Exploring Vietnam's Ancient Capital

Hue, the "Beautiful City"
  |  Gorp.com

The sun was setting behind the citadel, casting a faded orange glow on the iron canons at its gate. Two women in conical hats and white silk dresses rode past on their bicycles, talking, laughing. A street-corner artist sketched the high walls and decorated archway that led into the imperial city—his yellow and red brushes coloring in the dragons that guarded the emperor 200 years ago. His painting was beautiful, but not a true representation. He left out the bullet holes.

Four hundred years ago, I would have been looking at Vietnam's capital, court of the Nguyen Dynasty. Seventy-thousand laborers worked day and night for 20 years to construct the six miles of walls, the city's watchtowers, the deep moat, and the royal palaces, religious pagodas, and dozens of pavilions for official mandarins and dignitaries. And as one of the country's most important cities, it has struggled through invasion and domination by China, France, Japan, and America. To visit today's Hue (pronounced "way") is to visit all of Vietnam—past, present, and future.

Leaving the citadel, I walked on with my traveling partner Jill. The streets were filled, as most are in Vietnam, with grit and grace. A tired man with worn out sandals and a hoe is passed by a young woman with a long black ponytail, speed-walking to somewhere.

We can smell the ocean and hear the river. Looking down the banks, Jill points to the dozens of houseboats tied together, where families are huddled around kerosene stoves, their voices muffled in the mist. Peach petals float downstream past a two-tiered pagoda. The beauty of Hue is mysterious, and the mystery beautiful.

The night before, we had befriended Hong, a waiter at a local café. He taught us to play card games as he brought out delicacy after delicacy, including some homemade snake wine. Late into the evening, we had a friendly argument with his buddy Thieu over which crabs were better, Maryland Blues spiced with Old Bay, or Vietnamese chilli-cracked crab. The people of this town have a motto, "thuy chung," faithfulness to the end, and they would not be swayed.

"Where have you been?" was the first thing Hong said when we returned. "My friend Thieu was here looking for you." And he went straight off to call him.

We sat and ate Cao Lau, fried shrimp wantons with pineapple sauce, telling Hong of our boat trip down the perfumed river, the royal tombs in the jungle, the Valley of the Kings.

"You know," he said, "Hue is the most traditional city in Vietnam, and it has the most beautiful people in the country." He said the Non Bai Tho, the conical straw hats worn by so many women in Hue, have a poem written inside that can only be read when held up to the light.

The streets were alive. People walked past, and bicycles, long white dresses, half-naked children punctuated the streets.

Hong brought out a sampling of teas with lotus seeds, jasmine, and chrysanthemum petals, and a "Palace Pastry," a sweet dough shell with sumptuous sesame and nut filling, a creation originally meant for the king. Then Thieu appeared out of nowhere, holding a wet paper bag like it was about to bite him.

Showing off the crabs he had just bought for us, he rushed into the kitchen to cook them. Hue is the kind of place you find yourself staying for a few more days.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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