by Kim Megson
|Steeped in history: Visitors enjoy a trip to Hue's ancient citadel. The city offers a perfect blend of history, culture, food and relaxation. — VNA/VNS Photo
When eager travellers arrive in Viet Nam they usually have a familiar list of places that they are determined to see – HCM City, Ha Noi, Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, maybe Ninh Binh.
One name that usually doesn't crop up immediately is Hue, the former imperial capital, which despite its rich tradition and heritage has mostly been used by tourists as a mere stopping point midway through their journey.
Recently, however, things have started to change and Hue is making a name for itself as a tourist destination in its own right.
Hue is the place I called home for 16 months, and I loved living in this city of contrasts; a place where tradition, education and culture come before business and development.
In Hue, coffee shops and restaurants are surrounded by crumbling citadel walls that have stood firm through many conflicts – a visual reminder of the city's inimitable history and culture.
Long-term residents value Hue for its peaceful and quiet way of life, which can be quite hard to come by in a country as fast moving and often chaotic as Viet Nam.
While they may be cynical from time to time about the snail-pace of life or the perils of the rainy season (more on that later), it is not uncommon when visiting other places for them to be heard saying "I could really do with a proper Hue coffee now" or "but food is much cheaper than this in Hue!"
Often it is the little things that are savoured the most. There is nothing quite comparable to the simple pleasures of drinking a cold Huda (Viet Nam's finest beer) on the banks of the Perfume River, drinking ca phe sua (Viet Nam's finest milk-coffee) on a floating bamboo platform surrounded by lotus flowers, or drinking a supremely refreshing nuoc mia (sugarcane juice – Viet Nam's finest refreshment) in the shadow of the impressive Notre Dame Cathedral. Indeed, almost all free time in Hue is spent drinking something.
It would be wrong to paint Hue as a universally easy place to live though. Traffic can be chaotic, business hours are extremely unpredictable and the weather can be unbearable.
The wet season from October to February is particularly challenging – with near constant heavy rain, flooding, uncomfortably low temperatures and an abundance of mould covering walls, possessions and clothes.
The Hue people are well adapted to this inevitable state of affairs by now and continue with their daily lives with good humour. Expats in Hue seldom feel the same way. Those who brave the rainy season are rewarded when April arrives along with the sunshine, and the city transforms from beautiful, misty, rain soaked Hue to beautiful, resplendent, colourful Hue.
Dishes fit for a king
The city has a justifiably excellent reputation for food, a legacy of the Nguyen kings who were famously fussy eaters. The Vietnamese dishes here are mouth-wateringly good and beautifully presented, but be warned – the Hue people have a preference for spicy meals so tourists should be prepared!
The large Buddhist population means that the city offers some of the best vegetarian options in Viet Nam, and those who do not savour some of this cuisine can count it an opportunity missed. If you are lucky enough to be in Hue on a vegetarian day (the 1st, 14th, 15th and 30th of every month of the lunar calendar) it is worth visiting a large pagoda where sumptuous free meals are offered.
For travellers who would prefer some home comforts there is something for almost everybody (Hue boasts good Indian, Korean, Japanese, French, Italian and Mexican restaurants among others) with good quality food and reasonable prices.
Once the essential eating, sight-seeing, and coffee drinking is out of the way, I believe that visitors (both foreign and Vietnamese) should put down their guide books and go explore the city with an open mind.
Sample the real Hue by singing with friends at one of the numerous karaoke places, haggling at Dong Ba Market, or sailing down the river on a swan boat and watching the sun set. Experiences here can often range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but they all linger long in the memory.
I will never forget my time in Hue. I was lucky enough to savour delicious tastes, magical landscapes and the simplest of lifestyles. I believe that everybody visiting Viet Nam should take the opportunity to go and experience it for themselves.
Yes, Hue might not be as vibrant or fast paced as Ha Noi or HCM City, but the people who return here again and again for just one more ca phe sua on a lazy afternoon wouldn't want it any other way. — VNS