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 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 seems almost too idyllic to be true.
Thien Mu Pagoda lying on the bank of Perfume River
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. 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. 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 modernization, and life moves at a different pace to the rest of this fast-developing country.
Despite this, by far Hue’s biggest economy is tourism, although currently this sector is a little underdeveloped despite its money-making potential. Roads remain defiantly too narrow for the growing number of cars and the far-away international airport hasn’t hosted an international flight in years.
As a result it is something of an unknown quantity to many visitors, who rarely linger for long. Hue has also been underestimated by travel writers who haven’t fully done their homework, and looked down on by many people on other cities for being slow. This is a shame, as travelers will find plenty to see and do if they look under the surface and enjoy the unique way of life here.
Many foreigners prefer Hue city tour by cyclos
Hue 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 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 hotels from the 1968 Tet Offensive still embedded in some of the city walls. And then there is the cuisine, justifiably renowned for being the best in Vietnam. The tapas-style portions are often are often small, spicy and absolutely delicious – a long term result of the fussy Nguyen emperors. Street food specialties leave foodies longingly aching to return and good vegetarian food is abundant due to the large Buddhist population. All this means that now is the time to visit Hue and discover all it has to offer. However reluctantly, it is adapting to make life
Unique architecture of Khai Dinh Mausoleum in Hue
easier for tourists. There are more hotels and restaurants than ever before and hundreds of travel agencies jostle to offer the best tour package. There are also indicators that conservative social attitudes are changing. Hue is becoming more inclusive, with new possibilities in the fields of art, music and fashion. The city’s hip hop scene is unpredictably flourishing, graffiti artists are being employed to decorate coffee shops
and fashion trends are finally catching up.
All of this makes Hue something of an open book as it looks to the future. The contrast between old and new are widening with some fighting for progress and other 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 – the idyllic heart of Vietnam.