Called the belly button of Vietnam, the city of Hue is a hybrid of influences. Its imperial structures, cuisine and culture lend it an enigmatic appeal, says Kalpana Sunder The throaty gurgle of the boat’s motor is the only sound on the tranquil river. We pass through wooden sampans, women wearing conical hats and ornate pagodas cloaked in a translucent wreath of mist — Hue in central Vietnam certainly has a heaven on earth quality. The sleek and sinuous Perfume River winds through Hue, dividing the city into two parts. They say that flowers from orchards along the bank would fall into the waters during autumn and lend the river an aroma. Often called the ‘belly button’ of Vietnam, Hue (pronounced as Hway) is the country’s midpoint. It used to be the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty and for more than 70 years it was under French rule, which has had a strong influence on its architecture and food.
We are in a dragon boat making our way to the iconic Thieun Pagoda on a hill by the river and set in a graceful pine forest. It was built by Lord Nguyen Hoang in 1605 at a site determined by the spiritual visions of a holy lady. There are seven floors in the pagoda, each one representing a human form of the Buddha. The surrounding gardens have exquisite bonsais. Our local guide, Hai, with a perpetual smile plastered on his face, tells us that bonsais have a poetic inspiration and the older a tree, the more precious it is. There is a niche here containing an old, blue, Austin car. In 1963, a monk from here drove to Saigon in this car and at a major traffic intersection, sat in a lotus position and set himself on fire to protest against the anti-Buddhist policies of the corrupt regime. This picture was flashed across the world and made a deep impact on people. Outside the temple are graceful women in silk ao dais, carrying offerings in their hands; an old woman sells birds in a cage, which you can release for some good karma.
We experience the notoriously unpredictable weather of Hue — rain clouds gather and the roads morph into a sea of raincoat and poncho clad motorcyclists. The conical hat, the iconic symbol associated with the Vietnamese, originated in this city and is special as it has a poem written on it, which can be read only when you hold it against the light. Hue is also known for its imperial cuisine which developed because the emperors would refuse to eat the same dish twice in a year. These are visually arresting dishes carved like dragons and tortoises, using a variety of ingredients.
Ironically, Hue was also the site of one of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War and American forces re-captured Hue after almost a month, by which time it was badly ravaged and many lives were lost. Hue Citadel, surrounded by a deep moat, is one of the landmarks of this city. It is said that 70,000 workers toiled day and night for over 20 years to create this masterpiece. An enormous Vietnamese flag on a pole billows in the breeze. Persistent rickshaw-like cyclo drivers market their rides aggressively. The citadel is an unusual hybrid of influences — Chinese architecture, feng shui and the design of a French military architect.
We walk through the Noon Gate and enter the Forbidden City, modelled on the one in Beijing. The Palace of Supreme Harmony has lacquered columns, a timber roof and was the emperor’s place for official receptions and special ceremonies. On either side of a courtyard are the halls of the Mandarins. One of the halls is set aside for cheesy photo-ops. We don royal costumes, regal head gear, even make- up, and ascend the throne. My daughter is a young princess and I am queen for a day. We amble through sprawling courtyards, ornate temples with yellow and green tiles, dragons and phoenixes. The Forbidden Purple City was only a place for the emperors, his concubines, wives and female servants. Today, it’s a beauteous ruin with overgrown vegetation and gaping bullet holes.
Scattered over the countryside around Hue are tombs of a number of emperors who built these structures as summer palaces and eventual burial sites. We drive through rural roads packed with shops selling incense sticks tied up in bundles like brooms to visit the grand Tu Duc’s Tomb. “Tu Duc was a romantic king,” says Hai. He wrote poetry and loved music. He had many wives and concubines but did not have an offspring. The tomb is set in a lush pine forest with lotus ponds and frangipani trees. The emperor planned such a palatial tomb that there was an attempted coup in 1866 as a protest against forced labour, high costs and additional taxation.
Hue is not just time warp. Street food culture is big here. Every corner is a portable restaurant with people selling the national comfort food — pho (pronounced fuh), a fragrant broth of rice noodles with beef or chicken, spring onions, bean sprouts, and a garnish of fresh herbs. Vietnamese like their dose of caffeine and we enjoy some local coffee served with a shot of condensed milk and ice. For a sensory overload, we visit the Dong Ba Market, a typical local market selling conical hats, pottery, silver jewellery, geometric piles of vegetables and fruits, and mounds of tofu, where bargaining is de rigueur. Many years after the war, Hue is reviving — foreign tourists are back here and we hear about the biennial Hue Festival, which showcases traditional music, crafts and food.
Come evening, we walk along the Perfume River, taking in the colourfully illuminated bridges and lanterns casting their wispy reflections on the indigo waters and wizened women with traditional yokes on their shoulders. We succumb helplessly to the seduction of the place.
Published in the Deccan Herald, 2011