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Hue City

Introducing Hué

If art and architecture matter more to you than beaches and beer, Hué will be high on your Vietnam must-visit list. The capital of the Nguyen emperors, Hué is packed with temples, tombs, palaces and pagodas – or at least the remains of those that successive armies didn’t manage to completely destroy. Foodies won’t want to miss the fussy degustation-style Imperial cuisine for which this city is rightly famous.

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On the banks of the enigmatically named Perfume River, the peculiar light of this historic place imbues photographs with a hazy, purple tinge. It would all be quite idyllic if it weren’t for the constant dogging most tourists face as soon as they step off the bus. The touts in Hué are more incessant than most.

While the offshoots of mass tourism may be annoying, it should be remembered that Hué’s cultural sites were destined for ob­livion without it. After 1975 they were left to decay – Imperialist reminders of the feudal Nguyen dynasty. In 1990 that the local People’s Committee recognised the potential of the place and declared these sites ‘national treasures’. In 1993 Unesco designated the complex of monuments in Hué a World Heritage site, and restoration and preservation work continues.

The Festival of Hué is celebrated biennially in even-numbered years, with local and international cultural performers at locations throughout the city. Hotel accommodation is at a premium at this time, so book ahead if you can.

Getting there & away

Land
Bus

The main bus station is 4km to the southeast on the continuation of Ð Hung Vuong (it becomes Ð An Duong Vuong and Ð An Thuy Vuong). The first main stop south is Danang (40,000d, three hours, six daily). An Hoa bus station (Hwy 1A), northwest of the Citadel, serves northern destinations, including Dong Ha (25,000d, 1½ hours).

Hué is a regular stop on the open-tour bus routes. Most will drop passengers off around the Ð Hung Vuong tourist ghetto and pick up from the hotels. Expect a complete circus when the bus stops, as you’re likely to be followed by several persistent touts, all keen to direct your wallet to their hotel.

Mandarin and Sinh Cafés can arrange bookings for the bus to Savannakhet, Laos.
Car & motorbike

Some of the principal destinations from Hué include Hanoi (689km), Dong Ha (77km), Lao Bao (152km), Danang (108km) and HCMC (1097km).
Train

The Hué train station (822 175; 2 Ð Phan Chu Trinh) is at the southwestern end of Ð Le Loi. Destinations include Ninh Binh (205,000d, 12½ to 13½ hours, three daily), Vinh (143,000d, 6½ to 10 hours, seven daily), Dong Hoi (65,000d, 2½ to 5½ hours, eight daily), Dong Ha (25,000d, 1½ to 2½ hours, six daily) and Danang (40,000d, 2½ to four hours, seven daily).

History

The citadel city of Phu Xuan was built in 1687, 5km northeast of present-day Hué. In 1744 Phu Xuan became the capital of the southern part of Vietnam, which was under the rule of the Nguyen lords. The Tay Son Rebels occupied the city from 1786 until 1802, when it fell to Nguyen Anh. He crowned himself Emperor Gia Long, thus founding the Nguyen dynasty, which ruled the country – at least in name – until 1945.

In 1885, when the advisers of 13-year-old Emperor Ham Nghi objected to French activities in Tonkin, French forces encircled the city. Unwisely, the outnumbered Vietnamese forces launched an attack; the French responded mercilessly. According to a contemporary French account, the French forces took three days to burn the imperial library and remove from the palace every single object of value – everything from gold and silver ornaments to mosquito nets and toothpicks. Ham Nghi fled to Laos, but he was eventually captured and exiled to Algeria. The French replaced him with the more pliable Dong Khanh, thus ending any pretence of genuine independence for Vietnam.

Hué was the site of the bloodiest battles of the 1968 Tet Offensive and was the only city in South Vietnam to be held by the Communists for more than a few days. While the American command was concentrating its energies on Khe Sanh, North Vietnamese and VC troops skirted the American stronghold and walked right into Hué.

Immediately on taking the city, political cadres implemented detailed plans to remove Hué’s ‘uncooperative’ elements. Thousands of people were rounded up in extensive house-to-house searches, conducted according to lists of names meticulously prepared months before.

During the 3½ weeks Hué remained under Northern control, over 2500 people – including wealthy merchants, government workers, monks, priests and intellectuals – were summarily shot, clubbed to death or buried alive. Shallow mass graves were discovered at various spots around the city over the following few years.

When the South Vietnamese army units proved unable to dislodge the occupying North Vietnamese and VC forces, General Westmoreland ordered US troops to recapture the city. Over the next few weeks, whole neighbourhoods were levelled by VC rockets and US bombs.

Over the next month, most of the area inside the Citadel was battered by the South Vietnamese air force, US artillery and brutal house-to-house fighting. Approximately 10,000 people died in Hué, including thousands of VC troops, 400 South Vietnamese soldiers and 150 US marines, but most of those killed were civilians.

Journalist Gavin Young’s 1997 memoir A Wavering Grace is a moving account of his 30-year relationship with a family from Hué, and with the city itself, during and beyond the American War. It makes a good literary companion for a stay in the city.

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