Under the Nguyen emperors, Hué was the cultural and artistic as well as political capital of Vietnam. A rich tradition of dance and music evolved from popular culture, from the complex rituals of the court and from religious ceremonies. Though much of this legacy has been lost, considerable effort has gone into reviving Hué folk songs, Ca Hué, which you can now sample, drifting down the Perfume River on a balmy Hué evening (tickets 60,000đ).
Historically the Perfume River was a place of pleasure where prostitutes cruised in their sampans and artists entertained the gentry with poetry and music. While the former officially no longer exist, today’s folk-song performances are based on the old traditions, eulogizing the city’s beautiful scenery or the ten charms of a Hué woman – including long hair, dreamy eyes, flowing ao dai and a conical hat – while she waits for her lover beside the river. This sounds great, but be warned that the experience can feel somewhat cheap – the fees given to performers are far too low to recruit those with genuine talent, and in 2009 the state of affairs was fiercely lambasted by local authorities.
The city authorities have also instigated a biennial arts festival (held in June) featuring not only folk songs, kite-flying, water-puppetry and other local traditions, but also international groups.