After living and working in Hue, Australian national Philip Thomas published an open access Hue walking guide on social media. The document shares a personal yet humble perspective on the joys of exploring Hue by foot. We asked Philip some questions to find out more about his time on Hue, what he loved about the Imperial City and what drove him to making a walking guide of Hue.
Tell me a bit about your background. What were you doing before you came to Hue?
I’m from Melbourne, Australia. I retired from paid work five years ago, but was previously a freelance urban planner. My clients were mainly in local government and my projects involved preparing plans for communities, shopping centres, and ‘green wedges’ – rural areas around the edge of Melbourne. I have lived in Melbourne all my life, but I lived in Sussex, UK for fifteen years until 2005.
How long were you in Hue?
I lived in Hue for two years as an Australian Government volunteer – in 2017 and again in 2019. I worked firstly as a funding advisor, and then as a business development advisor for two local NGOs – the Centre for Social Research and Development (CSRD) and the Center for Knowledge Co-creation and Development Research (CKC). I tried to train and develop staff, rather than to do their work – using my experience from setting up a town planning consultancy and bidding for jobs.
This was the first time I had visited Vietnam – I had back-packed across Asia for a year in 1976 but of course Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were closed at that time. That trip across Asia was an amazing time – without a mobile phone – and an experience that certainly shaped my life and my outlook. For someone from Melbourne, it was great to visit and appreciate the home countries of many of our new citizens, for example India, Afghanistan, and South-East Asia.
What did you enjoy about living in Hue?
I struck gold when I applied for an assignment in 2017 – Hue is my sort of place because of its distinctiveness. It is different from any other city in Vietnam with its history, local culture, cuisine, the Hue accent, academic and professional strengths, warm, attractive and short people, Buddhist and Catholic traditions, the Citadel and lots more. It’s strangely similar to Lewes, Sussex in the UK where I lived for fifteen years – for instance, a notable local beer (Huda and Harveys), a castle/citadel, academic and professional strengths, a famous festival (Hue Festival and the Lewes Bonfire), strong community life, occasional floods, a tradition of dissent, tragedies (Tet Offensive and Lewes Martyrs)… almost eerie.
Free time was sometimes a challenge without the trappings of home and family. But my happiest days were hiking around Hue, motorbike tours around Tam Giang Lagoon or to A Luoi, and visits to the handicraft villages. Coffees with local friends, morning bun bo Hue, and dinners with friends were great. I watched a crazy amount of Australian Rules football and read a book a fortnight…
How would you describe your own relationship with walking?
Walking for me is a pillar of my life, ever since my early 20s. It gives me a good measure of physical and mental well-being, and is similar to what others get from meditation and yoga. I walk socially with friends and love that, but often on my own when it is a time to reflect, solve problems, develop ideas, become more positive. I do an hour of walking every day and have maintained this in Vietnam.
Hiking is for longer walks away from towns in the bush or the forest. I get the same benefits but also develop skills like navigating, understanding birds and trees and plants, reading the night sky, and recognising animal tracks and traces. I used to go bush-walking for days and even weeks at a time. My proudest achievement was a five-week walk of Australia’s Alpine Walking Track – 500 km and we didn’t see a single person for nine days! In the last few years, I’ve climbed three K’s with my son – Mounts Kilimanjaro, Kenya, and Kinabalu – 6000m, 5000m, and 4000m respectively. I think it’s awesome, but maybe not so hard as it sounds with proper technique and preparation.
Did you enjoy walking around Hue?
The Nam Giao Esplanade, around the Citadel moat, along the To Huu plantation were my regular circuits and gave me time to enjoy pleasant uninterrupted walks away from traffic. All are popular spots for Hue walkers and they can be sociable places as well. After work, how good is it to watch the sun go down among the pine trees and fireflies at Nam Giao, alongside the moat and the massive Citadel walls, or with the gentle sea breeze and bar activities along To Huu!
While walking you can engage with a place differently from when you’re passing through on a motorbike or a car. You see more detail – like who are the best badminton players at Nam Giao, you hear and smell things – like the resin from the pine trees or the muddy water in the moat, you engage with people as you go – like the retired science teacher telling me how gentle are the women of Hue, and you see changes happening like the new flower gardens along the Citadel walls.
What inspired you to make the Hue walking guide?
I’ve written many walk reports for different walking club newsletters and I’ve had two articles published in magazines – Walking around Port Phillip Bay, and Walking Melbourne’s Creeks. I’m keen to spend some time publishing a coffee table book called Walking Melbourne, and Walking Hue seemed to be a good start. But it was also a small legacy which other walkers might be able to enjoy, and for other keen walkers it could be the basis for a week’s stay in Hue, instead of the routine 2-3 days visiting the historic sites. I only hope it gets a wider circulation!
My favourite hike was to Hon Vuon mountain which I climbed many times with many different people. Brilliant views back across the hills to Hue, with that wonderful bend in the river around Thuy Bieu. I even did a clean-up there one time with CKC and I swear it was the cleanest mountain in Vietnam as others seemed to have the same idea as us. It’s short but steep and I quickly found out that hiking around Hue is only viable in summer if you’re finished by 9.00am – which means a very early start at 5.30/6.00am.
My favourite city walk was along the Song Nhu Ha River which runs for 2-3 km across the Citadel with small roads on either side and regular bridges, so you can do as much or as little as you choose. It’s a wonderful microcosm of old Hue where village life seems to take over from Hue’s city life – lots of dogs and hammocks. The streets are quiet so walking is easy, there are lots of restaurants with bars on one side and tables on the other next to the river. You’ll see fishermen, residents with garden plots on the river banks, and a distinct university ambience around the School of Agriculture and Forestry.
And then there’s the mighty and elusive Kim Phung… but of course you must get approval before you can climb it!
Do you think you’ll return to Vietnam again in the future? With COVID 19, all travel plans are on hold of course. But I’ll definitely be back for a visit at least, to catch up with some of those warm and lovely people, to re-connect with friends, and maybe some short-term work with CKC. Another volunteering assignment as an urban planner is a possibility although the Australian Government program is on hold, and walking the Coast to Coast Path in UK or the Mont Blanc Circuit in France are also on my list. Will see…
Interview with Philip Thomas 15 April 2020
Thanks to Philip for taking the time to answer our questions. We hope to see him return to Hue in the future.
Philip’s Hue walking guide can be found here.
Philip is available to contact at email@example.com
Photos of Truong Tien Bridge and Five cannons by Ana Fortuna.