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.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Hoi An

Hoi An (Hội An) in 1991 was one of the highlights of my Vietnamese sojourn. In the intervening years, it has become a must-see destination on the backpacker trail. I had heard of its development into a tourist locale, and was curious to see how much of its historical charm had been lost.
It took me five minutes to hate the place. With store owners and street vendors harassing pedestrians every ten feet, I felt like a walking wallet. The broken English everywhere – "Hello, you buy my shop" – added to my feeling of estrangement. I was no longer an expat with decent language skills living in and partaking of  Vietnam; I was an outsider, shoved to the other side of the fence from an area I'd grown accustomed to playing in.
Sure, sure, the town is beautiful. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site for a reason. As a major Southeast Asian trading port from the 15th to 19th centuries, Hoi An's architecture reflects layers of multicultural influences. Its wooden shops and rolling alleys, along with architectural gems like the 17th century Japanese covered bridge all make the town worth a stop. Women in conical hats ply the Thu Bon River (Song Thu Bon) in narrow wooden boats and I'll be damned if it isn't picturesque.
Truth be told, I made my peace with Hoi An once the initial shock had worn off. As tourist locales go, the town is better than most. The cyclo drivers are mostly courteous, and the initially aggressive store owners actually take "no" for an answer. Once I settled into the place, I thoroughly enjoyed my overpriced-but-delicious coffee and croissants at the neat riverside restaurant with the English-speaking staff and tasteful decor.
Hoi An's beach deserves special mention. It is quite simply one of the best beaches I've been to, with clean sands, perfectly warm water, few tourists, and oceanview restaurants serving astounding seafood at reasonable prices. If you did nothing more than enjoy a beach holiday in Hoi An, it would be all right.
But I now begin to understand the negative reports I've heard from travellers passing through Vietnam. For the average vacationer who follows the tourist trail from Hanoi to Saigon, hitting Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Halong Bay, and Sapa, Vietnam must seem an endless barrage of street touts and price-gougers. The open frankness I enjoy in the Vietnamese character, when applied to tourists, becomes a direct assault on your wallet. It could wear anyone down.
Just remember that basing your opinion of Vietnam on places like Hoi An leaves you with a warped picture of what the country is about. These places are worth visiting to be sure; they're tourist locales for a reason. The thing to do is go in, take your pictures, and leave. And then rent a bike, go out and explore the country.