango….mango,” and we gave back some “Yeah…right…whatever.” It might been more interesting if there had been fruit on any of those trees. As it was, she could have told us pretty much anything and we would have nodded and agreed like a bunch of dummies.
Anyway, shortly after the mango, mango, mango episode, we ended up at the front gate (exactly where we started) and she asked us all for money for touring her garden. Huh? Where’s the pagoda? There were rumblings….the Germans and the Dutch were not happy about this development but she was not letting anyone go without them paying up. One of the Dutch tried to sneak past her – I’ve never seen someone so old move so fast. She was spry!!! Must be all the fruit. No one ever explained why we went there. I suspect she was the tour guide’s grandma.
Given that the actual tropical garden was kind of underwhelming, it was ironic that our favourite restaurant in Hue was a place called the Tropical Garden. This was really cute with tables set in the garden with little thatched rooves over the top. Very Gilligan’s Island! I so wish I’d worn my gold lame dress just like Ginger’s. Until I remembered I only own one in my dreams…
Huh… I just realised my whole sense of fashion, hair and makeup is pretty much derived from Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart….who says tv doesn’t influence young minds?
The food at The Tropical Garden was super tasty but the best thing about it is the absolutely terrible band. I guess Vietnamese folk music is an acquired taste because, our first time there, Mark had his back to them and shortly after they began to play frowned and asked. “What’s that noise? Is that cats? Or the band?” Mind you, they also set the local dogs to howling so I guess that, much like us canines can also not appreciate the nuances of the Vietnamese folk scene.
By no means should you let this put you off though, in fact I”m only telling you this to encourage you to go and hear it for yourself….we went three nights in a row….
Our other favourite place was a restaurant / art gallery called Confetti. This had great food at great prices and nice art. But you know what? After the quirkiness of The Tropical Garden, it all seemed a little normal….
So, I have a new camera and have been cooking up some Hüê inspired delights. Aubergine was a popular vegetable there so first up I have a very simple grilled aubergine / eggplant based on the recipe in Simple Good Food by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman called Grilled Aubergine with Nam Pla and Basil.
My version is called “Hey, Hüê, It’s Vietnamese Inspired Aubergine”
1 Eggplant / Aubergine, sliced into rounds about 1/2 centimetre thick
1 tsp tumeric
1 -2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp lemon or lime juice
1 tbsp Nam Pla (Fish Sauce)
1 tsp sugar
1 birdseye chilli, finely chopped
Chives, finely chopped
Basil leaves, finely chopped
Mix the tumeric and the olive oil and dip your eggplant slices into the mixture then place them under a hot grill. Turn them once they start to brown – you may also have to redip them if they get too dry.
Whilst your eggplant is cooking, mix up your lemon juice and fish sauce. Add the chopped chilli and chives. Once the eggplant is cooked, place on a plate and dress with the fish sauce mixture. Scatter the basil leaves over the top.
This is a great side dish or, I quite like it just on crackers. You can also mess with the mix as much as you like. Add some ginger or garlic or your choice of flavourings!
And here is my “Minh Mang-o” Daiquiri.
I large mango, chopped
1/2 cup white rum
1/4 cup lemongrass, ginger and chilli simple syrup (I used the recipe here)
Juice of 1 large lemon
2 dashes Agnostura Bitters
8 Ice cubes
Place all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth.