Vietnam's Imperial City - Huế
While routinely forgotten off many an itinerary of Vietnam, Huế previously held a very important role in the nation's identity, until quite recently. In fact, Huế served as the nations capital until 1945, when the capital was established in Hanoi. As a lover of history, particularly royal history, Huế was one of the very first cities I was adamant about visiting as we traveled around Vietnam.
Much of the grandeur of the one time capital was destroyed around 1968 with a dozen of the once ornate buildings surviving out of the 160 original. Although the effects of the American-Vietnamese war left deep scars not only on the country's people but on their culture as well, Huế stands as a shining reminder of the past.
On the approach to the city your first glimpse is the impressive gate and the vast entry, giving you a great sense of the power of the Nguyễn dynasty. A deep and broad moat surrounds, filtering visitors, and at one time enemies, into one area to minimise assault.
Inside it is a different feeling all together. The walls open up to lush gardens, ornate and luxurious palaces with peaceful views.
The building of the city was only begun in 1804, and used for a relatively short time, in terms of royal residences. What is clear from the lay out of the city, is the desire to have clearly delineated areas for it's inhabitants to live in. For example; there is a whole mini-palace for the Emperor's mother, complete with garden and walking paths, so as to minimise the necessity of invading another royal family members daily life.
One experience I enjoyed thoroughly, was feeding the carp in a small pond near the Co Ha gardens to the east of the city. We sat by the pond and enjoyed and ice coffee (Ca Phe Sua Da) and watched the carp munching on the scraps of food we threw to them. We strolled around the city for a good four to five hours and barely saw another soul, though in truth there were many people about.
It often saddens me, when I visit historical buildings, that care is not taken to preserve precious monuments, or if restoration is occurring that it is not done with care. However, the Imperial city is being restored slowly and diligently that I must commend the grace of it. I know it's a little daft, but I truly enjoying walking around a historical site, closing my eyes and trying to absorb the feelings of the people who once lived there. I like to imagine I am a ladies maid rushing about or, even better, one of the Emperor's daughters enjoying a walk in the gardens admiring the bonsai. Huế is really a place where you can get a feeling for how the rulers of the day lived, in a removed city, away from the people they presided over. The Imperial city was inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993 and it's restoration is financially supported by both Vietnamese and International communities.
Outside the Imperial walls the city yields even more culture and history. The food is so unique here, and so influenced by royal taste buds, that we thought it more akin to Chinese cuisine. Dominated by fermented pork and shrimp products encased in tapioca starch, it was probably the only culinary experience we did not enjoy during this trip.
One thing we did enjoy was the view from our hotel, and our favourite coffee place, overlooking the relaxing perfume river. We spent a good deal of time sitting on the ubiquitous plastic stools, staring out over the water and getting our caffeine fix.
Huế is a wonderfully relaxed city steeped in history, to read more about our experiences in Vietnam, click here.