The enormous, stately Citadel, the former palace of several emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), dramatically sprouts from the north bank of the Perfume River in the old capital of Hue, in central Vietnam. Though largely destroyed by American bombs in the Tet Offensive in 1968 during the Vietnam War, what’s left is beautiful.
Modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, the scope is grand, the details refined, and the sense of history overwhelming. Even the monolithic flagpole in front of the complex gets in on the over-the-top act, with the communist-style flag of a yellow star on a red field soars skyward in the wind.
After ascending a grand entranceway, visitors are afforded a view of the southern part of the complex, with its matrix of assembly halls and prayer rooms, which bespeak much about their imperial Chinese influence.
Particularly noteworthy are the inlaid ceramic details forming dragons, phoenixes and other details in shiny yellow, blue, green and red. Leisurely walking through the huge complex can take a few hours. Along the way is a refreshment stand where you can find relief on a hot day, or browse for books on the history of the Citadel, plus plates decorated with the faces of the Buddha and North Vietnamese icon Ho Chi Minh. In a photo gallery, visitors can try on imperial gowns for him and her and get photographed in them.
Twelve kilometers by boat on the Pagoda River—or by land on a speedier motorcycle taxi—are elegant wooden, Chinese-style buildings in a splendid natural setting surrounded by evergreens and the tombs of last emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. The peaceful, hilly region full of meandering paths and birdsong makes a good way to get away from the aggressive catcalls of Hue’s pushy cyclo drivers, hoping that you will patronise them.
As is the case in all Vietnamese towns, the food in Hue is cheap and excellent, from strong local coffee that famously drips from a steel coffeemakers that sits atop coffee cups, to the spring rolls for which there are as many restaurants as there are different types of this treat worth savouring.
Economically kick-started by the country’s doi moi (“renovation”) reforms that began in 1986, Vietnam has been looking ahead ever since, and, like China, has slowly allowed for some market, capitalist aspects, which naturally appealed to this country of hard workers.
This is a nation embedded with a Confucian work ethic, with many vendors offer everything from tofu to T-shirts from two heavy baskets linked by a pole. For the last several years, many unshackled Vietnamese have turned to the tourist economy to make a living.
A short, pleasant train ride away from Hue is the old town of Hoi An, which was once the biggest port in the country and hosted Portuguese, Dutch and Japanese traders in the 1500s and 1600s.
Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its Old Town, a district of centuries-old Chinese-style homes and shophouses has been made tourist-friendly, and turned inside out.
At night the city picturesquely comes alive with red Chinese lanterns. While general-product stores, auto-body shops and such now surround the town, the historic centre is a traveller’s paradise of art galleries, museums on local ways of life, handicraft shops and dozens of restaurants offering yummy staples, including the quintessential dish pho, a soup with thick noodles and strips of veggies and meat, topped with fresh greens like cilantro and mint. On both sides of the Phuoc An River, Hoi An offers cruises to the mouth of the river, which just a few kilometres from here spills into the South China Sea.
Along the southern bank of the river near the historic section, a fresh market for all manner of vegetables, meats and other foodstuffs are hawked by vendors, who, like their local customers, sport iconic conical hats and pajama-style outfits.
Across the river, travellers can meander through a typically Vietnamese community, away from the touts for clothing shops (Hoi An is a popular place to get a cheap dress or suit made), restaurants (typically staffed by pretty local hostesses wearing the classic ao dai dress), and hotels (there are many good rooms in town, including some overlooking rice fields). A sleepy town by Vietnamese standards, Hoi An is known for its low-key charms, and slowly rode bicycles.
After you’ve had your fill of culture and commerce, take a brief break from it on a pleasantly long train ride to the smallish capital of Hanoi. Once arriving, you’ll find the capital chaotic in many ways. But persevering, going down hidden paths will treat you to the subtle charm of the city.
Dozens of hotels are available in and near Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a matrix of streets intersecting at all points and making getting lost here a real adventurous joy. Fresh beer is available in many small corner beer houses, where snacks are available too.
Nearby is the heart of the city, the area surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake, which is home to an island connected to the shore by a lovely old bridge called The Huc, (“Flood of Morning Sunlight”. The island’s centuries-old temple, Ngoc Son (“Jade Mountain”), honours local warrior Tran Hung Dao, who defeated a larger Mongol force led Kublai Khan.
The lake’s shores are a beehive of activity, locals and visitors alike can enjoy people watching. There are strollers—couples, friends, families—badminton players, joggers, and quaint cafes with great views to be enjoyed. Local, exotic birds of all colours flit above the surface of the lake on the hunt for fish.
Another cultural must-see is the Confucian Temple of Literature, in which stone turtles are topped with symbolic books to represent the wealth of knowledge worth being versed in.
Visitors can get a sense of where they are in the Army Museum, which is largely dedicated to the country’s wars with France and the US in the 1900s, as well as the Vietnam History Museum, which explains what the country was like until World War II.
Happily, charming French-era architecture has been preserved around the country, particularly in Hanoi. French accents also reflected in the local diet, especially baguettes.
The classic nearby way to get away from the city is a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda, and its cave of Buddhist shrines. Several travel agencies offer van rides down to the riverside embarking point, where visitors are led down into rowboats, which local women drive on the way down to the temple.
This is a charming way to get there, with wooden homes along the banks to be admired, and with jumping fish and water lilies to keep you company.
While Vietnamese drive with one hand on their constantly abused horn, and notoriously don’t slow down for people crossing the street, there is much more enjoyment than annoyances to be found in this awakening land, which has been open to the world only for the last two decades or so.
Indeed, with the friendly interactions between travellers here and their hosts being what they are, surely visitors will continue to keep coming for years to come.