Still before the Tet we manage to escape from Hoi An and arrive in Hue, right in the midst of the pre-holiday fever. Shopping, shopping and more shopping. Decorations, flowers, kumquat trees, new clothes, food, Tet specialties. Cleaning the house and family altars, tying up unfinished matters, paying off debts, cooking, visiting the hairdresser, manicure, ear cleaning… For the first time, we’re watching the holiday psychosis completely from the sidelines. Tet, celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year, is the festival of the new lunar year, the beginning of spring and the time of worshiping the ancestors.
The culmination of events happens just before midnight on the first day of Tet, when the nuclear family gathers to watch the fireworks provided by the government (it is forbidden to sett them off on your own and they’re not available for purchase anyway). A fire is set on which the gifts for ancestors are burned, such as fake money, paper cars, shoes, etc. In accordance with the rule that a good first day means a succesful coming year, it is extremely important who will be the first person to enter the house in the new year. It seems that some precautious owners will go out from the house just before midnight so as to ensure they will be first to enter. Children get red envelopes containing lucky money from the elders. It can spend on toys, baloons and sweets in the new year. Snacks are served, such as sunflower seeds, red-tinted watermelon seeds, candied and dried fruit and sticky rice.
We join the celebrations too, together with the hotel owner, the staff and a few European guests. The fireworks are fired in the distance and our hosts burn the gifts for ancestors. We are mercilessly stuffed with snacks and wine. A lesson is quickly learned that leaving our glass or plate empty guarantees a refill. Serious looking boss hands each of us a red envelope. Someone sets “happy new year” song on repeat. After an hour we delicately suggest we would like to hear some Vietnamese music. Fat chance. When the wine is finished, a crate of beer appears. According to the hotel note, the party was supposed to last until 1 am. Because we finish after 5 AM, we’re not able to get up for the new year’s parade with dragons and drumming to ward off evil spirits. We’re able to hear it quite well though.
The first day of the year of the horse is az lazy as can be. The staff rests too, as cleaning and more importantly sweeping during Tet can cause the luck to be swept away. The pressure is over and the Vietnamese go back to their relaxed selves. The city is quiet and empty, we can only see some elegantly dressed families setting off to their relatives’ houses for the holiday dinners. Luckily, on the third day of Tet many restaurants open and we can try some local cuisine. Hue is famous for its bad and unpredictable weather. We seem to be in luck as not only is it warm and dry, but beautiful spring sun is present as well. After feasting at home, the Vietnamese rush out to the parks, the sights and on trips. For the first time since Bangkok we see women wearing dresses and short skirts exposing bare legs. Probably because it’s holiday everybody seems exceptionally nice and smiling and we get the impression this is how Hue is,
Hue is a city where everybody should find something enjoyable. The tourist district isn’t big and it’s easy to walk it up and down. In the heart of the former imperial capital lies the citadel and within it the imperial palace. There are also the imperial tombs that can be visited by taking a cruise on the Perfume River. Diehard sight-seeing fans will not be disappointed. For the curious, we recommend, as we did, turning right before the main entrance to the citadel and going along the moat along an increasingly narrow alley with make-shift roofs overhead. A place where all the windows and doors are open and people live in incredible proximity, going about all their daily activities next to each other, in tiny living quarters or in the street itself, with odd motorbikes squeezing by. This sudden change of atmosphere creates an impression of exiting a time-capsule straight into the rabbit-hole. We enter a very private world and don’t feel any temptation to pull out the camera. To top off the day, we head east of the citadel and on the other side of a canal err along streets lined with disintegrating Chinese temples.
The majority of Vietnamese dishes were created in Hue to satisfy the emperors who would not have the same dish twice in one year. We, for a change, gorge on plebeian clam with rice or com hen. Tiny clams from the Perfume River are only present in Hue making com hen a local specialty. For reasons unknown to us, it does not appear in guidebooks. To try com hen head to the Truong Dinh street where several similar eateries can be found. Apart from clams and rice, com hen contains peanuts, chilli, shredded banana flowers, rice crisps, pork cracklings, starfruit slices and some greens. The additional ingredients may change depending on what’s seasonally available. The dish is served with clam broth used for soaking the rice. Finally, when the whole concoction is thoroughly mixed the tastes connect and it’s delicious.
We tried other local specialties, as well. Beginning with nem lui, or ‘minced meat on a stick’. It’s actually pork and it’s grilled and wrapped in rice paper with extras. The meat was too fatty for our liking, same as banh khoai rice pancakes, deep fried, that loose crunchiness as soon as the heat goes. It seems all appeal is lost once they cool. Finally, we visited an eatery that specializes in local appetizers. Most names here begin with banh, a word with infinite meanings, encompassing all sorts of starchy creations like cakes, bread and other rice inventions that do not fall into the pasta (bun) category. Most snacks served here are variations on the theme of chewy rice flour blobs. Interesting, but it did not find a way into our hearts. Likewise, we were not enchanted by bun bo Hue, or beef soup from Hue. A bit similar to pho, but with thick round rice pasta, instead of the usual flat stripes. Maybe we did not go to the right place… Anyway, for us Hue will remain a pleasant city of delicious com hen.