Viet Nam News
By Văn Châu
For history lovers, few places in Việt Nam can match Huế, the former royal capital, in the central province of Thừa Thiên - Huế.
As a southerner from Bình Dương Province, I was intrigued to visit the city for the first time recently.
Upon arrival, I was impressed by its quiet and deliberate lifestyle as well as the kindness of local residents.
Whenever I asked anyone where I should go first, the answer was always “the Citadel”.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is justly famous. Huế Citadel was founded as Việt Nam’s capital city by King Gia Long - the first king of the Nguyễn Dynasty in 1802.
The dynasty, which had 13 Nguyễn kings, reigned until 1945.
The massive complex features hundreds of monuments and ruins, including the residence of the royal family, which was badly damaged by time and wars.
Trần Thanh Toàn, a 48-year-old visitor from Hà Nội, said that he was also visiting Huế for the first time.
“I want to discover the city, which is an important part of our country’s history. I’ve seen many old buildings and houses, some of them dating back a few hundred years,” he said.
“Living and working in Hà Nội is stressful with air and noise pollution. But here, I can feel relaxed and recharged to return to work.”
The citadel area contains the imperial residence, Hoàng Thành (Imperial City), Tử Cấm Thành (Forbidden Purple City) and other royal palaces.
There’s so much to see: royal tombs, a flag tower, pagodas, temples, a library and a museum.
Kings lived and conducted their business in the citadel. The Forbidden Purple City was reserved for the most important people in Việt Nam.
Delicious: Bún bò Huế is a famous dish made with lemongrass and Huế-style shrimp paste. VNA/VNS Photo Văn Châu
The citadel today is a shadow of what it once was.
The temples, pavilions, walls and gates were damaged first during skirmishes with the French in 1947, and then most of what was left was destroyed in 1968 during the Tết Mậu Thân Offensive (a major military campaign during the anti-American war).
Today, only a handful of buildings still stand within the citadel, which once had more than 250 buildings.
Still, the citadel area is well worth a visit, though the restoration process has been slow.
Visitors can see imposing city gates and walls, beautifully restored halls, and the ancient moat fed by the Hương (Perfume) River.
Visitor Đình Trọng, 29, from the central coastal city of Nha Trang, said that, as a history lover, he wanted to learn about the feudal era in Việt Nam.
“I’ve read many books and searched for information on the internet. After arriving, it was easy for me to imagine the life of the kings,” he said.
The Huế Monuments Complex was designed to be in harmony with the natural setting of the site and was aligned cosmologically with the five cardinal points (centre, west, east, north, and south), the five elements (earth, metal, wood, water, and fire), and the five colours (yellow, white, blue, black, and red), according to the tour guide.
The central structure is the citadel area, which was the administrative and military centre of southern Việt Nam during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Further upstream of the Perfume are the tombs of the dynasty’s kings, which are popular sites for tourists.
Traditional: Huế’s food specialties include spring rolls with grilled pork, bánh bột lộc and bánh nậm (steamed cakes wrapped in banana leaf), bánh Khoái (Vietnamese pancake) and many kinds of sweet soup. VNA/VNS Photo Văn Châu
Ngự Bình Mountain and the Perfume River that runs through the city, give the feudal capital great natural beauty and help define its symbolic importance.
The complex site was chosen for its natural features that include hills that act as a protective screen in front of the monuments and prevents the entry of malevolent spirits.
Within this landscape, the main features of the city are laid out.
It is a remarkable example of the planning and construction of a completely defended capital within a relatively short period in the early 19th century, according to experts. The integrity of the town layout and building design make it an exceptional specimen of late feudal urban planning in East Asia.
However, the complex site has been affected by wars as well as modern urbanisation. Nevertheless, it remains fairly well preserved, with its overall integrity maintained.
Surrounding the central area of the complex are other monuments of importance that include ritual sites related to the spiritual life of the dynasty, such as Văn Miếu (Temple of Literature), Đàn Nam Giao (Esplanade of Sacrifice to the Heaven and Earth), Hổ Quyền (Royal Area), and Điện Voi Ré (Shrine of the Roaring Elephant).
And outside the complex of monuments in another part of Huế is the oldest pagoda in the city, Thiên Mụ Pagoda (Pagoda of the Celestial Lady), built in 1601, and associated with many legends.
Handmade: One of Huế’s many traditional craft village makes incense. VNA/VNS Photo Văn Châu
Handicrafts, food specialities
During the Nguyễn Dynasty, Huế was home to many traditional craft villages with artisans who came from other localities to serve royalties and mandarins.
Many of the villages still exist and are making old and new products, some by hand and some by machine.
To support their development, local authorities have compiled a list of 16 traditional craft villages and another 10 craft communities. The villages will be given funds and technology so they can survive for many more years, according to Trần Đình Dũng, a tour guide at Hương Giang Travel.
Besides its handicrafts, Huế is also famous for its cuisine, with the simple dish bún bò Huế (Huế-style beef noodles) the most well known.
Dũng said: “Restaurants in Huế are renowned for the high quality of authentic regional dishes, many of which were served exclusively to royal families.”
“In the old days, it was said that finely skilled chefs were selected from different parts of the country to serve royalties. This movement of chefs added many new, different regional flavours to Huế royal cuisine.”
Compared to phở (Vietnamese beef noodle soup), bún bò Huế delivers a different flavour with pungent lemongrass and Huế-style shrimp paste.
The soup is served with aromatic herbs, bean sprouts, shredded banana flower, shredded cabbage, lettuce and other vegetables. Unlike phở with flat rice noodles, bún bò Huế comes with round thick noodles. It sells for an affordable price of VNĐ20,000-25,000 (around US$1) in Huế.
Simple: Cơm hến, or steamed rice with tiny mussels, once a commoner’s dish, is now a specialty of the area. VNA/VNS Photo Văn Châu
Another popular dish is cơm hến, or steamed rice with tiny mussels. In the past, it was a dish for low-income earners and was mostly served by street vendors. Today, it is a specialty of Huế served in better restaurants as well.
The most difficult step of cooking the rice is sifting and winnowing the boiled mussels to split off the shell and the sand. The mussels are stir-fried with garlic, onion, fish sauce and pepper, and the steamed rice is added, along with shrimp paste, chili sauce and roasted peanuts served on top.
Other specialties include spring rolls with grilled pork, bánh bột lọc and bánh nậm (steamed cakes wrapped in banana leaf), bánh khoái (Vietnamese pancake), and many kinds of sweet soup.
For tourists, the centre of Huế has many one- to three-star hotels with prices ranging from VNĐ300,000 to VNĐ1 million a night (US$13-US$45). One of the more well-known five-star hotels is the historic La Residence Hue, which overlooks the Perfume River and the Huế Citadel.
Located about 1,200km away from HCM City and 700km from Hà Nội, Huế can be reached by air for VNĐ2 million to VNĐ4 million ($140 - $190) or by train for VNĐ500,000 to VNĐ1 million ($20 –$45).
By train, it will take about a day to travel from HCM City and 14 hours from Hà Nội.
Visitors can rent a motorbike from their hotels for about VNĐ150,000 ($7) a day or take a taxi for a city tour. — VNS