A Dalliance Downstream on a Hue Riverboat

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” – Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

The perfume river – Hue’s central waterway – may have lost its perfume in more ways than one, but it cannot be denied that a humble journey by boat is by far one of the most rewarding and romantic journeys one can embark upon whilst visiting Vietnam’s ancient capital. While everyone is going upstream, to the tombs – yes the royal tombs, which are of course a must – I beseech you to consider a different course, downstream, where the waters flow cleaner, the people live day by day, and you can remember that in fact, you are, quite fabulously, in a vastly different world, where the placidity of river life is at the epicentre of a whole vibrant, living, real, culture – still.

On a recent sojourn, I was delighted to discover one of Hue’s – if not the country’s – most fascinating customs. Wrestling. Yes, wrestling. Unfortunately I missed the annual festival by a mere few days in the idyllic Sinh Village; a small riverside settlement speckled with antiquated family spirit houses, community heritage buildings and lush rice paddies on the Hen Islet. It is in this little hamlet that once a year people from various provinces gather together to watch the spectacular sport of ‘dau vat’; or traditional Vietnamese wrestling. Apparently ‘dau vat’ it is more akin to a dance between two lithe yet muscular wrestlers who perform to the wild beat of local drums and crowd cries. I vow to make the pilgrimage next year to see the event up close.

Despite missing the festival, the village also has a unique number of artisans – you can see handpainted (on rice paper mixed with the calcified powder of oyster clams) versions of the wrestling, or purchase personalized, colourful horoscope calendars. They are also renowned for making the local paper flowers used in ancestry worship. So it’s interesting and captivating anyway to have a walk around this simple, yet stunning little village – wrestling or no wrestling. 

Moreover the boat trip I took (which inversed the route that most tourists take) gave me a worthwhile insight into Hue’s local river lifestyle. Travelling downstream allowed me to soak up the picturesque countryside of Hen Islet – an atoll given its name from the popular baby clams (hen in Vietnamese) that reside in its sandy depths. Locals and Vietnamese visitors delight in these clams which are used to make the toothsome Com Hen; a rice dish comprising of the hen, peanuts and pork crackling. Because the clams are so minute, their taste is subtle, and Com Hen is a dish that I would highly recommended, even to the less intrepid of gastronauts. To obtain the hen, locals dive down to the river bottoms off the islet (in specific spots) to scoop up a hefty portion of sand in a bucket, then they sift out the clams from the sand in a primitive bamboo colander. It is such traditions that give me the greatest of pleasures; knowing that despite all the modernization of Vietnam, these simple things still bring people together. Go to any Com Hen restaurant in the early evening in Hue and you’ll see what I mean.  

My friend asked the captain to cut the engine on our way back from Sinh Village to La Residence so we could enjoy the late afternoon sun as it sent its last rays across the river. We sat, lulled by the serenity and soft movements of the water, and observed a long boat murmur slowly past, its habitants clearly living on the vessel’s premises – probably one of the very few remaining ‘boat people’ in Hue – and wondered about what it would be like to live one’s life entirely on the river. My mind immediately turned to the character of Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s eponymous children’s book Wind in the Willows and I thought, with the right disposition, it certainly wouldn’t be bad at all.

Boat trips can easily be arranged from various dock points along Hue city’s Le Loi St, including the one that is adjacent to La Residence.     

Amy Morison