Hue, Vietnam – A Day on the Perfume River

In the valley of the Perfume River south of Hue, once an imperial stronghold, lies Vietnam’s “chateau” region. Home to the mausoleums of seven past kings.

Choosing a Tour

There are various options for visiting the area – a combination boat and bus tour, renting a bicycle, a motor bike tour or chartering a private boat. At just $16 we chose the private boat with a boat captain but no guide. Generally we prefer exploring places ourselves with the write-up in the guide book being sufficient information. Honestly, I get tired of the dates, measurements and other dry facts that guides like to spout and really just want time to wander and soak up the ambience of a place.

The next morning after breakfast at the hotel, we head back over to the Mandarin Café where we had booked the boat. The owner of the café, an enthusiastic older gentleman, greets us, gives us a cup of tea and chats with us about his photography, other Americans he knows and his problems over the years with the Vietnam government. He thinks the itinerary the young woman had written for us the evening before is too long and suggests we just see the three top sights, the mausoleums of Minh Mang and Tu Duc, and then the Thien Mu Pagoda on the return trip back to Hue.

Getting to the Boat

We meet our boatman, Captain Tam, and he takes us, one at a time on his motorbike, the thankfully short distance to the dock. If I thought that the traffic was chaotic when watching from sidewalk, riding in the middle of it didn’t make it any calmer. Now the other motorbikes come straight at you with the drivers weaving around each other. It works for well them, but scares the hell out of me.

Sitting alone at the dock I wait for Tam to return with Don. An old woman passes me with a cage full of small black birds and tries to sell me one (I think). Then a group of six teenagers, four girls and two boys, approach. Without saying a word one of the girls snuggles up next to me and hooks her arm through mine as her friend does the same on the other side. Then one more on each side. The boy takes a photo with his cell phone. Of course, they then have to have their individual shots. One by one they sit next to me to have their pictures taken.  Not one word is said to me in English or in any other language. I’m just an interesting foreign object to be photographed with.  I can’t stop laughing at the absurdity of it all. Don and Tam finally show up and we wave goodbye to my new friends.

Dong Ba Market

Tam offers to cook us lunch on the boat. We hesitate at first. This could be OK or go very wrong, but we like the idea of going to the market with him and how bad could it be? The Dong Ba Market was much like other markets we’ve seen, only here there was not one Westerner in sight. We watch Tam negotiate the stalls. They seem not to give him the price he wants to pay for the fish. He explains that men don’t do the shopping in Vietnam and therefore can’t get a good price. Stall after stall he gathers more and more ingredients. Just how many people is he planning to feed? We tell him enough. Ok, just a little beef for the noodles and we return to the boat.

On the River

As the owner of the café suggested, we start at the mausoleum furthest from Hue and work our way back. Based on the number of tourist boat crammed at the dock of the first pagoda, this turned out to be a wise suggestion.

The trip downstream took about two hours. Here, as on the Mekong, we pass dirt-hauling barges. Only here the dredging operations are much smaller. Small boats with a pumping mechanism that runs sand and water through a screen to collect the sand. They then take their load to one of the conveyor belts along the riverbank where they unload the sand into small trucks or piles left at the river’s edge.

Shortly after leaving Hue, the buildings disappear and fields of corn and other vegetables line the riverbanks with a backdrop of jungle covered hills. The temperature is about perfect with a soft breeze off the water.

Minh Mang Mausoleum

The Minh Mang Mausoleum was constructed in only three years during the mid 19th century following traditional symmetrical Chinese architectural principles. The series of Chinese pavilions, set in a large park dominated by lakes, are built along an east-west axis that leads to the Emperor’s tomb. Formal courtyards and gardens, a bit shabby now, connect the impressive edifices. Although some of the structures have been restored, there is a general ambience of a forgotten time in need of tending.

Mausoleum of Tu Duc

As we reach the second mausoleum, Tu Duc, Captain Tam tries to convince us that we should take a motorbike from the jetty to the mausoleum. “Very far, two kilometers,” he says.  It’s a pretty day and we really want to get a little exercise. He finally backs down and tells us the way. Once on shore, the motorbike drivers insist that it is too far to walk. We ignore them all and just keep walking, following Tam’s simple directions, “turn right at the main road.” Ten minutes later we arrive at the mausoleum. So much for getting some exercise.

The Mausoleum of Tu Duc was also constructed in an impressive three years in the mid 19th century (23 years after the Mausoleum of Minh Mang). However, unlike the Minh Mang complex, the Tu Duc complex includes living quarters where the Emperor actually lived for 16 years, along with his 104 wives and abundant concubines. The imposing structures on the extensive grounds wind around the lake and connecting streams creating an organic and harmonious atmosphere.

While the tombs of Tu Duc, his first wife and his adopted son are unadorned, the entrances are decorated in colorful patterns of inlaid ceramic. There is a simple peaceful pavilion that overlooks the lake where the emperor wrote poetry and fished.  The most commanding structure of the complex is the pavilion that houses the emperor’s own self-critical eulogy written on a gigantic stele. Four enormous columns painted a soft yellow and decorated with dragons and clouds surround the stone.  An awe inspiring imperial compound that in its heyday – brightly painted with manicured gardens and polished stone – would have rivaled any in the world.

Lunch on the Boat

Back at the dock Captain Tam has our lunch waiting for us, enough food to feed at least four – tuna steak cooked with pineapple and tomato, ramen noodles dressed up with cabbage and beef, fried rice paper wontons, Hue style egg pancakes and rice. The pancakes were best. We’ve had these a couple of times but never so flavorful and spicy. Although the food was on the cold side (it’s hard to keep everything hot with just one burner) everything was tasty and well done. He really does know how to cook!

Tien Mu Pagoda

Our last stop along the river was at the Tien Mu Pagoda. Behind the towering pagoda is a working monastery with well tended courtyards and pavilions. The immaculate temple houses numerous large flowering orchids. The courtyard behind is thick with potted trees waiting for spring. A couple have started blooming early. The care shown here is what the mausoleums lack.

When we get back to the boat, Tam has turned his meager little dragon boat into a gift shop. The dining table is now covered with small prints and postcard. On the floor are piles of Vietnamese clothing items wrapped in cellophane. He’s an enterprising young man. Just how much is lunch going to cost us?

There are varying philosophies on how much you should pay for goods and services in poor countries. Do you pay the super cheap prices the locals pay or give the locals a hand up and pay something closer to what you think their services are worth? Well, Tam wanted 400,000 dong for his lunch, at $20US, that an exorbitant price for a Vietnamese lunch. In most restaurants we’ve been paying about half that. If you want a fair price you should always bargain before the fact and not after. We weren’t too concerned about the money and in the end we gave him what he wanted. Was it the “right” thing to do? I’m not sure.

Dinner at the Garden Club

Dinner at the Garden Club, was not as interesting or as much fun as Captain Tam’s lunch. We ordered, steamed shrimp rolls, stir-fried mixed vegetables, stuffed squid and a seafood hotpot. Only the vegetables were really well done, fresh hot and tasty. This was the first time we’ve ordered hot pot in Vietnam. They served a pot of a seafood vegetable soup and put it in the middle of our table over a propane burner. Since the soup was already cooked, I’m not sure what the point of the burner was. Noodles were served on the side, to be placed in your bowl before ladling the soup on top. The soup was good, but not worth the production. Where is the incredible Hue cuisine promised in the guide book?

For links to all the posts in this series see the Vietnam page.