There is a well worn tourist trail in Vietnam, and yes, the Vietnamese can be quite aggressive when it come to tourism and selling you things, but once you step out of those tourist districts – you can find a very different experience. Sure – you will still stick out and probably still pay higher prices due to the color of your skin – but you won’t be catered or pandered to.
If you take some time, the Imperial City of Hue fits in that class of tourist city that with a little digging you can find a more local experience. Due to its history ranging from the ancient Nguyen Dynasty to the infamous war battles – it’s a main stop on the tourist trail. Yet for me it’s always been the least touristy feeling town. If you simply wander off a few blocks from the Citadel and the backpacker area you can find ‘normal’ life – and no one really cares if you are foreign or not.
Getting There the Local Way
Evie sleeps in our train’s sleeper cabin. A young boy and father slept beneath her.
One of the things that fascinate me with the Vietnamese is their patience and ability to deal with uncomfortable situations and lack of space. So when you take a trip that is about getting more immersed in local experiences it sounds nice and interesting, but you also have to be aware that you may also be thrown into uncomfortable situations that test your patience and your own cultural norms.
You can no longer look from a distance – you have to adapt into it. So when we got on our overnight train to go to Hue, the old Royal City of Vietnam, got settled into our sleeper car and a big huge cicada like bug climbed over my foot – I probably shouldn’t have been startled. When kids were running around screaming in our train car playing at 11:30PM, this shouldn’t have been a big deal.
When others came into our sleeper compartment and sat around talking, I shouldn’t have been stunned. Yet – I was. We took the overnight train from Hanoi to Hue – a 12+ hour journey. We had sleeper cars that were fairly clean, but they did have a roach problem. However, the best part was that we were intermixed with local families and other budget travelers.
Dinner with Locals
After arriving by train in the morning, we toured around the Citadel that day in the heat and got our requisite ‘tourist’ moments in – then we were free to find the real Hue. That night we went to Lam’s home – a local motorbike guide to have dinner and see what a local’s home life is like. The dinner was arranged by our Intrepid guide as he knew that we and the Australian family we were traveling with were very interested in local experiences.
Lam’s house was found way back in the maze of alleys and was small – even though 5 people lived in the house (which is actually a small number for Vietnam). Lam had three boys from 16 to 8 years old and they all shared one hard ‘bed’ in a room that was simply a corner with some curtain ‘walls’ – no real door or room to speak of. The parents had another curtained off ‘room’, and there was a kitchen and dining area/living area. I loved for Evie to see how a family with 3 kids lived and we laughed about what it would be like if her and her other 2 sisters had to share a room with one bed.
Lam’s wife (and wonderful cook) and youngest son.
Lam’s wife cooked up a feast! The food was plentiful and her spring rolls were the best I’ve had. She also prepared chicken soup, jack fruit salad on rice paper cups, chicken and mushroom, morning glory, and omelets. Neighborhood kids came and sang songs for us. We shared other songs, and when the night ended we gave the neighborhood girls piggy back rides out of the maze of alley to the taxi and they returned the gesture in hugs and smiles. We were all on a ‘local’ high that night.
From Evie – “Best night so far! We ate dinner at a local family’s house and were entertained by these adorable young girls! We sang songs, danced, gave piggyback rides and laughed all night! #nieceproject”
Seeing the Countryside By Motorbike
The next morning we hired Lam to take us on a motorbike tour in and around Hue. We each had our own motorbike driver and they took us through the countryside for 4 hours experiencing the simplicity of local rural life. We stopped at small villages and markets, and even a rural farming museum where a beautiful old woman demonstrated how the locals harvest and dry rice, water fields, and what everyday life was like in villages.
She sang songs, laughed, and most of all she smiled. She was one of the most entertaining people on our trip. The motorbike trip wasn’t a part of our Intrepid itinerary – but Lam and his team of motorbikes are available to hire anytime in Hue – and I would highly recommend it. It was one of our favorite activities in Vietnam.
Motorbiking through the rice fields outside of Hue
The lovely women at the rural museum preparing beetlenut.
Hue Cathedral. We got there a bit early – but an hour later it was packed!
We had plenty of free time that day in our itinerary (one of the things I love about Intrepid trips) so Evie and I sampled local ice creams and coffee shops and we even went to a church service that night at the Cathedral in Hue. Religious ceremonies of any kind are a fascinating way to learn more about the culture. We didn’t understand anything in the service given in Vietnamese – but I was pretty damn proud of myself for getting Evie there as going to mass was her one main requests and one that I normally have no knowledge of. But all in all – I really enjoyed it as a way to get another glimpse into local life. We were definitely the only tourists there.
After mass we were in search of food – but didn’t really have a plan on where to go. Then on a dark street we walked past a little stand that said Hu Tieu and watched as a woman and man prepared big bowls of noodle soup with loads of greens, bean sprouts, thinly sliced meat and then delivered them to a dingy, dimly lit section of dirt peppered with little red mini tables and chairs where local customers eagerly awaited to eat. We both looked at each other and debated if we should go for it. I was starving, so we said yes to the eager soup vendors and asked for 2 bowls. No menu, just soup.
We looked up Hu Tieu on Evie’s Vietnamese food phone app and learned that it was a beef soup from Chinese and Cambodian origins. It’s similar to Pho as it’s also a rice noodle soup but made with pork and seafood stock. The rice noodle used is more transparent. We found a little table and the ‘waiter’ came and quickly tried to wipe it off for us pushing the mess of paper napkins onto the dirt ground.
I don’t know if the tables ever really get clean – nor does anyone really care if they are – but in minutes we had 2 steaming bowls of Hu Tieu in front of us. I doctored mine up with some Chili sauce and we enjoyed the best soup of the trip so far. All for 15,000 Dong (75 cents). No drinks are served – just soup.
Hue was really a highlight for us as it was the first time Evie was able to see how the Vietnamese really lived day to day – from home-life, to farming, to religion, to food. She came to life with this experience in Hue – I knew I had her hooked now on the joy of local travel.
Disclosure: While in Vietnam I was a guest of Intrepid Travel. However all of the opinions and thoughts expressed here are my own. I never accept such a deal if I am required, in any way, to write positively about any company, organization or experience.
Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of Briefcasetobackpack.com, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice.
Additionally, she runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat adventures at Ottsworld.com.com.