If you are in search of stunning palaces, impressive architecture and history up the wah-zoo, look no further than Hue (pronounced “way”), Vietnam’s former capital and imperial city on the Perfume River. This was the center of the Nguyen dynasty in the 19th century and it’s a miracle that the place still exists considering the amount of war and fighting that took place in its midst.
It’s almost impossible to tour the area independently or without a driver which can be pricey. I hesitate to sign up for organized tours as I like to go at my own pace, but there really was no choice and the day ended up being a more pleasant experience that expected. Most people start by visiting the Citadel which encloses the Imperial City along with sweet gardens, temples, offices and royal palaces. The whole area is surrounded by a thick wall complete with moat.
One thing you will learn throughout the day is that the positioning of the buildings was taken very seriously. Feng shui is the art of designing and building in auspicious locations. Sometimes the architects search for years to find the perfect spot. Many of the buildings are situated southeast which is meant to block harmful influences, some are surrounded by mountains and almost all are located around some sort of element of water.
I enjoyed spending an hour looking through all the ornately decorated buildings, but I especially liked a photo exhibit of pictures taken during the time the citadel was functioning as such. During one particular ceremony, chosen philosophy students are celebrating their admission into school, there are elephants and umbrellas, scholars dressed in painted silk robes, music and merriment. Wow, what I wouldn’t do to have been a face in the crowd.
When I signed up for the tour, they asked if I wanted to pay an additional amount to go inside the tombs. I agreed, although not particularly interested. I had pictured going into a room or mausoleum…that’s where my imagination stopped. The first “tomb” we went to was literally a series of large buildings, with immaculate gardens positioned fungi shui style along a small river. The tombs were built while the monarchy was still alive and well and they were encouraged to lounge and entertain in these beautiful grave sites. In western culture it would seem morbid to throw parties and hang out in the exact area you will later be buried, but for these Vietnamese it was considered an honor and no expense or artistic talent was spared.
In between tombs and sites, we visited a town that specializes in handmade incense and conical hats. We were also able to catch a show that exhibits the traditional martial arts performed at the Imperial Palace. We ended the day listening to chanting monks at the enchanted Perfume Pagoda and a boat ride back to the dock where we made our way home.