Hunkered down in Huế

9th FEBRUARY 2019

I wake feeling much closer to my normal self after a good night’s sleep under air-conditioning. A sure sign of this recovery is that my thoughts turn immediately to food consumption as soon as my brain starts functioning. I have to traipse back up to the fifth floor again, although I soon realise it’s worth the effort when I discover the joys of breakfast at the Charming Riverside Hotel. A young Vietnamese guy greets me and I take a seat by the window to look over their menu. Because I ate nothing but mini bananas last night, I opt to fill myself up with a fried rice, egg and garlic meal. I’m munching my way through this when the waiter guy brings over a plate of freshly chopped fruit, similar to yesterday’s welcome dish. Wow, this is good ! Then, once I’ve finished both plates, he pops back to ask if I’d like anything else. I look at him doubtfully, thinking he might have overlooked the fact that I’ve eaten two breakfasts already. It seems that he’s quite aware of this, but he says ‘You will need energy if you want to visit the Imperial City today.’ He suggests banana pancakes with chocolate sauce, and I’m happy to go with that recommendation to round off a truly magnificent breakfast.

I sit for a while after finishing my food and watch the comings and goings on the languid Perfume River below. From my vantage point I can see that the riverside buildings are a mixture of posh looking hotels and colourful, ramshackle old houses, some with rusty tin roofs. The river’s flow at Huế is so slow and leisurely because the river level here is much the same as sea level, meaning the water is only moving very gradually downhill at this point. The name Perfume River arises because in the autumn flowers from orchards upstream fall into the water, giving off a floral, perfumed scent as they float downstream. Now, in early springtime, there’s no perfume aroma, but the river still looks pleasingly serene and tranquil from my breakfast table.

With my hunger fully sated, I take a walk over the river to have a look round the Imperial City, Huế’s biggest tourist attraction. This ancient city was part of a larger citadel, walled and surrounded by moats, and was a former capital of Vietnam until the French took power in 1880. Situated on flat land beside the river, it was easy to channel water into the city and to form protective moats around it. I’m amazed to learn that the outermost square moat is a whopping 10km in total length. Predictably, the Imperial City itself is very touristy, but it covers such a large area that I’m able to find quiet spots away from the masses. I spend a good two hours exploring and still feel like I must have missed parts. There are temples, gardens, pavilions, ornate gates, dragon sculptures and ponds full of coy carp. I keep catching snippets from Vietnamese tour guides who are conducting tours in French, German, Chinese and English. It’s a fascinating place, although I do find that two hours of tolerating tourists is just about my limit.

Once I’m outside the complex I stop at a little cafe for some shrimp buns and a blueberry smoothie. From previous smoothies, I remember that the Vietnamese word for blueberry is ‘Viet Quat’, which slightly surprises the girl who serves me. On the way back to the hotel I try to stay in the shade as much as I can, a little paranoid about being in the sun after my experience of the previous two days. I crash out for a while in the afternoon, still not one hundred percent better, but definitely getting there.

Breakfast the following morning mirrors the first, with another hearty feast and the same lovely view. I take a wander round the city today, exploring and trying to get my hands on a decent pair of replacement sunglasses. It turns out buying £4 shades from amazon before I departed wasn’t such a good idea after all. I’m in luck though, as I find a decent pair of sunglasses in a shopping centre that are twice as good, but still just as cheap as my amazon ones. For lunch I stop at a place called Brick Coffee for seafood fried rice and a yoghurt shake. The cafe is on a T-junction, so I sit outside at a pavement table watching the locals and the inevitable traffic chaos that comes with Vietnamese road junctions.

At night Nga recommends a place for dinner, but it’s called ‘Risotto’ and sounds like it could be an Italian restaurant full of Westerners. I don’t know why locals always think that Westerners want to go to Western restaurants. Sure enough, when I get there it is indeed an Italian-style place full of Westerners ! My decision to keep walking takes about two seconds. Instead I find a simple Plastic Chair Cafe just across the street, where I settle down to pork curry and rice. It’s basic and down to earth, with the owner’s three cute little kids running about and shyly approaching me to try and talk. I much prefer this type of cafe, rather than sitting in an exclusively Western restaurant listening to the inane chatter of tourists and backpackers.

After eating I head back towards my hotel along the same road I took to the cafe. There’s been quite a transformation since nightfall, the street now brightened by red hanging lanterns and bustling food stalls. It’s also become remarkably busy, with dozens of people sitting down for food on tiny plastic chairs on the pavement. These little chairs are fine for Vietnamese as they tend to be generally smaller people, however any time I’ve parked my bum on them I feel like I’m sitting on a child’s nursery chair.

Back at the hotel I have a lazy, chilled night. I arrived in Huế two days ago feeling awful, but a weekend of rest, good food, and sun avoidance has me feeling like I’m ready to continue South tomorrow.

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