Pop quiz time: what’s the capitol city of Vietnam?
No, it’s not a trick question. The capitol is Hanoi, of course. But less than a century ago, that wasn’t the case. From 1802 to 1945, the Nguyễn Dynasty ruled from Huế (pronounced roughly, “hway”), a city near the midpoint of Vietnam’s lengthy coastline. The Nguyễn lords unified what was then several separate kingdoms, and oversaw the country’s largest historical territory, controlling much of what is now Laos and Cambodia.
That’s all in the past now, but some aspects of that dynasty live on. Most obvious is the “Imperial Citadel,” a huge square palace complex surrounded by walls and a moat. It’s by far the largest tourist draw in town, and for good reason. The gateways in particular are spectacular. It’s interesting, since Vietnam now builds entirely with brick and concrete, to see what royal budgets in this region did with wood. Long corridors of pillars and vaulted ceilings highlighted by gold leaf are among the talking points. The Emperor’s throne looks slightly more comfortable than that of Westeros, but not by much. Though ornate, I imagine it was a tedious place to hang out (sorry for the lack of pictures – photography is prohibited in the throne room).
The palace bears witness to more history than the dynastic emperors, however. The Battle of Huế in 1968 destroyed many of the historic structures, and the communist government that eventually took control of the whole of the country ignored many historic monuments as “relics of a feudal regime.” Fortunately, that attitude has changed, and the palace is now showcased for its historical value. Ongoing restoration efforts have been slowly replacing some of the ruins with recreations of their former glory. On this point, though, I do have a criticism: remember how I said modern Vietnam builds with brick and concrete? Sadly, they didn’t try to go ‘back to the old ways’ for the restorations, so sections of the palace are now just boring concrete, shaped and painted to emulate the original wooden structures. I certainly hope that they try a little harder in the future to maintain a truer style for the restored buildings.
On the edge of the city you’ll find another famous historic site: Thiên Mụ, the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady. Its iconic octagonal tower is accompanied by ornate worship spaces and intricately manicured grounds (including lots of bonsai trees). I personally am not interested in the religious aspects of places like this but I appreciate the beauty, and find it refreshing that, unlike Abrahamic ones, east Asian religions tend to make greenery a central part of their holy sites. This one has been here since the 17th century, and the long history of care is evident throughout the grounds.
Huế isn’t all history, though. It’s a busy modern city. Walking along the riverside, you’re likely to gain some new friends; students looking to practice their English ability frequently approach Western tourists to strike up a conversation. Unless you really have something urgent to do (and why would you? Who are you, Elon Musk?), I encourage you to stop and chat. You’ll learn something, and so will the students.
Even without impromptu English lessons, the riverside has plenty to offer in the evenings. Sections of it become night markets. You can find clothing, cell phone accessories, the usual tourist trinkets, et cetera, but most critically, you also find eats. Families bring their kids to the riverside market for a treat, so follow suit and try out the world-famous (well, sorta) chè Huế. Chè is occasionally translated as “sweet soup,” but you could be forgiven for forming a very different mental picture from the translation. In Vietnam, the “sweet soup” is served in a cup. You choose any of the assorted sweetened ingredients to add to it – things such as fruits, jellies, string peas, and even various beans (the beans may surprise you!). The server will throw in a little sweetened milk and crushed ice and hand it over. Mix it all up and enjoy.
Anyone who has visited Vietnam, though, will recognize Huế’s name not from sweet soup, but rather from the city’s most famous dish: bún bò Huế. One of the country’s most ubiquitous dishes, you can find bún bò Huế throughout the country. Regardless of whether you tried it elsewhere, however, do not give it a miss in its ancestral home – Huế’s chefs are far and away the best at their signature soup. Much like Vietnam’s best known food, phở, bún bò is a rice-noodle soup with sliced beef. It differs, however, in the flavor of broth and style of noodle, as well as some of the herbs served alongside. I often felt bún bò broth served in Saigon was much too sweetened. Here in Huế, despite the city’s reputation for sweet foods, the bún bò is more savory and oh-so delicious!
One other gem we discovered rather randomly was XQ Embroidery Museum. Most of what was on display is not clothing or doilies, but rather immense works of art on par with great paintings, and often nearly indistinguishable from photo prints. Give it a look – I have no doubt you’ll be as impressed as we were.
Many a guide-book mark Huế as a must-visit, and it’s not hard to understand why. Given a little more time we’d have visited other attractions like the Khải Định tomb. Unfortunately, though, we were on a schedule this time, so now we’re off. See you next time for a little underground adventure!