While Hanoi and Saigon look towards the future, the central city of Hue still finds itself frozen in its imperial past. Words by Kim Megson. Photos by Aaron Joel Santos

 

A warm and breezy morning on the banks of the Perfume River —groups of friends sit at the many plastic tables dotted along the tree-lined street, chatting quietly together and drinking tall, icy glasses of coffee. Lottery ticket sellers wander through, gently encouraging them to try their luck. On the water a dragon boat rolls past, and swan boats bob together on the horizon. In the distance the Vietnamese flag rolls in the wind, marking the entrance to the city’s ancient citadel. Welcome to Hue, a city that at times is almost too idyllic to be true.

 

Not even the horns of the motorbikes, the shouts of the market sellers, or the regular boozy cries of “mot, hai, ba dzo!” can interrupt the peaceful nature of this city, a place that many visitors and residents of Vietnam have yet to truly discover. The city has a beauty that it retains even among the traffic jams and often messy streets. It looks resplendent in the sun, and poetic in the rain. The famous Trang Tien Bridge (designed by a certain Gustave Eiffel) crosses the river, illuminated at night by changing fluorescent lights. It should look lurid, but here the result is somehow magical.

 

Hue is in many ways a microcosm of all that is special about today’s Vietnam. It has a rich history and culture, welcoming people, amazing food and stunning landscapes. As the former imperial capital and home of the Nguyen Dynasty, there is the feeling of national pride and a deep-rooted sense of the past — Hue is both geographically and metaphorically the heart of the country. Shops and cafes are surrounded by the crumbing citadel walls that have guarded the city through its tumultuous and often violent history.

 

High on Caffeine

 

An altogether different kind of place to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, or even nearby Danang, here, tradition and history take precedence over business and modernisation, and life moves at a different pace to the rest of this fast-developing country. Hue is happy to take things slowly. Very slowly. There is little investment outside of the hospitality sector, and new construction is heavily restricted.

 

In many ways this city exists in a bubble. Taking time to relax is highly valued, and regular coffee breaks are almost compulsory, with many local people loving nothing more than going for a ca phe sua to start the day. And then again for lunch. And then after work. The city runs on caffeine, perhaps accounting for the illusion that time moves unusually slowly. One local proverb translates as, ‘Discover Hue, the land of happiness where Heaven and Earth meet, time slows down, and life is longer.’

 

Such is the value of Hue’s history; it has yet to embrace the future and many would like it to remain the same forever. This is great for some, but difficult for the younger generation who have a complex relationship with their home. Torn between the comforts of the peaceful lifestyle but frustrated by the lack of development, they are increasingly tempted by the bright lights of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.

 

By far Hue’s biggest economy is tourism, but currently this sector remains a little underdeveloped despite its money-making potential. Roads remain defiantly too narrow for the growing number of cars and the airport is a 45-minute country drive from the centre. As a result it is something of an unknown quantity to many visitors, who rarely linger in the city for long. Hue has also been underestimated by travel writers who haven’t fully done their homework, and looked down on by many people in other cities for being boring. This is a shame, as travellers will find plenty to see and do if they look under the surface and enjoy the unique way of life here.

 

There are many sights to see in Hue, which continues to inspire poets, artists and romantics with its particular charms. This is a fascinating place for those with an interest in Vietnam, as the tombs and temples and palaces and pagodas show what life was like before our lifetimes. Visitors can learn, too, about more recent history. The country’s most eminent singer and songwriter Trinh Cong Son was born in Hue and a young Ho Chi Minh went to school here. The American War has also left its mark with bullet holes from the 1968 Tet Offensive still embedded in some of the city walls.

 

Imperial Taste

 

And then there is the cuisine, justifiably renowned for being the best in Vietnam. The tapas-style portions are often small, spicy and absolutely delicious — a long term result of the fussy Nguyen emperors. Street food specialities leave foodies longingly aching to return and good vegetarian food is abundant due to the large Buddhist population. International taste buds are catered for with Indian, Korean, Mexican, French, Italian and Japanese restaurants to choose from.

 

And once you’re finished in the city, there is still plenty to explore as Hue is the gateway to many of central Vietnam’s most beautiful sites. It is just a few hours away from the beaches of Hoi An, the glorious Danang bay and the incredible coastal views of the Hai Van Pass. Even closer are the relaxing hot springs of My An, the natural wonder of Bach Ma National Park, and the crystal clear waters of the Elephant springs. Venture inland and you will come to ethnic minority villages in the A Luoi area and famous battle sites like Hamburger Hill. Head north and you hit the DMZ and the devastation of the next province up, Quang Tri. There is even a mine museum there now.

 

All this means that now is the time to visit Hue and discover all it has to offer. However reluctantly, it is beginning to adapt to make life easier for tourists. There are more hotels and restaurants than ever before and visitors can enjoy a night out in the backpacker land of Pham Ngu Lao (yes, same name as in Saigon) where the number of modern bars and clubs is growing. It is now common to see cars on the roads of Hue, unthinkable even just a couple of years ago, and the number of foreigners coming is increasing, despite the international airport not hosting an international flight in years.

 

There are also indicators that things are changing with social attitudes, which have been traditionally conservative. Hue is becoming more inclusive and accepting, with new possibilities opening in the fields of art, music and fashion. Hue’s hip hop scene is unpredictably flourishing, with public battles and performances growing in popularity. Groups of young dancers have started organising and coordinating mass flash mobs at weekends. Graffiti artists are being employed to decorate coffee shops and bars as they become trendier. Fashion trends are finally catching up.

 

All of this makes Hue something of an open book as it looks ahead to the near future. The contrasts between old and new are widening, with some fighting for progress and others fighting to make sure the bubble doesn’t burst just yet. The only certainty is that in a country like no other, Hue will remain a city like no other. It has rightfully taken its place at the idyllic heart of Vietnam.

 

Eating and Drinking

Lien Hoa
3 Le Quy Don
A recent listing in the Lonely Planet means that this well regarded vegetarian restaurant, located next door to a pagoda, has become increasingly popular. Luckily it has retained its authentic Hue atmosphere, and, more importantly, it’s delicious and inexpensive meals. An essential visit.

Bun bo Hue
Along Nguyen Du
It’s only open for two hours every day (4pm to 6pm) but that should be more than enough time to grab a delicious dish of this Hue speciality and favourite of the emperors — a spicy beef noodle dish with lemongrass.

Com chi Teo
59 Hai Ba Trung
This is a great place if you are searching for a genuine Hue lunch. Join the crowds who flock here for the best pork in the city.

La Boulangerie Française
46 Nguyen Tri Phuong
This bustling bakery is located in the centre of the city and provides delicious pastries, cakes and ice cream! The bakers are all disadvantaged young adults who are being trained to find work in the industry.

Greatio Corner
97 Truong Chinh
This trendy new hangout is the only place in Hue where you can get milkshakes and ice blended drinks. Teenagers flock to gossip around the indoor cherry blossom tree. There is even a resident puppy. What more could you want?

Cafe Muoi
10 Nguyen Luong Bang
This coffee shop is famous for serving the drink of its name — salty coffee. Inspired by a charming old story about a boy who puts salt instead of sugar in his coffee by mistake on a nervous date, visitors can try the resulting combination. Some love it, others hate it, all should try it.

The Tea House
100 Kim Long
A delightfully traditional tea house. Enjoy a lotus seed snack and sip one of the teas from the extraordinary menu. The tra cam (orange tea) is highly recommended.

 

Accommodation

Hue has the full range of accommodation options these days starting at the top with the art deco La Residence (www.la-residence-hue.com) and the newly opened Banyan Tree, an all pool-villa resort just south in Lang Co (www.banyantree.com). On the budget end you will find the eternally popular Hue Backpacker’s Hostel (www.vietnambackpackerhostels.com) and a range of cheap guesthouses in and around the Pham Ngu Lao area. The boutique section is also well taken care of, although check out Villa Hue (www.villahue.com) with it’s quite stunning façade. Doubling up as a food and beverage training centre for students from Hue Tourism College, a stay here also means providing the opportunity for this country’s youth to get some well-needed, on-the-job experience.

 

Where to go

The Citadel
It goes without saying that when in Hue a visit to the citadel is necessary. Explore the north side of the city and enter the forbidden palace for a look back into the past. The citadel is particularly atmospheric in the evenings or early morning. Give yourself plenty of time to explore, take a good book and relax amongst the imperial ruins.

Tu Duc Tomb
If you have to choose just one tomb to visit in Hue, then Tu Duc is your best option. It boasts serene lakes and forests, ancient statues and well maintained traditional buildings where the longest-serving emperor spent his days in luxury.

Thiên Mu Pagoda and the Temple of Literature
Enjoy a boat journey from Tu Duc tomb to Thien Mu, the iconic symbol of Hue. After that a visit to the nearby Temple of Literature is recommended, with its simple grace a perfect tonic after the crowded pagoda.

Thanh Toan bridge
Cycle past gloriously green rice fields and through the sleepy countryside until you reach the Japanese footbridge in Thanh Toan village on the outskirts of Hue. The ride there only takes 30 minutes or so and provides a perfect illustration of rural life and is picturesque diversion.

The Temple of Huyen Tran
Travel 7km out of Hue, through lush pine forests to the foot of the Ngu Phong mountain. Visit the temple of Princess Huyen Tran before climbing to the summit and ringing the 1.6 ton copper bell of peace. Don’t forget to make a wish!

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