Huế is well-known for its historic monuments, which have earned it a place in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. I have mixed feelings about this, as it tends to mean that the place has become a tourist hot-spot and lost a lot of its authenticity. Fortunately, Huế has not lost any of its charm.
The city is located in central Vietnam on the banks of the Sông Hương (Perfume River). It is a lovely town, brimming with beautiful historical sites. Between 1802 and 1945 it was the capital of the Nguyễn emperors and the former Imperial City.
The seat of the Nguyễn emperors was the Citadel, which occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the Perfume River. Inside the citadel was a forbidden city where only the emperors, concubines, and those close enough to them were granted access; the punishment for trespassing was death. Today, little of the forbidden city remains, though reconstruction efforts are in progress to maintain it as a historic tourist attraction.
What does remain of the citadel is amazingly beautiful and we spend a good amount of time walking around the huge gardens and taking it all in. There is a vast amount of restoration work going on and I am torn between thinking its a good thing and not. Especially when some of the restoration work involves re- building from scratch rather than just fixing up.
Regardless of the history and the hordes of tourists lapping it all in, life goes on as normal for most of the town’s residents. Nowhere is this more evident than in the large market, which we get to by walking across a large bridge spanning the river. Here, vendors sell everything, but it is always the fresh food and fruit vendors that get the most attention from me.
There are baskets filled to the brim with exotic fruits bearing exotic names: mango, rambutan, mangosteen, star apple, durian, pineapple, longan, thieu litchi, banana, papaya, persimmon, sapodilla, custard apple, green dragon, jackfruit – to mention just a few of the fruits available. Throw in the vendors selling limes, red and green chillies of all sizes, ginger, lemongrass, mint, coriander, cinnamon and basil leaves, the dried and fresh fish and the myriad of vegetables, and the vast conglomeration of colors and smells can stupefy you in seconds.
The ladies sit amongst their wares nattering, chattering and bartering, men with overladen bicycles and scooters hoot and ring incessantly to work their way through the narrow lanes. It’s a melting pot of noise, chaos, colors, smells, activity and I love it! I walk up and down taking photo after photo, and eventually when we move off toward the quieter part of the market we get accosted by two ladies, who promptly sit us down on their little red plastic chairs and instruct us to order something to drink.
We are thirsty, so it does not take much encouragement for us to order iced sweet milk coffee. We sit a while and take in the sounds and activity and then pay a hefty 60 000 dong (3 dollars) for the coffee, which by Vietnamese standards is a rip off, but we write it off as a great experience nonetheless.
Tet is the Vietnamese New Year and it is celebrated from the 12th to the 15th of Feb this year. There are Tet preparations in full swing everywhere we turn, in particular the selling and buying of vast amounts of flowers which are used as offerings. These only add to the already existing riot of colour.
The afternoon is perfect for a boat ride along the river, where I feel disconnected from the activity of the town. It’s quiet and peaceful and very pleasant with the fresh air on my face as the tourist boat chugs slowly along. We get off and stroll around the beautifully laid out park alongside the river, participating in the day-to-day life of this city as some people walk hand in hand, others sit and chat on park benches and the energetic youngsters play soccer or do somersaults. Huế has provided me with the perfect combination of history, architecture, street life and culture.