A huge walled citadel sits on the western bank of the Perfume River in Huế. In addition to many commercial streets and several schools, the citadel is home to the Imperial City. The Imperial City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the palace of the Nguyễn dynasty. It is a maze of temples, living quarters, courtyards, and gardens. Much of the palace was leveled during the Vietnam War, and many of the surviving buildings are riddled with bullet holes. Some structures have been carefully restored to their original grandeur, but others have been left as a reminder of the past.
The countryside surrounding Huế is full of historical sites and religious buildings. We visited the tombs of the first four Nguyễn emperors, as well as the tomb of the last emperor to be buried in Vietnam. Most of the tombs charged an entrance fee, some were overrun with tourists, and most sites also contained temples and tombs for related family members or prestigious government officials. All were spectacular and each was slightly different from the next.
Emperor Gia Long:
This was the first Nguyễn emperor. Of the tombs we visited, his tomb was located furthest from Huế. We motorbiked out there in the baking sun on narrow paved streets, evading potholes where we could. When we arrived, we were rewarded with a complete lack of other tourists and most notably, no tourist busses. Jake and I were able to explore the temples in silence. And I spent some time examining the construction techniques used to build the now crumbling tomb staircase.
Emperor Minh Mạng:
The second Nguyễn emperor was a Chinese traditionalist and practicer of Confucianism. His tomb was constructed on an east-west axis, and the grounds feature several lakes and sprawling gardens.
Emperor Thiệu Trị:
The third Nguyễn emperor was well-liked by the people and brought about economic prosperity during his short reign. He insisted on being buried in a modest tomb; his tomb is elegant and the least ornate and sprawling of all the ones we visited.
Emperor Tự Dức:
The fourth Nguyễn emperor was the polar opposite of his father Thiệu Trị. Tự Dức lived an extravagant life with 300 concubines, and yet he had no children. His tomb was originally constructed as a vacation spot that Tự Dức used during his lifetime. The huge costs and forced labor used to construct the sprawling complex spurred a failed labor coup. Tự Dức feared that his grave would be robbed, and so although there is a tomb structure within the complex, the exact location of his burial site is unknown; all 200 servants that assisted with his burial were beheaded.
Emperor Khải Dịnh:
He was the penultimate Nguyễn emperor and was largely regarded as a French puppet. His successor, Bảo Đại, abdicated the throne in favor of Hồ Chí Minh and the Việt Minh. Although Khải Dịnh’s tomb has an elaborate yet drab-grey exterior, the interior is as opulent and over-the-top as a European baroque palace. The inside walls are decorated with elaborate mosaics of porcelain and glass, and there are gold ornaments and statues everywhere.
Chùa Huyền Không
Inspired by beautiful pictures online, Jake and I decided to visit the Buddhist temple Chùa Huyền Không. We ended up making a huge clockwise circle around the temple, trying to keep the tall tower in sight as we rode down narrow and tree-shaded residential streets. We finally found the entrance, and then spent awhile wandering the beautiful and serene grounds. The main temple had four windows at the rear, each depicting a different religious creature (tortoise, dragon, phoenix, and unicorn); these were all creatures that we’d heard about at the Hanoi Temple of Literature. As we were leaving, I noticed that several colonies of bees had attached themselves to the eaves of the curiously geometric tower.
In the evenings, we wandered Huế’s riverside night market. We got chè for dessert on two separate nights, and learned a lesson (of debatable importance) about tourist pricing. When we acted like we knew how things worked at the chè stand, plonked ourselves down at an empty table, and then ordered in Vietnamese (“Xin cho hai cái chè thập cẩm” — Please give us two servings of varietal chè), we were served chè in glasses and charged 10,000 VND per serving. The next night, when we wanted to try a different type of chè and stood around like lost tourists looking at the bowls of multi-colored goodies, we were handed plastic cups and told to serve ourselves. And then we were charged 20,000 per serving. After eating our self-selected chè, Jake and I concluded that chè is best prepared by people who know what they’re doing.
In addition to eating lots of chè, Jake and I tried some of the specialties of Hue and Central Vietnam:
- bún bò Huế: Huế-style beef noodles that are spicy and savory
- bánh bèo: steamed rice cake filled with savory goodies
- bánh khoái: fried rice pancake filled with pork, shrimp, green onion, bean sprouts, and carrot
- nem lụi: grilled pork meatballs cooked on a stick of lemongrass
- bánh cuốn thịt nướng: BBQ pork wrapped in fresh rice paper
- nem rán: fried spring rolls
- bánh lọc: steamed casava stuffed with shrimp and pork
We tried many of these local dishes at a hotel-recommended restaurant. When we first arrived at the restaurant, we noticed that a majority of the tables were occupied by foreign tourists, and that there were very few locals. In the past, this has typically been indicative of a tourist trap that serves western food and not-very-good local food. Regardless, we decided to give it a try. And we were not disappointed. There was a huge variety of local specialties and many things that we’d never eaten before, and it was all delicious.