We looked over our remaining days left in Vietnam, and determined that we were either going to have to skip visiting one of the cities we had originally planned, or our last couple weeks were going to turn into a hurried bout of one-day city tours, punctuated by late night bus rides. In attempt to give more time to the places we wanted to visit, we decided to skip Hoi An and head straight to the city of Huế, Vietnam’s imperial capital under the Nguyễn dynasty from 1802 until 1945. Huế was also an important supply point for U.S. and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War, providing access to the resupply highway, the Perfume River, and proximity to the declared demilitarized zone (DMZ). While part of the 101st Airborne serving in Vietnam, my dad had driven through Huế a number of times – though, obviously, with little time for sightseeing.
Our trip to Huế by train brought us over the Hải Vân Pass (‘Ocean Cloud Pass’), a 21-kilometer pass named for the mists from the ocean that frequently blanket the area. This stretch is considered to be the most beautiful and scenic part of the Vietnam Reunification Express train line, and we had a spectacular day to see it.
I informed Jenn that she would be staying in Huế in style, as I had booked us at the Huế Four Seasons Hotel. Nothing but the best for this trip, and the $16/night accommodation also included breakfast. The hotel turned out to be amazing, with a helpful and friendly staff for whom no request was too much trouble. They greeted us with fresh juice, fruit and wonderfully ice-cold hand towels, a scene that repeated itself every time we came in from the insane heat. In addition, the morning breakfasts were delicious and unlimited, as the hosts kept coming past our table asking if they could bring us anything else, finally looking vaguely disappointed when we announced we were full.
We set off early the first morning on bicycles to tour the Imperial City. A walled fortress roughly 2 kilometers square and surrounded by a moat, the Imperial City contains a central palace and various royal living quarters, originally constructed in the early 1800s. The walled grounds were declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993, as the site of the longest and last royal dynasty of Vietnam.
The concrete walls loomed impressively over a lily-filled moat as we approached the city. Beyond the outer gates, we fought our way through hordes of umbrella-wielding tour groups; but, as with Angkor Wat, we found that simply getting out of the main entrance area was sufficient to thin out the crowds. We frequently had entire buildings to ourselves, as we explored the temples and royal residences inside. The grounds were littered with colorful, ornately-decorated gates, whose columns were covered with reliefs and mosaics, primarily made of plaster, broken pottery and glass. Nine enormous bronze urns, cast to symbolize the Nguyễn dynasty, line the walkway in front of the Hien Lam Pavilion, covered with symbols and illustrations of Vietnamese heritage. We spent several hours exploring the sprawling grounds, but eventually gave in to the relentless, 127-degree heat and pedaled back to our hotel. So, Dad, since you never got to see inside the city, here it is:
For our afternoon adventure, we took the bikes 7 km west to the Thiên Mụ Pagoda. Considered the tallest religious monument in Vietnam, the grounds for the pagoda are perched on a hill overlooking the Perfume River. The grounds were quite nice, with a beautiful garden, a small fountain nestled in among the lush trees and flowers, and a winding pond full of colorful koi. An incredibly persistent rainbow sprung to life over the river, fading and brightening for nearly two hours as the sky changed, but never disappearing until the sun dipped below the horizon.
After another hearty breakfast the following morning, we rented yet another motorbike and headed to some of the tombs scattered around an area roughly 20 kilometers from the city. The first tomb we picked was the tomb of Emperor Khải Định, a relatively small but ornate tomb completed in 1931. The monochromatic structure soars impressively over the road, with no part of its expansive stone surfaces left uncarved – even the roof panels are covered in fish scale patterns. Inside, every inch of the walls and columns were enveloped with three-dimensional glass and ceramic reliefs, depicting elaborate dragons, fish and birds, along with all manner of plants and trees.
The second tomb we visited was Emperor Tự Đức’s tomb, its sprawling grounds built around a manmade lake in the center. Interestingly, the emperor began construction on the tomb nearly 20 years before his death, and lived on the grounds after its construction (which seems rather morbid). Despite having over 100 wives and consorts, and reportedly over 300 concubines, Tự Đức fathered no sons during his lifetime, and it’s speculated that a bout with smallpox left him sterile. This left him to write his own epitaph, which can be found inscribed on the largest stele in Vietnam – reportedly, it is extremely self-critical, though I was unable to find a translation.
That evening, we caught one more sunset on the Truong Tien Bridge before heading to a restaurant we ended up frequenting while staying in the city – Risotto. This restaurant ended up being a staple of our trip, serving a variety of Italian and Vietnamese dishes. As Jenn was growing weary of rice and vegetables, finding a place to serve a hearty bowl of pasta was more than a little exciting for her. They also made the most outstanding pizza, and had a great selection of Vietnamese offerings, including a delicious bun bo Huế, a spicy noodle soup that is a specialty of the area. We chatted with the owner, Miss Bi, at length, who was so enthusiastic about our pleasure in the tasty food – giving us free drinks just for telling her how much we enjoyed it – that we insisted she pose for a photo with us. Just another wonderful person we met on our journey through the country.
Dear Jenn and Stephan,
My numerous drive-byes 47 years ago did not prepare me for the beauty of Huế as it is today. Huế was the center of the country-wide Tết offensive the year before, which had a big impact on US politics and attitudes about the war. In my mind I pictured rubble and debris, but instead it is beautifully restored. Thanks very much for the lovely photo tour of Huế.