Hue, Vietnam

The Imperial City, Hue’s main attraction, reminded me of a beaten up Beijing Forbidden City. It’s grandeur, size and elaborate architecture were obvious despite the natural disasters and bombs that have left this great relic only a fraction what it might be. Between 1802 and 1945, the Imperial City was the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty.

Front gates of Imperial City

After a visit to the forbidden city, I walked the smaller, less touristy streets, and took a short ride on a boat down the Song Huong (Perfume River).

Perfume River

On a different note, the mix of influences from French to Chinese was clear from the variation in architecture around the city.  This photo is the view from my bedroom window.

Hue bedroom view

The Kids Table

As I travel and search for new cultural experiences, I want to try the local foods, see how different people lead their lives, and start to understand the world as they do. Having dinner with Quynh and her family is this authentic experience. I arrive at her home complete with a small store front, several bedrooms, a kitchen, a small dining room, a chicken pen, and her big family. Quynh has 4 other sisters, all of whom live at home with their father, mother, grandparents, and two dogs. The newest addition to the family at only 6 months old is Susu. When I arrive, I meet most of the players as we all congregate in the front while the father mans the store of cigarettes, snacks, and drinks.

My Hue Family

Hue Grandparents

After a tour of the home, much playing with the baby, and getting to the know the family while using a couple of the sisters as translator’s, it is time for dinner. At this point, one of the sister’s boyfriends also enters the scene, making dinner a crowded occasion. As would happen in my family, the adults sit at one table and the kids sit at another. The parents and grandparents sit in the dining room, while the kids sit outside around a small table.

The food is traditional and at times, too traditional. I try everything on the table, and as I am eating, the five sisters continue adding more to my plate. Most of the dishes I enjoy even if I have little idea what it is I’m actually consuming, and half way through the meal, I realize not knowing is probably easier than knowing. One of the sisters puts something in my plate, and because they like to joke and try to mislead me, I assume when they say it’s a pig’s tail, they are trying to get a reaction out of me. I give them their reaction as my face cringes, but I learn that they are not joking and slowly work my way around the cartilage in the center of the tail.

The night ends where it began, in the front near the street. We drink tea, laugh, and learn about each others’ cultures and customs while I thank them repeatedly for their hospitality using the new Vietnamese vocabulary I learned during the day. Half jokingly, one of Quynh’s sisters keeps questioning me if I want to take Quynh back to the States with me. I respond with an uncomfortable smile and an enthusiastic yes. The follow up question is then do I want to take one of the other sisters back with me. Again I smile, blush, and respond that the whole family should come to California. They all laugh at me, and I feel relieved. Before leaving, we arrange ourselves in many permutations for a quick photo shoot so that we all can remember the night.

More than the inspiring sites and adrenaline-pumping activities, it is experiences like these that are making traveling so exciting.

My Hue Tour Guide

I’m on a flight to Hue and sitting next to two Hue locals, Quynh and her grandfather. Although only a short flight, through broken English, Quynh and I have enough time to cover the basics– names, jobs, home towns, and families. And before parting ways, we make a tentative plan to meet up the next day and she gives me her contact info. A couple dollar SIM card later, I give her a call and we set up a time for her to come pick me up on her motorbike from the very simple and nice Hong Thien Hotel (the first A/C room I’ve enjoyed in two weeks). Still not convinced that she is actually coming, I wait outside and soon after she pulls up with an extra helmet in hand.

Me and Quynh
Quynh, her motorbike, and me

We go to a couple of the more famous pagados and tombs in Hue before visiting her mother and sisters at the local market, where they tend to two different shops. Trying to keep up with Quynh in the market is a challenge as she weaves in and out of the many obstacles of the already narrow passageways. At one point, she and her sister run off and I am left sitting alone at the booth. I am tempted to attract customers in the many ways that I have experienced. As someone passes by, protocol is to tell them hello and ask where they are from or what they are looking for. I did not say anything; I restrained myself.

Although her English is fragmented, Quynh gives me Vietnamese language lessons throughout the day so that I can at least communicate hello, goodbye, and thank you. She shows me her favorite sites in the city with pride and excitement for each location. Quynh is an excellent tour guide, and to complete the day, she invites me back to her family’s home for dinner, which results in a very authentic Hue experience.

Bell ringing in Hue