A happy medium between Vietnam’s bustling metropolises and smaller hideaways, Hue coaxes visitors with its slow-moving charm and impeccable natural scenery. Once Vietnam’s imperial capital, Hue has evolved into a mix of tourism and chilled-out relaxation — a perfect combination for any traveller making their way through Vietnam.
Once Vietnam’s capital and host to a line of toy kings (French-backed Vietnamese despots who ruled as the French commanded), Hue has evolved into one of the premier stops for travellers making their way through Vietnam. Boasting an impressive citadel in the centre of town, and a number of fluorescent-lit bars and restaurants along the Perfume River, central Vietnam’s ‘Imperial City’ is a perfect mix of Vietnam’s large-scale cities like Hanoi and Saigon, and its smaller hideaways like Hoi An and Da Lat. Here, swaths of motorbikes still hum in choreographed chaos as they zip between tourists and touts, but at a pace that borders on lethargic, and the aroma of the somethings and I-don’t-knows that issue from roadside food stalls lulls instead of pierces — in Hue they’ve found a balance, and behind the tourist frontage is a city that lounges in the slowness of central Vietnamese life.
“Away from the flocks of tourists the service was slow, and the river carried past unhurried as the dripping and dropping of my coffee onto the condensed milk begged me to spend my afternoon in languor…”
Hue first came to prominence in 1802 when it became the nation’s capital, a nicer way of saying a home for France’s puppet kings, the Nguyen Dynasty. This political reign stretched until 1945 when the capital was moved to either Saigon, or Hanoi, depending on your allegiances. While the importance of Hue as a capital was short-lived, it did provide the city with some awe-inspiring imperial remnants. The most visible of these leftovers is the citadel that lies in the centre of the city. To take in this sprawling compound, I hopped on the back of a motorbike and slalomed through the tree-lined boulevards that criss-cross Hue’s interior until I arrived at the main entrance. Sitting behind thick stone and brick walls, and dominated by a massive Vietnamese flag and rows of scaffolding, the citadel, or imperial city as it is also known, is a throwback to dynastic Sino-Vietnamese architecture and contains living quarters, theatres and various other governmental buildings that were used at the height of the Nguyen Dynasty. Unfortunately, these 19th-century creations sustained heavy damage during the Vietnamese-American War in the 1960s and were largely neglected until tourists started bringing in the money necessary for repairs. The result? A massive complex that is about half-beautiful and half-unfinished. It’s worth a visit, if only to see the old-style architecture and that which the city functioned around in its early years, but if you’re visiting in Vietnam’s summer months as I did, be sure to bring along some water and sunscreen as the temperature in Hue can easily reach stifling.
After a few hours wandering the citadel and sweating through my shirt, I made my way to a local coffee house that sat not far away in the breezy shade on the bank of the Perfume River. Filled with locals barbing each other over games of poker and small glasses of ca phe sua da, it was here — not the citadel — that I began to feel the slow pull of Hue’s charm. Away from the flocks of tourists the service was slow, and the river carried past unhurried as the dripping and dropping of my coffee onto the condensed milk begged me to spend my afternoon in languor, but fortunately (as I would soon find out), my sloth would have to wait — I still had tombs to see. And so back onto the motorbike I got.
If I thought that Hue’s charm had so much as caressed me in the city’s heart, it is in Hue’s endlessly green outskirts that I was fully taken by it. Snaking roads weave and wind themselves through vast mountainous beauty where wooded neighbourhoods are filled with vibrant green rice paddies, the aromatic bouquet of fresh Vietnamese food and incense, and the sleepy smiles of villagers slowly fixing this or carrying that. Yet all of this is somehow embellished even further by the mighty Perfume River. While impressive in the city centre, the river doesn’t flex until you are outside the confines of the city, where it runs untamed through misty mountain passes, sweeping fields of palm and rice, and along the edges of quiet countryside villages. Yet as I felt myself falling further and further into Hue’s slow, beautiful clutches, I realised that I had to be somewhere before closing time, and so through the mountain roads my driver and I went to two of the royal tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty.
As we pulled up to the first tomb, the Khai Dinh tomb, I was immediately struck by the grandiose nature of it all. A mix of Sino-Vietnamese and French architecture, this ornate construction was begun by Emperor Khai Dinh in 1920 as a final resting place. Funded by public taxes, this narcissistic endeavour is home to showy antiques, eccentric carvings, and even a golden statue of the emperor himself. However, it is not the contents of the Khai Dinh tomb which make it noteworthy, rather the location. Nestled on Chau Chu Mountain, this tomb offers visitors a serene enclave from which they can admire the dense surrounding canopy and distant rolling mountains unobstructed. About 10-15 minutes away by motorbike, the second tomb, the Minh Mang tomb, is much more modest in its presentation, but still offers visitors a look at the history that made Hue home. Built primarily in the Sino-Vietnamese style, this tomb is particularly low-lying and is spread over several buildings. Set in a large walled off complex in the foothills of Hue’s outskirts, this series of buildings is surrounded by a lake and peaceful gardens that one can certainly find relaxation in. But perhaps the best thing about visiting these tombs was the relative lack of foot traffic and crowding. Far removed from tourist draws in places elsewhere, these tombs, being somewhat removed from the city centre, remain relatively quiet and allow visitors to saunter through unburdened by large groups bringing noise and clutter. While there are several other tombs that can be seen by making wayward journeys farther out of the city, I was told by several people that these two offered the most variety and were the most beautiful of the lot, and so, after taking in the quiet and calm of Vietnam’s shrouded-in-nature imperial tombs, it was time to dive back into Hue’s city hum.
“Snaking roads weave and wind themselves through vast mountainous beauty where wooded neighbourhoods are filled with vibrant green rice paddies, the aromatic bouquet of fresh Vietnamese food and incense, and the sleepy smiles of villagers slowly fixing this or carrying that.”
As we bumbled back into town through the dust, whirring motorbikes and gaggles of laughing students, a hunger took over, and luckily in Vietnam, hunger never goes untreated. “Let’s get some local food,” I shouted to my driving companion, “whatever’s best here in Hue.” He was clearly thinking the same thing I was, and before I could grab hold of the flimsy motorbike handles, my driver cranked the throttle and we were off. We pulled up to a roadside tent, under which sat the customary low plastic stools and tiny tables Vietnam is known for, and my driver signalled for two bowls of Bun Bo Hue, the local favourite. After finding a set of stools, and a few minutes of waiting they came, and these bowls of heaping goodness not only looked sublime, but smelled all the same. Vermicelli noodles in a beef broth with mint, spring onion, cashew nut powder, lemongrass, ginger, beansprouts, pork shoulder, beef flank and to top it all off, a nice chunk of blood cake (a congealed cube of pork blood) — what’s not to like. And as the story usually goes for me in Vietnam, one bowl turned into two, and my stomach was all the richer for it.
To recover from the onslaught of food, my driver and I whiled away an hour or so chatting about Hue and its inexplicable draw. His speech was slow and matter-of-fact, and there was no rushing in what he said, a trait I found common in Hue, “Life is enjoyed here,” he told me, “it’s a beautiful place with beautiful people, and all of us that live here in Hue are aware of it, so what better to do than just enjoy it? Look around and you’ll see that everyone is smiling, no one is rushing, there’s not a lot of honking, motorbikes cruise fairly slowly — we’re just enjoying it, slowly and simply.”
“Look around and you’ll see that everyone is smiling, no one is rushing, there’s not a lot of honking, motorbikes cruise fairly slowly—we’re just enjoying it, slowly and simply.”
Later that night I found myself reflecting on what my driver had told me earlier. I had grabbed a seat at DMZ Bar, a mainstay in Hue for backpackers and seasoned globetrotters alike, and began to enjoy watching the slow buzz that surrounded me unfold — people sauntering aimlessly from restaurant to bar, cyclo (three-wheeled bicycle taxis) drivers half-sleeping in their own carriages, and locals sharing a beer on the riverside. It was true, slowly and simply is life enjoyed here in Hue. And with trees everywhere, imperial remnants dotting the cityscape, the colour purple — the city’s official colour — manifesting in blooming riverside orchards where students in white uniforms hang out after class, magnificently imposing natural surroundings, and women snickering and gossiping as they glide elegantly in ao dai (a traditional Vietnamese dress) down the city’s slow-moving avenues, it’s hard to see why anyone wouldn’t enjoy it that way — slowly and simply.
(Featured image: The Khai Dinh tomb, a unique combination of Sino-Vietnamese and French architecture, is nestled on Chau Chu Mountain, from where observers can admire the dense green surroundings of Hue’s outskirts.)