Still packed with the accoutrements of its dynastic past, HUÉ is one of Vietnam’s most engaging cities. It boasts an unparalleled opportunity for historic and culinary exploration, thanks in no small part to its status as national capital from 1802–1945. Though the Nguyen dynasty is no more, Hué still exudes something of a regal, dignified air – its populace, indeed, are considered somewhat highbrow by the rest of the country. It’s still a breeding ground for poets, artists, scholars and intellectuals, and you’ll notice far more youngsters here than in other cities – largely because, unlike elsewhere in Vietnam, female students still wear the traditional ao dai.
Hué repays exploration at a leisurely pace, and contains enough in the way of historical interest to swallow up a few days with no trouble at all. The city divides into three clearly defined urban areas, each with its own distinct character. The nineteenth century walled citadel, on the north bank of the Perfume River, contains the once magnificent Imperial City as well as an extensive grid of attractive residential streets and prolific gardens. Across Dong Ba Canal to the east lies Phu Cat, the original merchants’ quarter of Hué where ships once pulled in, now a crowded district of shophouses, Chinese Assembly Halls and pagodas. What used to be called the European city, a triangle of land caught between the Perfume River’s south bank and the Phu Cam Canal, is now Hué’s modern administrative centre, where you’ll also find most hotels and tourist services.
Pine-covered hills form the city’s southern bounds; this is where the Nguyen emperors built their palatial Royal Mausoleums. And through it all meanders the Perfume River, named somewhat fancifully from the tree resin and blossoms it carries, passing on its way the celebrated, seven-storey tower of Thien Mu Pagoda. If you can afford the time, cycling out to Thuan An Beach makes an enjoyable excursion. Hué is also the main jumping-off point for day-tours of the DMZ.
With all this to offer, Hué is inevitably one of Vietnam’s pre-eminent tourist destinations. The choice and standard of accommodation are generally above average, as are its restaurants serving the city’s justly famous speciality foods. Nevertheless, the majority of people pass through Hué fairly quickly, partly because high entrance fees make visiting more than a couple of the major sights beyond many budgets, and partly because of its troublesome weather. Hué suffers from the highest rainfall in the country, mostly falling over just three months from October to December when the city regularly floods for a few days, causing damage to the historic architecture, though heavy downpours are possible at any time of year.
The land on which Hué now stands belonged to the Kingdom of Champa until 1306, when territory north of Da Nang was exchanged for the hand of a Vietnamese princess under the terms of a peace treaty. The first Vietnamese to settle in the region established their administrative centre near present-day Hué at a place called Hoa Chan, and then in 1558 Lord Nguyen Hoang arrived from Hanoi as governor of the district, at the same time establishing the rule of the Nguyen lords over southern Vietnam which was to last for the next two hundred years. In the late seventeenth century the lords moved the citadel to its present location where it developed into a major town and cultural centre – Phu Xuan, which briefly became the capital under the Tay Son emperor Quang Trung (1788–1801).
The Nguyen dynasty
However, it was the next ruler of Vietnam who literally put Hué on the map – Emperor Gia Long, founder of the Nguyen Dynasty. From 1802, he sought to unify the country by moving the capital, lock, stock and dynastic altars, from Thang Long (Hanoi) to the renamed city of Hué. Gia Long owed his throne to French military support but his Imperial City was very much a Chinese concept, centred on a Forbidden City reserved for the sovereign, with separate administrative and civilian quarters.
The Nguyen emperors were Confucian, conservative rulers, generally suspicious of all Westerners yet unable to withstand the power of France. In 1884 the French were granted land northwest of Hué citadel, and they then seized the city entirely in 1885, leaving the emperors as nominal rulers. Under the Nguyen, Hué became a famous centre of the arts, scholarship and Buddhist learning, but their extravagant building projects and luxurious lifestyle demanded crippling taxes.
Hué ceased to be the capital of Vietnam when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated in 1945; two years later a huge fire destroyed many of the city’s wooden temples and palaces. From the early twentieth century the city had been engulfed in social and political unrest led by an anti-colonial educated elite, which simmered away until the 1960s. Tensions finally boiled over in May 1963 when troops fired on thousands of Buddhist nationalists demonstrating against the strongly Catholic regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem. The protests escalated into a wave of self-immolations by monks and nuns until government forces moved against the pagodas at the end of the year, rounding up the Buddhist clergy and supposed activists in the face of massive public demonstrations.
During the 1968 Tet Offensive Hué was torn apart again when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) held the city for 25 days. Communist forces entered Hué in the early hours of January 31, hoisted their flag above the citadel and found themselves in control of the whole city bar two small military compounds. Armed with lists of names, they began searching out government personnel, sympathizers of the Southern regime, intellectuals, priests, Americans and foreign aid workers. Nearly three thousand bodies were later discovered in mass graves around the city – the victims were mostly civilians who had been shot, beaten to death or buried alive. But the killing hadn’t finished: during the ensuing counter-assault as many as five thousand North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, 384 Southern troops and 142 American soldiers died, plus at least another thousand civilians. Hué was all but levelled in the massive fire power unleashed on NVA forces holed up in the citadel but it took a further ten days of agonizing, house-to-house combat to drive the Communists out, in what Stanley Karnow described as “the most bitter battle” of the entire war. Seven years later, on March 26, 1975, the NVA were back to liberate Hué in its pivotal position as the first major town south of the Seventeenth Parallel.
The mammoth task of rebuilding Hué has been going on now for more than twenty years but received a boost in 1993 when UNESCO listed the city as a World Heritage Site, which served to mobilize international funding for a whole range of projects, from renovating palaces to the revival of traditional arts and technical skills.