July in Vietnam: The Imperial Capital of Hue

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It was early morning when I got into Hue and hopped out of the night bus. A lovely long day of sightseeing across the Perfume River awaited.

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Here in Central Vietnam, there was a slight change in personality. Somehow I felt that people weren’t quite as hardened by war and that commerce, tourism and the free market had penetrated somewhat.

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The first stop was the Imperial Enclosure, a large citadel built by the Vietnamese emperors. These were largely in the Chinese style, given the vast influence exerted by their vast northern neighbour. First, I had to get past the outer moat.

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The walls surrounding the Enclosure were thick earthen ones with squat yet somehow very fitting gates and gatehouses built into the packed earth.

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And then there were the grand linkways between the various buildings topped by intricate carvings and prosperous sayings.

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The buildings themselves were very grand. Again, the strong Chinese influence was unmistakable, particularly in the Thai Hoa Palace, a receiving hall for the emperor.

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Further towards the back of the Enclosure were little residences of a slightly less grandiose nature, like the Truong San Residence, recently rebuilt after being devastated in the war. The pretty garden with rockery and pond added lots of charm to the place.

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I liked the little details I saw while wandering through the city in miniature. Looking up at the eaves of gates, I wondered why the decorations were made that way, whether for good luck or merely for ornamentation, perhaps to please the whim of a favoured concubine.

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Other decorations were more for impressing visitors, like this stone qilin (unicorn).

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There were also old cannon left behind from the old days. I wonder whether these were just for show or they really were meant for battle.

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Nonetheless, these weren’t spared the Fun with English sign of “No laying sitting on the selics.” Evidently done by someone with poor copyrighting skills.

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Outside the enclosure but still within the compound of the ancient city, there was plenty of living city. People carried on their daily business amidst the backdrop of beautiful lotus pond fringed by banana trees.

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After walking round imagining what life in ancient Hue would be like, I went to Y Thao Garden, a restaurant that specialised in imperial Hue cuisine. It had a little garden in the style of the imperial palace.

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The menu here is a Viet version of the degustation menu, with lots of little course that never quite seem to end. The only problem for a one-person meal was that the little courses weren’t as little as expected, as evidenced by this starter of deep-fried spring rolls masquerading as feathers atop a pineapple-carrot phoenix.

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Then came the less highly decorated poached prawns with salt and pepper.

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Followed by a slightly greasy but very yummy pancake called banh khoai. It was stuffed with meat and beansprouts and dipped in a peanut-based sauce.

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Next came a meat salad of sorts, a bit like the Lao/Thai larb gai. Combined with herbs and topped with ground peanuts, this aromatic mixture was eaten by scooping some up on a crunchy prawn cracker.

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I so full I was about to give up when the rice arrived. I thought it was going to be a run of the mill fried rice but boy was I wrong. This appeared to be fully vegetarian. The rice was cooked in a lotus leaf  with carrot, lotus seeds, black fungus and other vegetables. The fragrance of the dish blew me away. I don’t know what they did to make it taste so good but they sure did the right thing.

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Dessert was slightly less inspiring. There was only one, masquerading as table flowers. They’ve changed with the times and use plastic flower stems as the base, sticking on little soft pastry desserts. The filling was yellow mung bean, which was encased in a soft glutinous rice pastry, then painted over with some glossy jelly. It was pretty but not particularly tasty. Nonetheless, it was overall a great introduction to Hue imperial cuisine.

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Y Thao Garden
D Thach Han
Hue, Vietnam

[edited to include name and address of restaurant]

June in Thailand: Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai is probably the #2 city after Bangkok to visit when you go to Thailand. The feel of the northern capital is completely different, there’s far less of the cosmopolitan bustle and it’s a lot more relaxed and chill. The temples here are also obviously of a different architectural style from the south, and seem to be made from more rustic looking materials. Despite being pretty much templed-out, I did a quick whirl of the temples in Chiang Mai, just to complete the circuit as far as possible.

The first stop was at one of the minor temples and I can’t remember the name. I liked the sweeping curve of the roof and the graceful arcs of the protective guardians sitting on top.

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The Lanna-style temples are no less sumptuous and grand than those in the south, here evidenced by gold contrasted against the green background.

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Then there was the beautiful Wat Chiang Mun, supposedly the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. The grand wooden structure was intricately carved all over and overlaid with gold leaf.

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Check out the detail on this side door.

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On the inside, some of the doors also had lovely designs, this time of gold on enamel.

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And all this grandeur was to house a whole host of Buddha images, with the biggest one some thousand years old tafrom India, and the most revered one a tiny crystal Buddha image thought to have the power to bring rain.

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On the outside of some of the temples were interesting gates made from clay. These were rather low and small, so only one person at a time could pass through stooping.

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Again, I enjoyed how Thai craftsmen could made such beautiful works of art out of rustic materials.

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One new thing I learned was how alms were collected in some of these temples. Monks of course would do their rounds  with their alms bowls in the morning to collect food from devotees. I knew that the monks were to accept whatever was given them and not to quibble or choose. Having all the food in one bowl meant that everything was mixed up and that  one bowl would hold sustenance for the day. In one of the temples I visited, the monks’ alms bowls were laid out on tables for devotees to offer whatever they wanted into whichever bowl they chose. It was somewhat like a lottery because the monks would accept whatever appeared in their own bowl. What a way to learn not to want!

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Wat Chedi Luang was probably the most compelling temple in Chiang Mai. With its massive structure still very obvious, its former grandeur is still very apparent. It must have been even more magnificent before a 16th century earthquake took away much of the top part of the pagoda.

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It had just been restored in the 1990s, although the damaged part had been retained, probably because after so many hundreds of years, they felt it should stay as it was.

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I particularly liked the restored elephants sticking out from all four sides of the pagoda. It was grand and, to me, slightly absurd at the same time. It was a nice way to end the temple tour and get ready for the kitschier side of Chiang Mai.

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