Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Huế: Vietnam's Heartland

Huế is a relatively small city, but its historical and cultural importance gives it a justifiably big attitude.

To understand Huế, a little background is needed. As any Vietnamese person will tell you, Vietnam can be divided into three regions – north, south, and center – each bearing distinct psychological, linguistic, and cultural traits. Hanoi forms the cultural center of the north, Ho Chi Minh City of the south, and Huế, even more than the much larger Danang, can be considered the focal point for central Vietnam.

These divisions, and Huế's significance, have their roots in Vietnam's often tumultuous history.

Throughout the 16th and much of the 17th century, Vietnam was engulfed in a power struggle between the Trinh Lords (Chúa Trịnh) in the north and the Nguyen Lords (Chúa Nguyễn) in the south. Their dividing line was the Gianh River (Sông Gianh), just north of Huế. This struggle lasted until 1802, when the Nguyen Emperor Gia Long unified the country and made Huế the national capital.

When the French colonized Vietnam in the latter half of the 19th century, they organized it into three administrative units: Tonkin (north), Annam (center), and Cochinchina (south). The Nguyen emperors remained symbolic monarchs, meaning that Huế continued to play an important role in the country's affairs.

The Nguyen, however, shorn of power, had little more to do than twaddle about making fussy food and building themselves opulent tombs. This cuisine and the relics of the old Nguyen Kings are what Vietnamese and foreigners alike go to Huế to enjoy.

Huế's proximity to the 17th parallel made it a major battleground in the US-Vietnam conflict. The 1968 Tet Offensive in particular took a terrible toll on Huế. First, the communists overran the town and executed as many as 6,000 civilians in what came to be known as the Huế Massacre. The American/South Vietnamese counterattack that followed reduced much of the city to rubble.

When I visited Huế in 1991, the effects of war were still visible. I remember walking into the old Imperial City through mounds of rubble which had long been picked over for scrap metal. Bullet holes and damage from artillery blasts could still be seen. Vietnam, as yet, had few tourists, and scant resources with which to restore historical relics. As a result, I got to see Huế in a somewhat more decrepit state than one finds it in today.

Nearly 20 years later, the city has found its legs once again. I wasn't sure I would like it last week when I returned, and checked into a disappointing hotel on a street filled with persistent cyclo drivers and street touts. But it didn't take long for the city to grow on me.

Once one leaves the tourist ghetto, Huế becomes a large town with a peaceful feel. The inappropriately named Perfume River (Sông Hương), with its famed dragon boats, provides a calm counterpoint to the urban vibe, and it doesn't take more than a few minutes on motorbike before one is amidst rice fields and farms.

Travel in any direction, along waterway or road, quickly leads to one of the Nguyen Imperial Tombs, or some other fascinating historical site. And the landscape, with sun-drenched rivers winding among mountains that overlay like translucent layers of rice paper, is majestic.

Vietnamese people throughout the country speak about Huế with pride. It is in Huế that the finest conical hats (nón lá) are found; Huế's women are renowned for their beauty; and Huế's cuisine – dishes like Bún Bò Huế, and Bánh Khoái – can be found in every city in Vietnam.

I booked a mere two days in Huế and quickly wished I'd booked more. I intend to return and explore it further. For the person who wants to get to know Vietnam's history and cuisine, one could do worse than put in some time in Vietnam's former capital city, which has borne witness to so many of this country's struggles, and continues to soldier on.


  1. No matter how marvelous Hue has been being, in the East Asia's ideology of geography, Hue doesn't seem to be a good place as a capital of a certain empire. Do you believe that?

  2. I think you have downplayed too much the what Nguyen dynasty had done for Vietnam (I dont particularly like that dynasty though). If you read Vietnamese history, you will find that much of the Center and Southern land of current Vietnam were taken and established during this period. Without this dynasty, we probably don't even have Saigon :)

  3. True, it was the Nguyen who succeeded in splitting much of southern Vietnam off from Cambodia.

    I was only trying to establish the importance of the region, not provide a full history of the Trinh and Nguyen seigneurs. Much like the Japanese shogunate, these dynasties provide a fascinating history in their own right, and would require a much longer essay.

    At any rate, much of what makes Hue interesting are the tombs and structures the Nguyen created after the French stripped them of their power.

    Thanks for your comments!

  4. Foodwise, the best Hue food is found in Saigon. There aren't that many restaurants in Hue, and what you find is sometimes disappointing.

  5. Hal, do you have any problems understanding the Hue accent? (I am Vietnamese, living in the US). Among us Vietnamese, the joke is that people from Hue speak as if all the words have a "dấu nặng". My US-born daughter can barely understand the Hue accent, even though she speaks decent Vietnamese.

  6. Yes! All of central VN was difficult for me. Everyone understood me, but I couldn't understand people when they responded. I must say, when I got back to Hanoi, I felt I could understand everything! :-)

  7. Great article and beautiful photos. I'm already dreaming of sailing down the perfume river in a dragon boat.

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