Friday, January 23, 2015

Dragon Boats on the Perfume River, Hué

23 January 2013

We took the train from Danang to Hué (pronounced more like whey, NOT hue and not whoo-ay).  It was quite a trip, even though it was only just under three hours.  

The day was a bit rainy, so the windows weren't very clean, and the view was a bit muddled from both the fog and the dirty windows.  But the scenery was incredible, so I have a few photos.

My personal favorite view was the temple complex we passed, with a towering pagoda soaring twelve or so levels into the sky.  If you look carefully, behind the large temple you can see one of the giant white Buddha statues being constructed - he's surrounded by scaffolding, and appears to have a cement base being covered by whatever the white material is - maybe marble, maybe just paint.  I couldn't tell at this distance, but it was interesting to see the process.

The train went through some very hilly countryside, with wonderful views of the ocean; the flat area between the hills and the beach was nonexistent here, the hills coming right down to either sandy beaches or rocky shorelines.  Very dramatic views, and Dad's hat sat on the table and enjoyed every moment watching the varied coastline go by.

There were small towns
and villages, and occasional stops along the way.  But most fascinating, one area was full of sticks in the water, maybe with fish traps or nets, and occasional stilt houses in the sea.  According to the information from the Danang Museum, people use the stilt houses as temporary shelters while fishing, both to house the fishermen as well as their catch.  I really liked the colorful patchwork stilt house, just sort of a special one amongst the usual grey.

We spent three days in Hué, the former capital of the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty.  Very interesting place, full of temples, shrines, all kinds of offerings in front of businesses (we especially liked the pile of Milky Way candy bars for the ancestors who had a sweet tooth).  It was a very full three days, so I'll give an overview of what we saw and all the excitement of the city.

Our train got in about 3 PM, so we had time to walk around and get somewhat oriented in Hué.  The city is divided by the Perfume River - really, that's the name!  It's a very wide river, and there are several bridges connecting the two parts of the city.  Our hotel was in the old part of the city, but not the ancient part of Hué - this will make more sense later.

On our first full day, we decided to take a walk along the Perfume River, even though it became fairly rainy along our walk.  But we were bundled up and prepared, so we walked onward.  Past lovely little shops that are normally open, but this is winter and thus low season, so most of the shops were closed.  They had colorful silk lanterns with tassels fluttering in the wind, bright spots against the dark and wet wooden buildings.  There were also huge trees with the surprise and improvised shrines I so enjoy, other spots of color.  And random carved stones on the walkway.  We stopped to warm up with some coffee, and enjoyed the "covered parking" for the motor scooters.

The first bridge looked vaguely familiar, but we walked across the second bridge and onward to the Imperial Palace, also known as the Forbidden City.  

The Forbidden City was the palace of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors and their court, and commoners were not allowed to enter, hence the name.  The Imperial Palace was built in the early 1800s, and became a huge complex with additional buildings added over the years.  

There are two design motifs that repeat over and over again in the Imperial Palace: dragons and clouds.  The dragon, as I explained in the blog about Danang, symbolizes nobility, power, and good fortune - thus representing the Emperor and his entire dynasty and court.  The clouds symbolize his peaceful and benevolent relationship with his people, the commoners over whom he ruled.  So, for example the marble stair ends, too low to be railings, are dragons filled in with cloud shapes instead of scales.  The pillars in the throne room are red (a royal color) covered in designs of dragons and clouds in gold (real gold, thus symbolizing the riches of the royalty).  These motifs carry throughout the Imperial Palace, over and over again, reminding everyone that the Emperor was (or should be) seen as a peaceful and benevolent ruler.

Just beyond the Throne Room there was a huge courtyard with a beautiful dragon statue - some sort of metal (a little rusty) covered in gold, or gold paint.  This might have been a replica, with the original in a museum somewhere in Hué - we couldn't find any signs or information about this wonderful dragon with cloud designs on his chest and tail.  But he definitely had "royalty" attitude written all over him!

So we wandered through various rooms and wings, including the private quarters of the Emperor and family, where his wives and concubines and the eunuch guards lived.  Much of this area was damaged in the various wars that have injured this country, but this area was rebuilt and was beautiful.  All red with gold trim, again reminding us that the royals had not only the power but the riches.

We enjoyed our walk, and being steeped in the ancient history of Hué and this area of Vietnam.  And were ready to move on to modern Hué.


One day I walked a bit around our neighborhood, and found several interesting things.  There were a few little boys playing with this broken and abandoned lion dancer head, and they helped me photograph it.  If you look closely at the photo on the left, you can see the little guy who climbed inside to pull some lever and make the lion's eyes open and shut.  His friend flapped the mouth for me, too.  The two of them became my buddies, and would holler "Hello, hello!" every time they saw me.

There were some women in the vicinity of the lion's head who were making incense sticks, and had them spread out on dry mornings, drying in the sunlight.  NO idea how they made them, but it was a colorful and interesting display.  

And then I discovered the area behind a shrine along the road.  Piled under a huge old tree, one of the historic trees that would be marked "notable" in New Zealand, there were all kinds of offerings:  various incense holders, little plaques with painted figures, and little carvings, all offered in prayer to, well, I don't know.  The spirit of the tree?  The ancestors who might reside there?  No idea, but apparently this was an important place in the neighborhood.  As I was taking photos, the woman who sells incense and flowers came out and rearranged the little statues and sculptures, helping me with my photos.  I guess she didn't think the random pile was good enough.  So, well, what could I do but say "gam ung" with a little bow - which always seems to bring a big smile to people's faces, when I do my not-so-good Vietnamese.

Anyway, for the afternoon we took a dragon boat cruise on the Perfume River.  Most people stop along the way to visit the old temple and pagoda along the way, or several major tombs.  But we just wanted to have a leisurely river cruise, so that's what we did - cruised on the river in a single dragon boat, not the double dragon group boat.  

So we cruised down the river, with a nice lady captain and her husband the pilot.  Or something like that.  She helped us on and off the boat, explained a few things to us, asked if we wanted to stop, and tried to sell a few souvenirs.  We thanked her, said we just wanted to cruise the river and see the scenery, and we were happy with that.  

We also saw quite a few water buffalo grazing by the river, and on our way back we saw a cute little boy leading the water buffalo home.

The people on the boat had a cat who, partway through our cruise, decided he needed some company.  I went into the cabin to check out who was meowing so plaintively, and the lady moved the cat (who was on a leash) so I could hang out with the cat, talk to him, pet him, all that stuff.  

We enjoyed our cruise, relaxing on the river and just seeing a little bit of Vietnam.

On our way back, we stopped for a coffee, and as we entered the café a little kitten came running up.  Well, of course I had to pick him up, cuddle him, play with him, and all that.  He wrestled with me, pretending to bite my fingers - you know, normal little kitty stuff.  And promptly fell asleep in my hand, as I sipped my tea.  This led to a little conversation with the owners, and their little girl who wanted to pet the kitty.  

So I'm travelling around the world, making friends one kitten at a time.

And that brings us to our last day, when we walked all over Hué.  Found some temple, stopped at a few places to buy food for our train trip that evening, and visited one more Eiffel bridge.

The Truong Tien Bridge, the bridge closest to our hotel, turned out to be the bridge designed by Eiffel and company.  Or Eiffel.  Or the Eiffel company.  

The French colonial powers wanted a bridge to cross the Perfume River, so of course they contacted M. Eiffel.  This was in 1897 or so, ten years after the completion of his famous tower.  So Eiffel, or his company, designed this bridge which still stands today.  As in Saigon, not many people here realize this is an Eiffel bridge.  But it's lit up in changing colors for a few hours each night, and is well known throughout the city.

I really liked the view from under the bridge - the struts or trusses or whatever the support beams are called look like giant stars!

And, as in Saigon, the bridge seems to be a popular spot for photos.  Not sure if this couple was getting married or just posing, but I liked the woman's ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress.

Then we had the looooooong train ride from Hué to Hanoi.  This was a fifteen hour trip, leaving about 9:30 at night and arriving about 1 PM the following day.  Our seats of course were facing backwards, so I promptly moved to another seat, giving both of us more room.  But the train was freezing cold all night long, and the scarves and sarong I had just weren't enough to keep me cozy warm.  (Some people brought blankets with them and they managed to sleep through the night - the rest of us slept in fits and starts.)

Not a great night, but we arrived on time and managed to get to our nice hotel, where we climbed into bed and napped.

We're in Hanoi now, and are enjoying big city life.  I'll blog about that in a day or two, but I wanted to get caught up.

The final photo - the ladies at our hotel's restaurant in Hué adopted us like family, so we have a farewell photo.  The Serene Palace Hotel and Serene Restaurant were wonderful, and if you ever get to Hué, this is the place to stay!  Everyone took great care of us, and once again, we made friends and had to say goodbye.

But that's the life of a rolling luggager, moving on.  

My apologies for the strange spacing - some areas are insisting on being all narrative, while the photos are insisting on clustering in other areas.  I'm tired of fighting with the computer tonight.  So, please read, look, enjoy, skip around.  Click on the photos to enlarge them.  Have fun.

And Hanoi tomorrow!


  1. Love your blogs and pics! Love the dragon boats, very cool! I thought it was interesting, the pic from inside the train, lots of white people. Are there a lot of white people you see along the way there in Vietnam?

  2. We've been travelling in the soft-seat section of the trains, which is where the tourists tend to sit - the hard seats are difficult for long rides. So yes, there are a lot of tourists on the trains, especially on certain runs and certain times. We didn't see as many tourists on the night train from Hué to Hanoi; or maybe they were in the sleeping cars with berths, rather than the seats. (The berths didn't look much more comfortable, so we skipped those.)

    We've run into Europeans and North Americans in Vietnam; this evening we ended up chatting with a young French couple we met at a restaurant, then walked around the night market. Vietnam sseems to attract people from North America, France, and Russia. Well, and Germans too - we seem to often run into German tourists.

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  4. Hello Phebe and Richard
    Greeting from Hue Serene Restaurant’s staffs!!!
    Long time no see. How are you doing?
    We hope you have a nice day. That is our happiness.
    I’m looking forward to hearing from you soon.
    Best regards
    Sally and the team