The Forbidden Purple City; the Perfume River; the very names of Hue, Vietnam, conjure up images straight out of legends and fairytales. Hue was the imperial city of the Nguyen dynasty in the 19th century and this royal history is at the heart of its refined charm.
Harmonious architecture and exquisite decorative flourishes define Hue’s magnificent royal palace compound, as well as the temples, tombs, palaces and pagodas dotted across the city. There are centuries of history to be explored during Hue holidays, including the bullet holes and bomb damage of the Vietnam War. Hue was the capital of Vietnam right up until the communist government set up in Hanoi.
Beyond the cultural monuments, discover the leafy streets of this low-rise city, with its art deco villas, moss-covered pagodas and colourful markets.
Hue’s citadel and palace
The Nguyen dynasty built their Forbidden Purple City (based on the one in Beijing) when the feudal lords held sway from the 17th to 19th centuries but now only shattered remains sit peacefully in a grass-grown garden, surrounded by a teeming, nearly million-strong Vietnamese city.
This battle-scarred Unesco World Heritage site is punctuated by bullet holes from the fierce battles of the 1968 Tet Offensive.
A slow process of restoration is underway in the walled citadel and there are a handful of reminders of what must once have been glorious.
Fantastical enamelled creatures decorate the roofs of temples and residences.
Reconstructions of statues of Nguyen Lords inhabit now-empty courtyards.
French colonial Hue
There are also faded remnants of French influence in Huế, which can be seen on stroll down Le Loi. From the art déco La Residence Hotel to the arches of Gustave Eiffel-designed Truong Tien Bridge, the many gems of colonial architecture will impress.
Perfume River cruise
Whatever you do in Hue, make sure you take time to enjoy a boat ride on Hue’s enigmatically named Perfume River, all the way to the Tomb of Khải Định at the foot of Chau Chu mountain.
From Hue I took a small boat cruise up the fabled Perfume River. The brightly-painted wooden boat putt-putted slowly up the jungle-lined waterway and leaving the hot Vietnamese city behind for these lush hills was a wonderful retreat to paradise.
That was the idea for the Nguyen lords anyway. We visited the tombs of emperors set beside the river. They are much more than just mausoleums but whole living spaces and exquisite gardens with lakes and other water features.
The Minh Mang mausoleum has a pleasing processional pathway from gateway through courtyard and temple to a pavilion of pure light reached through a cloud of frangipani trees. Gardens bisect the lake and rise ultimately to the funeral mound of the emperor.
The foppish poet emperor Tu Duc spent much of his time writing and enjoying his elaborate pleasure ground, even though it would ultimately become his mausoleum. The attached village of 104 wives and concubines was another drawcard away from the pressures of court life in Hue.
You can see here the powder-blue Austin in which monk Thich Quang Duc travelled from here to Saigon in 1963 to burn himself to death as part of this protest movement against restrictions imposed on Buddhist and Catholic Vietnamese.
Imagine what this winding waterway has witnessed over the centuries, from imperial rulers on their elaborate pleasure craft to the tragedies of the war in the 1960s.
Eating out in Hue
Hue’s reputation for refined and authentic regional cuisine is also the stuff of legend thanks to the Nguyen emperors, who moved the finest chefs in the land to their city. Here you can eat like a king on cuisine once exclusively served to the emperors and royalty of the Nguyen Dynasty. At a more prosaic level, dive into the buzzing stalls of Dong Ba Market and slurp on a delicious bowl of Bun Bo Hue soup at a curbside cafe.
Hue cuisine is predominantly sweet and spicy in flavour thanks to fresh herbs such as lemongrass, basil and mint mixed with chillies and the quintessential nuoc mam or fermented fish sauce.
Hue is famous for its che sweet soups and more than 30 different varieties have evolved, using coconut milk and ingredients such as pomegranate, taro and sweet corn. The most popular che in Hue is the lotus seed variety, which uses lotus flowers harvested from Tinh Tam Lake.
As I wandered through Hue, I saw a woman collecting greens from the moat surrounding the citadel. Outside the gates of the citadel, a flock of young women passed by me on bicycles, wearing impossibly white and pristine ao dai. Students and workers stopped to buy banana-leaf-wrapped packages of sticky rice. Shopkeepers surveyed the traffic from the doorway then went back in holding steaming bowls of noodle soup.
I often felt that life in Vietnam carries on regardless of history or politics, and this seemed particularly so in the ancient capital of Hue.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you travelled to Vietnam? Did you visit Hue?