How Hue Became Home
Or, the story of how ‘a week or so’ became almost 3 months for this pair of digital nomads…
So, we made Hue (pronounced Hu-ay, to rhyme with whey) our home for almost 3 months. We didn’t intend to stay for so long but we felt so comfortable here and circumstances conspired to make us settle down and stay put for a while. As it was when we stopped in Benaulim and Arambol in India, Bangkok in Thailand and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia its been lovely to stop, get to know a place properly and make some friends. (Warning: very long post alert!)
Hue is the old capital of Vietnam. It is a proper city with a population of about 1 million. It does attract tourists because of the ancient tombs of the emperors a few miles from town, the Citadel in the old part of the city and the proximity to Hoi An, our previous stop. Most people head here for a few days either after visiting Hoi An heading north, or intending to stop there next on their way south.
We arrived here after the beautiful train journey I wrote about in my last post. After disembarking from the train we shunned all the moto and taxi driver’s offers to take us into town and opted to walk. It was actually quite a way. We found ourselves a cheap guest house in the midst of the ‘tourist area’ and settled in.
Tour of the Tombs and Pagodas, built by the former Emperors of Vietnam
Thinking we were not going to be in town for long we committed to a tour of the outlying local sights the very next day with an ‘uncle’ of the guesthouse owner. We set off quite early with a driver each to see some of the famous tombs of the former emperors of Vietnam. The promise of ‘uncle’ having good English skills and telling us about the different sights was not kept. Him and his friend barely spoke to us and just stopped and pointed in the direction we should head at each stop. Consequently, we didn’t actually know what we were looking at most of the time and were soon ‘templed out’.
After some research later on I can now confirm that the first place we visited was Thien Mu Pagoda. At seven stories high it has the tallest stupa in all of Vietnam. The stupa has become one of the unofficial symbols of the city. It’s all very nice and the complex is set on the edge of the Perfume River where we managed to get a helpful tourist to take this snap of us.
An interesting sight at this Pagoda is this old car. Famous for being the car that took the monk Thich Quang Duc to his self immolation (setting himself on fire) in Saigon in 1963 as a protest against the colonial regime. Odd thing to have as a tourist attraction.
Our second stop was an old temple set in dense woodland. I have not been able to find out what it is called. The sound of cicadas trilling filled the air as we walked around the stagnant looking ponds up to the main building. It was a working temple with plenty of monks. The most interesting bit was probably the series of ruined stupas which looked strangely beautiful in the shaded jungle like setting. The were very few tourists here and we did not have to pay to see anything. It was OK but we’d seen everything within about half an hour. We skirted around the other side of the large pond, found our drivers and zoomed off to the next stop.
Next we were taken to the ‘Incense and Conical Hat Making Village’… Really it is just a collection of shops where there are ladies making incense and hats so that tourists can take photos and buy some products. It was interesting to see the method of rolling the incense sticks; the lady was pretty fast, but I made the mistake of glancing at one of the packets of incense and was basically chased around by another woman almost demanding that I brought some very very overpriced sticks from her (even when she had cut her asking price in half it was still way too high. After over in year in Asia I know the real price of incense!)
Our next stop turned out to be the highlight. It was not really a proper stop at all but the site of an old American military base. Everything but a few concrete foundations and a rusty old sign has long since gone but the reason we went there was for the view. It was quite spectacular. You could see why the Americans chose this spot as a strategic location, the mountains in the distance were where the Viet Cong travelled in from the jungles of Laos. We snapped away for a few minutes trying to capture the immense scene. Luckily, the destruction caused by the heavy artillery has all been disguised by the lush growth in the area now.
After that we were deposited at an overpriced tourist orientated restaurant nearby one of the most famous tombs. We ate the unremarkable meal and then felt quite tired. We baulked at paying the 80,000 VND (£2.45) entrance fee each and decided to give it a miss. We lounged around in some hammocks instead waiting for our drivers to finish their probably much cheaper lunch and decided to head back into town.
On the way we had another short stop at a large open pagoda which, like most of what we’d seen that day, was devoid of tourists. We were hot and tired though and unable to appreciate it properly. After a boiling hot ride back to town we collapsed in our room and waited for the world to cool down.
Drinking and Dancing in Hue
One of the things we did regularly in our first couple of weeks in Hue was go out drinking in the evening. I know, not like us at all really. We discovered a friendly bar / nightclub that turned out to be the only place to be after about 11pm: Brown Eyes. We made friends with a local man (who we became convinced was part of an underground mafia) and his (much younger) girlfriend. Every time we saw them he insisted on buying us drinks of all sorts; one night a whole bottle of gin to share with the group and on another occasion he introduced us to the quite delicious B52 cocktail. (A B52 is a small cocktail made with layers of Kahlúa, Baileys and Cointreau.) An interesting point to note is the complete absence of any concern with drinking and driving. We were often asked to join them after the club for noodles but politely refused as it would have meant going on their bikes when they were most definitely over any known limit.
We went there to celebrate Henry’s birthday. He got the full works. ‘Happy Birthday’ played on the sound system, sparklers, a free t-shirt and a free drink on fire. The flaming drink had multiple straws and tasted of liquorice – not my sort of thing at all. He ended up giving the t-shirt away but left with something far more satisfying – a list of ages we’d gathered from people during the night asking them to guess his age. The next day, when our brains were functioning again, we did the maths and the average came out at a very respectable 26.5.
We also met lots of tourists at Brown Eyes. It initially gave us quite a warm glow to discuss some of the very regular questions asked by travellers of each other. In the “how long have you been travelling?” department we outdid everyone, every time. We were the wise, older people who had mostly been there and done that in almost any of the Asian countries. We gave hotel, attraction and transport recommendations and discussed the merits of various cities; all the while increasing our alcohol tolerance.
But the party could not continue forever. Although the drinks were really rather cheap and there were all sorts of happy hours, special offers and free shots going around it still pushed our budget. The friends we made might be there the next night, or want to meet us for lunch the next day but mostly they got onto a train, bus or motorbike to leave the city after a few days, never to be seen again. We wound down operation Drink-A-Thon after a few weeks feeling that we’d well and truly made up for any missed opportunities in other locations.
One of the marvellous things to come out of our nights of ‘clubbing it’ at Brown Eyes was that we met Belle. A native New Zealand lady who now lives here in Hue. She is working towards setting up a charity here to help disadvantaged young people who have just come out of the school system to get into the hospitality industry. She became our friend and made Hue feel even more homely. She introduced us to lots of people and told me about the Big C supermarket – a wonderful big place to shop for all sorts.
So, deciding that we liked it in Hue we settled down a bit. We moved hotels numerous times and got some really good deals. One place we stayed in was brand new (Star City Hotel) and I ended up correcting their website for them which was very much appreciated. We went back there for our last 10 days in town and were welcomed back by the manager like old friends. We went back to our old room on the 5th floor and had some more time enjoying what I think was the best shower we’ve had anywhere on our travels. At some point I might get around to writing about all the places we’ve stayed, we’re experts on Hue now (ask me anything!) I could write them all up on Trip Advisor but Henry (quite rightly) says thats just giving them free content and brings me nothing, so for now its all in my head.
One thing I can summarise is that Vietnamese people staying in hotels can be really rather loud. When we’ve complained about it we’re told that it is usually their first time in a hotel and they do not know the ‘regulations’. Basically, the whole floor becomes a social space be it mid-afternoon, midnight or 3am. They talk loudly, shout at each other and let themselves into each others (and our) rooms regularly. At one place we had to make a sign on our door (in Vietnamese – the manager was incredibly impressed and did not seem to understand how easy it is to use Google translate) just to stop people wandering in, or rattling the door to be let in.
So, one day I decided to actually go and see one of the city’s main historical sights – the Imperial City in the Citadel. Henry was not in the slightest bit interested in coming and declared himself ‘bored’ of tourist spots. I left him to work, hired a bike and went to explore. The city of Hue is cut in half by the Perfume River. The south side is where most of the hotels and restaurants aimed at tourists can be found and is the newer half of the city. The north side is old and entirely surrounded by massive walls and moats. It is impressively large (10 square km). The entire enclosed northern part of the city is known as the Citadel, the still quite enormous enclosure within that is the Imperial City (surrounded by walls 2km long and more moats) and then inside that there is the Forbidden Purple City which was for the Emperor, his family and eunuchs only. So, the Forbidden Purple City is a citadel within a citadel within a citadel!
To enter the main (biggest) citadel you still have to cross the moat and enter through one of 10 gates. The larger part of the enclosure is still a normal city, people live and work there. The tourist attraction is the inner 2 parts. It was easy to find my way to the main sightseeing zone – just follow the flow of cyclos full of tourists in hats, clutching at guidebooks and enormous daypacks with goodness knows what inside. I arrived at the main entrance to the inner citadel and queued up with a big tour group. I was a little worried when I saw the Do’s and Don’ts sign that I was not dressed appropriately – I hadn’t thought to cover my shoulders when it was about 40° outside – but it was fine, they took my 80,000 VND and waved me through.
Now, I had taken the advice of reviews on other websites and done some reading beforehand to prepare for the reported lack of explanatory signs and it was worth it. For one of central Vietnam’s key tourist attractions it was really rather poorly done. I explored most of the area and took lots of photos but for the size of the enclosure there really was not much to see. Much of the citadel was destroyed during the Vietnam war and they’ve only just started to rebuild it. What they have rebuilt looks jarringly new and shiny next to the stone ruins of the rest of the site. With some imagination you could conjure up how grand it used to be but there wasn’t much help from the organisers of the site. There was a video of a computer generated animation to watch with amusingly terrible English subtitles that I watched in its entirety simply because there were seats and fans by the screen.
The most amusing part of the whole day was seeing an older tourist having the ’emperor experience’. He was dressed up like an emperor, sat on a throne and surrounded by beautiful, traditionally dressed Vietnamese girls to have his photo taken. Other grand and important sites don’t need to resort to this sort of thing – I wonder why the citadel does..?
Work: Teaching English!
One thing I’ve not made public up until now is the fact that I was actually employed in Hue. Twice! I did not have the correct paperwork in place and was working in a cash in hand, under the table sort of way. (Hence me keeping quiet about it until leaving the country!) Through a friend of a friend I started teaching at a very small private school quite close to where we were staying. I had a lot of fun but the pay was rather poor (£4.86/hr) and there was very little in the way of facilities. The children sat on wooden benches and did not have paper to write on and I was struggling a bit in the small room: averaging 34° heat with a couple of small fans, a real actual blackboard and tiny pieces of chalk. The kids were all lovely but for the money it was not a great gig.
Then my big break came. There is a massive shortage of English teachers here and I just so happened to be extra qualified. (For those of you who don’t know me I’ve taught English, English Literature and Drama in UK secondary schools for 9 years and I also have a TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language – qualification.) Again, its who you know not what you know! One phone call later I had a meeting set up with the director of the only school in the city which is certified to teach the Cambridge English courses and also has a partnership with the British Council. The Cambridge certificates are recognised worldwide and are the exams to go for.
So, after a quick meeting in our favourite coffee shop I zoomed across the city on the back of a bike to look at my new school. It has been purposely converted to be a school and it works well. Each classroom has its own whiteboard, attached toilet, teacher’s desk with laptop, speakers and a mounted projector, a fan and, most importantly for me – a brand new air conditioning unit – YAY! I was excited. I didn’t have to wait long. I returned back to the hotel on the bicycle they’d lent me for the duration, emailed in my qualifications and I was back there a few hours later teaching my first class (and earning a more respectable £8.19/hr.)
Within a couple of days I had a timetable teaching 1 or 2 lessons per day, everyday. Most of the lessons were in the early evening apart from the weekends when they started much earlier. Each lesson was 1hr 30m and they were pretty much all a joy to teach. I had quite a wide variety of classes… I had a few adult groups, some comprised of mainly university students who were hoping to get the IELTS qualification to allow them to study abroad, and some made up of employees from the local brewery: Huda; attending a Communication and Business English class. Teaching adults was a new experience for me and I loved it! It is rather different but still fundamentally the same – hard to explain. After my very first class with the ‘beer group’ one of the students came up and complimented my teaching style and said that the class liked me. I thanked him and did not think too much of it. He then went on to say that I had been correcting (quite strictly!) the pronunciation of some of the highest people in the company – directors and such; I was then quite chuffed with the compliment.
The other half of my timetable was made up of groups of children and young people. My most favourite class was a KET (Key English Test) class who were all secondary school age. They were such fun and the age group I know best. Teenagers are teenagers wherever you go. I think the school is expensive by local standards (the parents of these children are not the poor of the city) and the young people in that class seemed a little bit ‘hot housed’. They attended normal school as well as having extra classes (like mine) for English, maths, chemistry, physics, Vietnamese and sometimes French too. It did not leave them much spare time. Their English was excellent though. In contrast to all the other classes I taught, they got through the set material easily each lesson which left plenty of time for games and some lessons that I would have taught to British school children like similes and creative writing techniques. Possibly my least favourite class was the one of the ‘starter’ classes on the weekends. They were a bit young for me (and some of them a bit young for school full stop in my opinion.) The group ranged from 3 to 6 and they were true beginners. The first time I had them I was on my own and the songs, flashcards and counting things only lasted so long. It was tough. An hour and 30 minutes is too long for a 3 or even a 6 year old to concentrate on one thing. I asked for a teaching assistant after that and got one no problem.
So for over a month I cycled the 9km to school and back once or twice a day. All this time Henry had peace and quiet in the room to get on with his work. He appreciated the break from me I think as well as the food I would bring back from further afield than our normal walking distance. Having the bicycle also meant I could visit the two supermarkets in town and stock up on coffee, water, fruit and other snacks without having to haggle. Supermarket prices are certainly a little higher for locals than shopping at the market but for foreigners like me the marked, non negotiable prices are actually much lower. I loved going round with a trolley (not that I ever filled it of course – I only had a bike for transport!) browsing at all that was on offer. The Big C has everything, a bit like a big Tesco, from clothes to TVs, make up to sports equipment and kitchenware as well as a huge array of food and drinks, a fresh bakery and a food court upstairs.
Tailor Made Clothes
Hue, like Hoi An we visited previously has many a tailor shop. Some of my clothes were becoming rather tatty and unfortunately my much worn linen skirt I was given on my visit home by my aunt Elaine had somehow acquired an oil stain on our day of sightseeing on the motorbikes. I found a friendly tailor shop and they made me a replacement skirt and dress to my exact specifications, even adding useful hidden pockets to the skirt.
When I got the second job at the school I returned and purchased two more dresses off the peg to kit me out for being at least semi-professional in my new role. I am now a complete dress convert. A single piece of clothing to wash and pack making up a whole outfit is so much more efficient!
Food in Hue
Hue is famous for good food being the former seat of the emperors. We tried many of the local dishes and enjoyed the rice pancakes the most. They are fried crispy pancakes about the size of a small popadom, folded in half and filled with tofu and vegetables and them smothered in a peanut sauce. (The non-veg versions always had shrimp so obviously, being allergic, I stayed away from those.) The fresh and fried spring rolls were good, as were the crispy noodles but, all in all, after nearly 6 months in Vietnam we’ve come to the conclusion that Vietnamese food is not our favourite. We were often warned that something was ‘spicy’ and found it to be anything but and the basic noodle and rice dishes that become the staple when living in Asia were just a bit bland really. Chilli sauce was a good friend of ours. One of our favourite places to eat in Hue was actually the only Indian restaurant in town! But, even there, they did not really understand the concept of ‘spicy’. I asked specifically for our vegetable kofta dish to be extra hot when Henry was suffering from man flu and, by Indian and UK standards it came out as medium at best.
Coffee Shops in Hue
Well, I’m sure you’re all wondering what on earth we did for the rest of the time we were there. The answer is simple – we patronised many of Hue’s lovely coffee shops. They all had wifi, chairs and desks, fans, background music and a couple even had air-con. They were perfect offices for our ‘digital nomad’ style of work.
The Vietnamese really know their coffee! Its possibly the best coffee we’ve had so far (and I know my coffee!) They do not mess around. The basic black coffee comes loaded in a drip filter and you have to wait, patiently, for it to filter through. You get perhaps a third of a cup from at least a heaped tablespoon of ground coffee, so its very strong. In the tourist focussed establishments one of those would cost 30,000 VND (92p) but thats not the sort of place we frequented. We sought out many of the local coffee shops where a plain black coffee was only 8.000 (25p) and 10,000 (31p) for a version with thick, sweet condensed milk at the bottom for Henry. Sometimes we would have a Saigon coffee (iced with sweet milk, in a longer glass, like they serve it in Saigon – about 40p, or a hot chocolate which was made with cacao for about 45p.) These places also served juices and smoothies at a very low price (about 65p for a delicious mango and yogurt smoothie.)
We soon knew how to order all of our favourites in Vietnamese which was both good and bad. Sometimes it ingratiated us nicely to the staff, sometimes it meant that they started chatting away to us is Vietnamese even though by saying hello and making our order we had almost exhausted our skills and we would respond with an apology in English and sometimes it meant that we would be able to seek out items on the menu in Vietnamese as opposed to accepting the much smaller but more highly priced selection in English.
Along with our coffee we were always given (for free) an iced Vietnamese tea which would be topped up unobtrusively by the staff whenever it became low. We were often the only foreigners in a place but we were not bothered. Coffee shops seem to have many unwritten rules and by working on our laptops we were off limits for English practice. We would spend a few hours each day in a couple of places before returning back to the room for me to get ready for work.
One of our favourites (introduced to us by Belle) was Bee Coffee. It was a few pence more than some of the other places but it was classy inside, their wifi was sometimes at 10gb/second and when it was really hot they turned on the air-con. They also scored highly by having really comfortable padded chairs, tables at the right height and proper toilets with plenty of soap and loo roll.
Extending Our Vietnamese Visa, Again
The school I was working at were very keen to retain me until September and offered to arrange and pay for proper working visas and work permits to enable us to stay but we felt we had spent enough time there. We did have to extend our visa once in Hue which turned out to be easier than we expected. We had visited lots of tourist travel places who offered visa services and were quoted between $80 and $120 each for a 30 day extension. That is very high for a stamp that actually only costs $10. Our situation was complicated by the visas and extensions we already had in our passports so in the end we went directly to the immigration office ourselves. We were lucky. We talked to the only English speaking immigration officer and wangled a 30 day stamp for a fee of $30. After initially being told it was impossible to extend it again it seems $30 is enough to change the official line. We waited in our own private interview room and had the passports back within the the hour, much more quickly than the 8 – 10 days quoted by the agencies.
We had one dramatic weather event in Hue, a flash flood. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one before. I’d not long been back from school and had just missed the rain. We’d started to watch a film but the weather was so loud I went to look on the balcony and our road had turned into an actual river! It lasted just less than an hour, I suppose that’s why its a ‘flash’ flood. All the while the thunder and lightening continued and the general public carried on as if nothing was happening. They were not in the least bit bothered that the lightening could fry them at any minute!
As our time in Hue was drawing to a close we had my birthday to think about. I actually had to work on my birthday which turned out to hold a lovely surprise for me. I arrived in the late afternoon with a box a cakes from the local bakery and explained the tradition of providing cakes to your co-workers on your birthday. They went down well and it turns out I shared my birthday with Duyen, one of the teaching assistants there.
When my lesson had finished I was summoned to the office and Duyen and I were presented with a proper cake with candles, ‘Happy Birthday’ and I also got a card and present! All quite similar to how we would celebrate. The main difference came in how the cake was eaten. There was no messing around with slicing it up; sundae spoons were dished out, everyone dug right in and basically the cake was demolished in about 20 minutes. (In the picture I have already changed out of my smart teaching dress and back into clothes for cycling – I was smarter than that for the classroom, honestly!)
After all that excitement I got back and we went out on the razz with Belle, to Brown Eyes of course. I got the t-shirt, a free drink, sparklers and the song on the sound system and because we hadn’t been there for a while we were treated like superstars with hugs, kisses and handshakes from all the staff that recognised us from our earlier frequent visits. Our photos were still up on the back wall and they still knew our drinks order too. In a repeat of the survey we did on Henry’s birthday in the ‘guess the age’ game I came out at a very respectable 26.5. I was rather chuffed! (I actually turned 35!)
We went there a couple of times in our final week and finished our last night in town there too. Henry played pool and I chatted to Belle and it was sad that we were leaving a place where we would get waved to in the street by all the people who recognised us and greeted like old friends in our favourite bar.
Last Night in Hue
Earlier on in the afternoon of our final day Belle had organised a surprise for Henry. After chatting to him previously he had said how much he missed certain foods. She came over to our hotel with her top-of-the-range sandwich press, real cheese, bacon, tomatoes, onions, bread, beer and red wine and we had a lovely little do. We decided to use the top floor of our hotel (Star City) which we had returned to for our final couple of weeks. The friendly manager Luan had previously invited us to use the event space to work in and we figured cooking bacon would be better done up there than in our room.
We enjoyed extra special toasted sandwiches, a few drinks and a gorgeous sunset on the roof of our hotel in a space made for perhaps 100 people before clearing up and heading out for a few more drinks. I’ll miss having a lady friend who lives right near by. No more popping out for a quick coffee and a chat or a glass of wine and a random game of giant Jenga … she will be missed.
We would highly recommend Hue as a lovely spot to settle down for a while if you’re living the ‘digital nomad’ life. The hotels were affordable and offered good wifi connections. There were plenty of coffee shops to work in and the supermarket shopping opportunities were good too. The wifi connections were usually stable and the people friendly. Hue is a nice place to make your home for a while, we’ll miss it.
Thanks for reading all the way to the end of my mammoth post! I’ll be putting some of the massive collection of photos we’ve got of Vietnam up on the Gallery page as soon as possible. We’re in Vientiane in Laos as I finish this post though and the possibility of finding an internet connection able to upload hundreds of pics seems slim to none!
Hue, Vietnam: 25th March – 20th June 2013