Hue and the Imperial City

January 21 – 23

For a drastic change of scenery from sleepy Phong Nha, we arrived in the central-Vietnam city of Hue (“hway”) on Sunday evening and were dropped off right smack-dab in the middle of the city’s weekend walking street. Everybody was out and about, the street-side bars and restaurants all completely full with locals socializing and visitors taking it all in. After checking into our hotel (they randomly “upgraded” us to the honeymoon suite which had a circular bed and a round jacuzzi bathtub, complete with fake rose petals strewn about), we ventured out into the throngs and managed to find two tiny stools on the sidewalk at a restaurant and had some absolutely delicious spicy, fish sauce chicken wings.

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Hue was the capital city of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945, and it is where the Imperial City of the Nguyen Dynasty is located. The city was also the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam/American war, during which most of the structures of the Imperial City were destroyed. While the Citadel with the Imperial City sits north of the Perfume River, south of the river feels very young and new and fairly cosmopolitan with tons of hip/hipster cafes, restaurants, and boutiques; it felt very different from the ancient and gritty Hanoi. We spent only two nights in Hue, just to see the Imperial City, but I liked it more than I thought I would!

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We had only one full day in town so we used that to head to the northern side of the river and check out the Imperial City inside Citadel. (There is a lot more to see in Hue, but we aren’t ones for cramming a lot into a short amount of time, so we limited ourselves to just one tourist activity and ended up spending half a day wandering around the Imperial City.)

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Of the roughly 150 original buildings of the Imperial City, only about 20 survived the wars with the French and the Americans. But there is still quite a bit to see and explore in the complex, the bombed-out ruins providing a stark juxtaposition to the well-preserved halls and buildings. Many of the structures have been rebuilt or restored, and even with just a fraction of the originals still standing you can imagine how it must have looked during the Nguyen Dynasty. Symmetry in architecture was very important so in some cases half of an area is still standing where the other part was destroyed so you have a reference for what it would have looked like.

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The architecture and handicraft of those buildings that are still standing are pretty stunning; the details in every column or gate, and the symbolism thereof, are really amazing. There isn’t a ton of very helpful signage within the City and the plaques with historical information were not very clear, so I don’t feel like I came away from the visit with much new knowledge. But it was definitely interesting to wander around and there was lots of cool stuff to see; we did get a slight feel for life in the imperial court, as well as for how thoroughly a nation’s historical treasures can be demolished. Certainly an informative experience, especially since Martin and I have not been seeking out the more overt war-related tourist experiences.

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After our day of sightseeing we got some work done in a cafe and then found a restaurant to check out for dinner. The restaurant we found was definitely only for tourists, but it specialized in Hue street foods and had set menus which afforded diners the chance to try several street foods in one sitting. This was neat because most street food vendors make only one kind of food so you’d have to go to four or five different establishments to try everything, and because Vietnamese food is highly regional so we got a good sense of Hue food even in our short stay. The food was quite good and included several variations on gelatinous rice-flour-based dumpling-type things, accompanied by some extremely spicy chili paste.

The best part of the evening actually came before dinner, when we decided to go grab a beer while we were waiting for our table: We wandered down the street and saw some people drinking beers on the sidewalk in front of a little convenience store. One of the people motioned to us and said it was the “best deal in town,” 8,000 Vietnamese dong for a beer, so we said why not, pulled up some tiny plastic stools, and ordered some beers from the tiny old lady in the shop. Even though she ended up charging us the tourist price for beer (10,000 dong per beer, less than $.50, instead of the touted 8000), we had a great time just sitting on the sidewalk, watching the people go by, and sipping on our practically-free beers.

So, it was a short and not-too-eventful trip to Hue, but we did enjoy it! We spent the second day getting some work done in a cafe and then got on the bus to Hoi An (which for some reason was a sleeper bus even though it was only a four-ish hour ride; made it easier for me to take a nap!).


Check out more of our photos of the Imperial City here.

Next up: Hoi An.

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