Going to Hue is what most tourists do as they travel south from Hanoi. It is located in the middle of the country, about 8 miles south of the DMZ. We heard that the Imperial City was magnificent and Hue a lot calmer than Hanoi; two really good reasons to visit. I was also just beginning to grasp how Vietnam separated into north and south in the mid 1600’s following millennia of clan conflict and civil war. As a typical American I was only superficially aware of Vietnam until the war demanded the immoral draft of my generation, the killings at Kent State, the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, and the horrific atrocities committed therein. I had little appreciation of the depth of the country’s long history and culture.
Hue, is a city located on the Song Huong or Perfume River. Years ago, the blossoms from the orchards upriver scented the river earning its name but we have been told that industrialization has usurped that bucolic time. It is however, the site that Emperor Gai Long of the Nguyen dynasty chose when he moved the capital from Hanoi in an effort to extend his influence over a unified north and south Vietnam in 1802. He built the Citadel, a walled city surrounded by a 4 sided defensive wall with each side a mile and 1/2 long surrounded by a moat. The Imperial City became the epicenter of culture, learning and worship in the country. The southern end of the city housed the Royal Palace, gated courtyards, pavilions, gardens, library, temples and “The Purple Forbidden City”: the emperor’s personal spaces, lodging for each of the four Queens , his 102 concubines, their 142 children and the eunuchs that served them.
The Imperial City prospered for about 50 years until the Vietnamese attacked the increasingly aggressive French who then retaliated and burned the Imperial library and stole all the valuables within. It continued to be home for the following 13 rulers of the Nguyen dynasty, each becoming more ineffectual as France’s influence grew until 1945 when the last emperor of Vietnam relinquished his throne to the French. A significant part of the Imperial city was bombed by the Japanese. But the most damage occurred when Hue was attacked in 1968 by the North Vietnamese troops during the Tet offensive and the three weeks of fighting reduced much of this historical masterpiece to rubble. Of the 160 buildings only 10 remain. 50 years later, partly restored, ruins covered with grass , the Imperial city still impresses.
One of the four gates of the Palatial grounds
We are subdued by the beauty of what remains. As we exit we notice a small park enclosure with a display of captured tanks, artillery and a jet from the “American War”. It is a chilling reminder of the war, defeat and that I am on foreign soil.
We are biking throughout Hue and while there are less motorbikes than Hanoi, it is still very stressful navigating through traffic, pedaling over narrow metal bridges caught behind rickshaws and cars squeezing through non existent lanes, everyone hurrying. What a relief to get off and wander the outskirts into a grassy area where beer is served on tiny round tables alongside the river. We stretch out and watch the dragon boats traverse the brown river in the afternoon. It is one of the best parts of the day; the rhythm we fall into when touring is done and just being happens.
We bravely decide to get back on the bikes to find the Queen’s residence, An Dinh Palace, back over the bridge inside the city. It isn’t easy but we are rewarded by being the only foreigners viewing this hidden palatial gem, home to the last king who ultimately moved to Paris with his family while his mother, Queen Nam Phuong chose to remain in Hue.