After a respite from the heat and humidity in Hanoi, arriving in Hue meant that we were back in the scorching heat once again. Our tour guide wore denim jeans – I don’t know how he managed.
Our first touristy port of call was to the dragon boats on the Perfume River (Huong River) where we embarked upon one of the boats on an al fresco cruise up river.
At the end of the cruise, we were right by the Thien Mu Pagoda where I took photos of everything except the actual pagoda. I blame it on the heat!
Thien Mu Pagoda has seven storeys and is the tallest in Vietnam. It is quite often associated with the city of Hue in photos and brochures.
We arrived at the pagoda just as the Buddhist monks who live on-site were sitting down to lunch.
As these young Buddhist monks filed into the dining room, they had to pay respects to their elders before sitting down for their meal.
I believe this is the monk’s schedule for each day:
Next we visited the Royal Citadel and the Imperial City (inside of which was another enclosure known as the Purple Forbidden City where only the Imperial family and closest associates were allowed).
Building of the Royal Citadel and Imperial Palace began in 1804 and was commissioned by Emperor Gia Long (Nguyen Phúc Ánh), the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty.
The American bombing in 1968 flattened most of the Imperial city and only a few buildings survived.
The city was made a UNESCO site in 1993 and preservation and reconstruction work are on-going.
Next we visited the tomb of Minh Mang (born Nguyen Phúc Dam), the second emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty who reigned from 1820 to 1841.
These tombs are quite elaborate – this one consisted of at least 40 structures (palaces, temples, pavilions, lakes, etc).
Construction of the tomb began in 1840 and was completed in 1843, two years after Minh Mang’s death.
We also visited the tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh (born Nguyen Phuc Buu Dao) who was the 12th Emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty and ruled from 1916 to 1925.
Like in many other cultures, when a royal becomes Emperor, it is customary to take on a new name to symbolize their reign.
Khai Dinh’s tomb took 11 years to complete (1920 to 1931).
He died in 1925 so it was eventually completed by his successor.
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Hue’s most popular dish, Bún Bò Hue, is something that has to be tried when visiting the city, if only to say that you’ve tried it. Like experiencing cheesesteaks in Philly, crabcakes in Maryland, or wings in Buffalo.
The cuisine of Hue draws from throughout Vietnam, but one of the most striking differences is the prominence of vegetarianism in the city. Another feature of Hue dishes that sets them apart from other regional cuisines in Vietnam is the relatively small serving size with refined presentation, a vestige of its royal cuisine. Finally, another feature of Hue cuisine is that it is often very spicy.
Bún Bò Hue, or simply Bún Bò when one is in Hue, is a spicy rice vermicelli soup in a beef broth flavored with lemongrass. “Bun” = rice vermicelli and “Bo” = beef. The rice noodles that are used in this dish are actually a slightly thicker kind than the usual rice vermicelli.
So where in Hue is the best place to get Bún Bò?
My mom and I posed this question to both our driver and tour guide in Hue and their answer was the same. With apologetic smiles, they told us that Bún Bò Hue may have made the city’s cuisine famous but the Bún Bò served in the street stalls of Hue are mediocre. Better Bún Bò Hue can be found in other Vietnamese cities (and other parts of the world).
Still, we insisted that we couldn’t visit Hue without having Bun Bún Bò so we were recommended a place within walking distance from our hotel.
Bún Bò Hue is often served with congealed pig’s blood (not a fan so I order mine without):
Traditional garnishes are fresh herbs (like mint and cilantro), thinly sliced banana blossoms, bean sprouts, raw thinly sliced onions, diced scallions, and lime wedges.
Our tour guides did warn us, but I had to taste for myself. And as they predicted, the Bún Bò wasn’t anything special (my mom makes it much better) but I still enjoyed the soupy noodley goodness.
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Next Stop on the Photo Tour? Hoi An…