Taking a tour with the local boat people is the best way to enjoy the poetic beauty of the Perfume River in Hue. Rather than take a regular tour along Hue’s Perfume River with travel agents, I decide to do as the locals would do and go by sampan! I arrive at the riverbank before dawn and negotiate a small fee with one of the boat people. As we set off the river is covered with a layer of cold mist. The boat owners are heading off to work as we float away from the “sampan village”. We pass Hen islet in the general direction of Da Vien islet. According to the principles of feng shui, Hen symbolises an Azure Dragon (East) - a fairytale creature - while Da Vien represents a White Tiger (West). These two powerful creatures were believed to guard the emperors’ throne in the Imperial City of Hue. The word ‘hen’ means ‘clam’ in Vietnamese and the tiny shellfish is found everywhere in these waters. That’s why one of the local delicacies is com hen, a dish with rice, clam and vegetables. We arrive at Dong Ba market further along the river. The market is the largest commercial centre in Hue. Traders from smaller markets come here to buy goods at wholesale prices. Piles of fresh fruit and vegetables are everywhere. Rather than get caught up in the vibrant atmosphere we row on. We watch motorcycles with carts of vegetables and fruit shoot over the elegantly designed Truong Tien bridge, which was constructed by the renowned Eiffel Construction Company from France. Our fragile boat glides under. In riverside parks joggers trot past. Fishermen squat at the ends of their boat looking for the catch-of-the-day. After we pass the pavilion of Thuong Bac - a reception centre for foreign guests during the Nguyen dynasty (1802- 1945) - we reach Phu Xuan bridge. The sun is now rising into the sky and the long white bridge looks immaculate above the deep blue river, which is flanked by grassy riverbanks. Locals walk over this bridge to greet the dawn in the morning or to admire the twilight dimming behind the mountains upstream come evening time. We moor our boat at the wharf by Nghinh Luong pavilion, where emperors once disembarked. A huge boat built in the imperial style is anchored a few meters from the wharf, evoking a bygone era of Vietnam’s former capital. On the shady Le Duan by Van Lau pavilion, I find a covered stone stele with a poem carved by Emperor Thieu Tri. The descriptive verse sketches a vivid and serene scene in Hue before daybreak. Just a minute’s walk away, Long Thuyen temple hides under a dense canopy of trees. Inside the crumbling temple, you can find fading parallel sentences that depict the wonder of a moonlit night on Huong river. After I return to the wharf, we finally arrive at Da Vien islet, where visitors can find a unique royal garden which was established during the reign of Tu Duc (1829-1883), the fourth ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty. Unfortunately, few relics remain in the garden, but the fertile islet is still home to lush green vegetable patches cultivated by local farmers. In the distance the two bridges of Bach Ho and Da Vien are shaped like a pair of iron arms connecting the islet with the two villages on either side of the river. In the distance white clouds sit around the peaks of green mountains like a long soft, comforting scarf. We rest at a temple nestled amongst the bamboo trees and admire its reflection on the crystal clear water. The Perfume River is like a magic mirror in which every reflection seems purer, more beautiful. On the way back, we row past Quoc Hoc and Hai Ba Trung high schools, the Provincial People’s Committee building and grand French colonial structures before reaching my friends’ modest “floating house” in the sampan village. As I daydream of a large, late breakfast the scent of grilled meat suddenly greets my empty stomach. A middle-aged woman serving up bun thit nuong (grilled pork and noodles), a local delicacy, appears like a vision. She paddles towards us with an inviting smile. How can I possibly refuse? Floating on the river while eating breakfast… everything on the Perfume River seems like a dream.
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