There were two things we wanted to experience in Hue (pronounced “way”), the Imperial Palace (built in the center of the city) and the central market which housed another culinary noodle miracle, Bun Bo Hue, the noodle dish that Anthony Bourdain claimed is the “best noodle dish in the world” on his show (aka Nat’s favorite show to binge while hungover), “Parts Unknown”. After our hectic arrival into Hue we decided to lay low and eat breakfast at our leisure before exploring the Imperial Palace with our new friend from the hostel.
On our way to the Palace we stopped at a shopfront to buy water and got to chatting to the owner with the typical questions, “where are you from,” “how long are you in Hue for,” etc. but before we got to the second question, the shop owner quickly said that his brother also lived in the US. After narrowing down where we lived from country (USA) to state (California) to area (Southern California) and finally county (Orange County), we realized that his brother lived less than 20 kilometers away from our hometown. It sounds cliche but the more you travel, the smaller the world becomes.
It is hard to get lost or miss the Palace as the “old city” of Hue is surrounded by a medieval looking wall and the Palace is surrounded by a what-would-have-been-treacherous-back-in-the-day moat straight out of Game of Thrones. Once inside we looked everywhere to find our English speaking guide. After entering a room that looked like it should have had a ‘staff only’ sign on it, we were instructed to wait by a grand fish pond filled with koi fish. With not much else to do while we waited for our guide (clearly we came on a low crowd and low guide day), we fed the fish on an honor food system – simply drop Dong in the box next to the food and feed to your heart’s content. These fish were clearly having a slow day too because they were beyond excited to be fed. After exhausting our food supply we watched a kid steal four packs of fish food and dump them in the beautiful pond. It took every ounce of our willpower not to tell the kid off for not only stealing but also littering. Not wanting to be “the ugly Americans” we held back the urges. Finally after about a half an hour, our guide arrived and we learned about all of the dirty secrets about the kings of Vietnam – one was semi-openly gay (even though it was forbidden to be a homosexual) while others had hundreds of concubines with homes within the Palace walls. Occasionally one king would get drunk, find a concubine and then the next day forget that he had asked her to live in the Palace. The Palace itself was grand and took a good hour and a half to explore.
On our journey back from the Palace we decided to detour by the river where there were plastic tables set up for groups of older men to drink what looked like tea and play cards. Since we weren’t sure if the tea had been brewed with filtered or boiled water we did what we did best and ordered a beer each. After chatting to our new friend about everything from Japanese naked spas to our career aspirations once we were finally home, we both noticed that we were all getting considerably tipsy off our one beer. We double checked the strength and it had a standard 4.7% alcohol. After we each finished our beers we were giddy with giggles. We found out later back at the hostel that the alcohol percentages in Huda (the local lager beer brewed in Hue) is not regulated for its alcohol percentages – so even though it said 4.7% it could have been more or less. We un-officially named it the roulette beer of Vietnam.
After saying goodbye to our friend, the following day we set out to conquer our second task for Hue – to try the famous noodle dish after taking some much deserved R&R to go see Wonder Woman at the nearest theatre; see Vietnam is not as “third world” as people think it is. We crossed the bridge once again into the old town of Hue and explored the market in search for our noodles. Once we realized that Anthony Bourdain’s directions were a bit too vague, we settled on a full looking noodle stall inside the market that looked quite surprised to seat us as it seemed that other tourists might have turned up their noses to the smells and mess of the market. It was definitely both smelly and messy (at one time we saw workers pile up all of the trash they could find in the market and burn it) but the noodles themselves looked so appetizing and clearly the shop was also a hit with the locals. After our first bite we knew we had made the right decision and also why Mr. Bourdain had given these supple noodles such high acclaim. Much like Nat’s favorite pho noodles, Bun Bo Hue was served with beef broth in a big bowl but unlike pho there was a myriad of fresh herbs and lettuce served on top of the noodles and meat. It was like pho on crack. Something we might never learn how to replace at home are the sauces that are served with any noodle dish in Vietnam, most importantly, the raw chilis soaked in oil that are hotter than most professional athletes or models, spice that is. After “linner” we noticed that the market looked like it was closing – vendors were packing up and leaving for the night. Right next to our stools were a big bunch of lychees. Natalie asked how much it would be for a few lychees and the answer (through a few translators) was that she only sold lychees by the kilogram. After contemplating our desire for about 40 lychees we decided to buy them, for far too much money; tourist prices strike again.
On our way back to our hostel we saw a deal that was too good to pass up, beers for 10,000 dong, roughly one beer for 50 US cents. Next to our bar was a cross between a club and a bar with a fancy looking bouncer dressed in a suit and tie standing out front. We asked him if the beer advertisement was for his fancy looking bar of the bar next door and he said it was for the bar next door. We sat down and soon enough he asked us if it was ok if he could stay and talk to us to practice his English and bring us a trashcan for our lychee seeds and peels. Both were great in our book. We learned that our new friend was recently married and studying to be a tour guide. After we got to the level of Facebook friends, our new friend asked us to teach him some ‘American accents’ – confused we looked at each other for some hints other than telling him that we are speaking in ‘American accents’. After a while we figured out that he wanted to learn slang, ‘American slang’. He already knew hyperbolic statements that Americans are famous for like, “cool” and “awesome” so we thought we would teach him something inherit to California, “stoked”. He repeated after us, “stooo-ccckkk-ed” close but it is more of an ohhh sound “st-oooo-ked” – stooocked, close enough. That night we boarded another night bus to Ninh Binh and were stoked to score two seat beds next to each other.