Perfume and pagodas

2012-05-11 10:33

Hue is often overlooked in favour of her two more glamorous sisters in Vietnam – Saigon and Hanoi.

But there is a deep sense of the spiritual about her and excellent restaurants in which to come back down to earth.

Hue was appointed the national capital of Vietnam in 1802, thanks to its centrality and proximity to the ocean, an accolade it retained until 1945.

During this time, the Nguyen Dynasty patiently crafted a host of reverently designed mystical sanctuaries and a collection of fortifications.

As two women touring the country, my friend Claire and I made use of guides throughout.

Nguc showed us around his city as if for the first time, forming the names of places like “the Forbidden Purple City” with careful reverence. He proudly announced that the Perfume River, the great green stream upon which Hue pivots, has been nominated as a world heritage site.

Day trips to the aged temples in the nearby countryside are a highlight.

Built for departed leaders, these mausoleums and their grounds offer mini spiritual pilgrimages.

And the design of the temple grounds almost always followed a traditional pattern.

At the tomb of Minh Mang, Nguc led us through the temple gate into a wonderland of lakes and willows blended with traditional architectural and red lacquer finishes, curiously enhanced by natural black mould.

We reached the Sun An temple that is dedicated to Emperor Minh Mang, who is said to have fathered hundreds of children.

Beyond the beautiful temple and equally impressive pavilions, three stone bridges brought us closer to the grave site.

A bannistered bridge spanning the crescent-shaped “lake of the new moon” leads the way to a mound of earth where his body and treasures are buried.

Built between 1841 and 1843, Minh Mang was instrumental in the design and planning of his own temple. Our guide assured us that he died relatively young because his virility made him weaker.

The drinks vendor dug around in her trolley to show us a sample of the tonic Minh Mang is said to have used – a brownish potion featuring scorpions.

The old citadel on the western bank of the Perfume River is an icon of Hue and worth a half-day stroll through the ancient structures to gain a sense of how the Vietnamese emperors lived.

Though mostly ruins, the expansive site provides a rich visual of how the royals lived during the feudal era.

Intricate creche areas for dozens of royal offspring, secret pagodas and gates high enough to allow an elephant passage point to a fantastic bygone world, stark in contrast to the peasantry toiling in the rice paddies beyond the moat.

We ended a busy two days with a brooding visit to the Thien Mu Pagoda on a hillock a few kilometres down river.

The octagonal tower can be seen from river cruises, but behind the temple is a Buddhist school where the young boys sent to study are surprisingly tolerant of ogling westerners.

A ride in a Dragon boat at sunset brought us within walking distance of our hotel and we set off to enjoy another meal in the vibrant backpackers’ district.

On Pham Ngu Lao, there are a number of budget accommodation establishments and good restaurants that offer a variety of food styles.

In Saigon, we had indulged in traditional food, consisting mainly of noodle soup, or Pho.

(One local practice we could not bring ourselves to engage in was getting on one of the crazy motorbikes that quite simply represent Vietnam.)

But Hue’s culinary establishments tend to be more exotic.

The first night we made a reservation at the lovely La Carambole, a French bistro with a Vietnamese twist.

The following night we crossed the road for a very reasonable Indian meal at Omar Khayyam’s restaurant.

They were both great, as I suspect any of the eating establishments along this attractive stretch would have been.

We finished off the evening at the pub on the corner of the street, playing pool with other foreigners.

The perfection of food is no doubt a theme in the central area of Vietnam and a scenic drive over the Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass brought us to the little seaside village of Hoi An.

Most notable for its art and bohemian atmosphere, the town offers brilliant dining.

But it’s Mango Rooms that deserves mention.

The kitchen staff at Mango Rooms work in full view of the customers and two entrances ensure continual energy.

The mango daiquiri is compulsory as is the fresh fruit and chocolate wrapped in wonton skins and grilled in coconut butter sauce.

If the cocktails taken to new heights do not grab you, visit Mango Rooms simply for a chrysanthemum or lotus tea.

The chef and owner, Duc, is world renowned and loves meeting his guests.

Bright, swinging lanterns, trees planted on the cobbled streets and pavement cafes interspersed with tailoring shops give one a sense of being on holiday.

Every now and again, you can pop into a pagoda or a music show on your stroll, which will inevitably begin with a visit to the ancient Pagoda Bridge.

Best of all, the old town is closed to traffic during the day.

We did fortify ourselves that night with local wine and, heading home, we hailed a few mopeds not a cab.

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