Discovery Hue, Central Vietnam
More than any other city in the South, Hue’s balance of past and present charms its visitors. True to the original architect’s intention the symmetry and feng shui of the imperial city and tombs remain, and a good portion of Hue’s population live, work and play beside and upon the old walls and moats.
One of the simple pleasures that Hue affords, is sitting drinking coffee on Le Huan Street opposite an ornate fortified city gate. At the heart of the city, the imperial city, walled within walls, is a restoration work in progress. The grounds surrounding the main buildings are a rustic combination of nature and man’s best work. The chance to walk unheeded around the inside of the citadel walls reveals banyan trees taking over the brickwork, and untended island wildernesses in the moats.
The Citadel whose construction was started in 1864 gives the impression of being much older than it is. The sporadic restoration of the royal residences and halls continues. The atmosphere, however, is far from austere as there are many activities including pony and elephant rides and Vietnamese family groups lie languidly in the heat where once only royalty could tread.
Back along the river is a market where you can see the work of some of Vietnam’s best basket and hat makers. On the other riverbank, is a small backpacker area where foreigners can recharge their travelers’ batteries on western foods and flavors. It’s also a good place where you can meet local guides, xe om riders and easy riders who can show you around.
A few minutes by motorbike, the buildings and traffic fall away. After Danang’s endless spread of noisy dusty roads, Hue is like country town. For lovers of designed tranquility, Tu Duc’s tomb 5km outside the city is the most beautiful of a good selection of royal mausoleums. It was made as much for living as dying, as the emperor used it as his palace before he died. In fact his body is not in his tomb; the actual site is unknown as it was kept a closely guarded secret – so much so that the 200 servants who buried him were all beheaded. In the day’s dying light, wandering around the lakes and pavilions, it is interesting to contemplate Emperor Tu Duc, who was more interested in art than politics. No warrior statesman, Tu Duc’s reign (1847-1883) was quite arbitrary and longer than any other member of his Nguyen family and by its end, Vietnam was completely under the yoke of French colonial rule.
For people who fancy a bit of pretend archeology, the road beyond this tomb quickly becomes a dirt track and passes several other massive overgrown tombs with rusty locks on their gates.