No trip to Vietnam is complete without visiting Huế (pronounced Way), this home to almost 1 million people who live in the Thừa Thiên-Huế province was once the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty and is located on the banks of the aptly named Perfume River. Nestled roughly halfway along the coast of Vietnam, the city’s former prominence is in evidence everywhere, with its UNESCO listed complex of monuments, the Citadel and its Forbidden City and numerous pagodas, that are truly national treasures.
Sadly, Huế has seen more than its share of conflict over the centuries through struggles in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the most recent being 1968’s Tết Offensive during which, in the Battle of Huế, the city suffered considerable damage from American fire.
Fortunately many of the fine structures survived, some in severely damaged states, and over the years there has been a progressive restoration program that is gradually and faithfully restoring many of these exquisite buildings to their former grand states. The Citadel, with its 2 metre thick walls, high and imposing flag tower, is as impressive as it is vast and by just spending some hours walking through its enclosed grounds, you gain some sense of its former grandeur. You also experience the thrill of knowing that contained within these walls is the Forbidden City with its Imperial Enclosure where once only emperors, their concubines and a select few were granted access. Although little of the Forbidden City remains today, tourists can be safe that their entry is now no longer punishable by summary death!
Many monuments, including those of former emperors are located along the Perfume River and the wonderful pagodas are well worth visiting, along with other reminders of Huế’s regal past such as the Ngo Mon Gate, Halls of the Mandarins, Thai Hoa Palace and the To Mieu Temple Complex together with a boat ride along the river. There are also a number of interesting museums to visit, such as the Museum of Royal Fine Arts, Ho Chi Minh Museum and the General Museum Complex.
Accommodation is readily available ranging from luxurious resort style developments to the modest and inviting guesthouses. Numerous places to dine are sited throughout Huế and the local cuisine is delightful, with a wide range of vegetarian meals available that also make use of the variety of fruits, such as rambutan, jackfruit, lychee, durian, dao, dragon fruit, star fruit, mangosteen, coconut, kumqut, Vietnamese apple etc. that are grown in this region, due to the all year level of rain, together with plentiful seafood, fresh vegetables and succulent meats.
Huế is unlike any other city of Vietnam with its own culture that has developed over the centuries to overcome its geographical and climatic difficulties that is reflected in its food and many other aspects of its resident’s everyday life. Possessing a cheerful and inviting disposition is reflective of a resident of Huế.
Huế can be readily accessed by road or regular air flights, however, travelling on the Reunification Express (Vietnam North-South Railway) from either Hanoi (688 kilometres away) in the north or Ho Chi Minh City (1036 kilometres away) in the south is a treat. The train, with its sleeper carriages, may be to many westerners a “no frills” mode of travel but it possesses a charm and intoxicating desirability that is uniquely Vietnamese and only adds to the sense of adventure.
Like Huế itself, experiencing the train journey is not to be missed!