Hue

Upon deciding to head up to Hue after Hoi An, I spent a lot of time debating whether or not to do the Hai Van Pass by motorbike as everyone whose done it reports absolutely stunning scenery. This was an on going debate throughout my stay in Hoi An and it was only on the last day I decided I wasn’t confident enough to ride a motorbike or scooter the necessary 160 odd kilometres. In the end I caught a local bus to Da Nang and then got the train the rest of the way. This meant I got to see a little of the beautiful scenery but missed out on the best bits. On the other hand, I arrived at my hostel in one piece and without an Asian tattoo of gravel rash.

Gates to the Hue Imperial City.

Cycling around Hoi An had given me the bicycle bug so the day after my arrival I rented a bicycle and set off to explore the sites around Hue. Within the city there is less to see but surrounding it are tombs and temples. I started off by powering along to the UNESCO Imperial City. Building started in 1804 but less than a century and a half later in 1947, Viet Cong and French fighting destroyed many of the buildings and burned the Imperial Palace to the ground. Then the Citadel was badly damaged in 1968 during the Tet Offensive and the South Vietnamese and American efforts to reclaim Hue. By the end of all this only ten of some 160 major buildings or sites remained. Fortunately, these have been or are in the process of being restored and preserved.

Inside the Imperial City

All this makes for a curious experience walking around the Citadel as some parts remain grassy ruins and others are perfectly solid (if a little weathered) buildings. While some of the weathering had clearly appeared naturally over time, there were a couple of places where it appeared intentional such as where doors had multiple layers of paint in different colours showing.

Inside the Imperial City

I eventually found myself at the exit and decided to move on to my next loaction: the Thien Mu Pagoda. The pagoda was magnificent but also interesting was some of its history as this was the home of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who famously self immolated in 1963 to protest the prosecution of Buddhists by the Roman Catholic government. The car he used to drive down to Saigon is on display at the pagoda and provided yet another insight into the build up to the Vietnam war.

Thien Mu Pagoda

Out of all the tombs, I decided to visit only one as the 100,000đ entrance fees to each would have quickly added up and the distant locations meant I wasn’t confident of fitting everywhere into one day. Hence, I went to the one that seemed to have the best reviews, the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc. While I cannot compare it to the other tombs I felt it deserved the reviews and enjoyed looking around the complex.

A building in Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb complex. 

I spent the evening recovering from all my cycling over a cold beer with an Australian from my hostel and woke up bright and early the next day to finish packing.

Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb complex. 

Packing complete, I set left my backpack at the hostel and set out riding pillion on the back of a lass’s scooter to the abandoned water park. The Australian from the night before was with us and my excellent navigation skills saw us arriving in no time. We ended up paying the bribe fee to the entrepreneurial local security guard to enter the park as the large group of girls we were standing with all caved and our sheep-like natures won out.

Sitting inside the mouth of the dragon at the abandoned water park.

The water park didn’t have tons to see but the huge dragon in the centre of the lake was really cool to climb up and look out from. A few small additions to the graffiti later and we came across some flumes and slides that had seen better days. Finishing our loop around the lake, we headed back into Hue for a rushed lunch before I caught my bus up to Phong Nha.

Flumes at the abandoned water park.

Christmas in Kyoto

Christmas doesn’t exist in Japan. The few churches might hold a service and every now and then one might see a bit of tinsel, but Christmas isn’t celebrated in Japan. There is no public holiday, no discordant carolling and no celebration. It is, perhaps, for the best. I think that had my first Christmas away from home been full of reminders for what I was missing, I would have ended up curling up in a ball and crying to myself all day. As it was, I had a very enjoyable day and since there was no public holiday, I could continue with my sightseeing.

This does not mean I made no concessions for Christmas. I started the day by heading to St. Anges Anglican International Church of Kyoto for a lovely little service followed by tea and coffee across the road. It was an interesting and though provoking sermon about how we are all bearers of God and the hymn selection bought a lovely bit of Christmas cheer to my day. As everyone headed off to work after tea and coffee, I crossed the road to meander through the gardens surrounding the Imperial Palace.

The Palace itself is closed on Mondays so the gardens were very quite. They weren’t the amazingly landscaped gardens that Japan is famous for however there were a few small shrines and walled off gardens which were very pretty and peaceful. Checking my map, I walked over to Nijo-jo Castle, glancing nervously at the sky as it carefully targeted my glasses with rain. Eventually I was forced to give in and get my Umbrella out as I approached the castle.

Nijo-jo Castle is a lasting symbol of the power on the Japanese Shogunate during the Edo Period of Japan and it really lived up to this impressive caption. Many on the interior wall paintings had backgrounds of gold dust and the attention to detail on the brass ceiling bracket was astounding. One thing I would be curious to know is how they kept warm though as I began to feel the chill walking through the gardens. Unlike the more park like layout of the Imperial Palace, the gardens surrounding the castle were painstakingly crafted with exquisite rock and water formations that photos cannot do justice to.

After some tasty matcha noodles, I caught the train to Inari station to see the famous Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine. The photos of hundreds, if not thousands of torii gates leading up the mountain are almost synonymous with Japan. The tunnels of these vermilion arches wind upwards towards the summit and as I ascend, the heaving crowds begin to subside.

My family has something of a tradition of taking photos of wearing Santa hats every Christmas and I had been tasked with getting a photo of myself in one today, despite being on the opposite side of the world. Fortunately, I had found a nice hat in Seoul and so spent the day taking selfies of myself in said hat. It was as I was taking one of these selfies in front of a torii gate tunnel, that someone asked me to take a few photos of them. After returning the favour, we began walking up the mountain together. I couldn’t help but smile at the exclamation of wow my new companion made every time we reach a new flight of stairs.

It was on one such flight close to the summit that we merged with a group of Australians. After a slew of photos in front of the main summit shrine and a good natured argument about who was the best photographer and iPhone versus Android, we all descended together to go our separate ways. Even though I was with a talkative group, above the more tourist saturated areas, the tranquil otherness of the surrounding forest was palpable and I couldn’t help but think that the trees were watching.

After a tasty 7-Eleven meal, freshly heated in the microwave, I concluded the day with a Christmas video call back home.