Unless you come from Australia, you might think that Hué is a bit too far from Hoi An to include in your itinerary. However, the 100-mile drive flies by, as the coast road that takes you there is so calm and picturesque. “It not so hard,” as the Vietnamese says.
Dubbed "the heartbeat of Vietnam" by Lonely Planet, the destination has a population of about 340,000 and seemingly almost as many temples and tombs. Ho Chi Minh’s high school isn’t much to write home about and nor is the car that belonged to Thich Quang Duc, the monk whose self-immolation was such a potent anti-war protest. The Unesco-listed citadel on the river's north side, however, most certainly is.
Between 1802 and 1945, Hué was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty whose citadel housed a forbidden ‘purple’ city. There, in the company of his concubines, the resident emperor would sip green tea perfumed using the mouths of lotus flowers. The penalty for trespassing on the emperor’s paradise was death. A bit like a 1970’s English public school, you could get in big trouble just for speaking out of turn: thankfully for this author and so hopefully for the reader, the English penalty wasn’t, as in Hué, summary beheading.
Whilst the image of Notre Dam cathedral rising from an emerald sea of rice paddies is an arresting sight, the architectural show is stolen by the imperial tombs, which vary from the classically beautiful to captivatingly weird and wonderful buildings that look as if they were designed in a fevered delirium that preceded the occupant’s death.
During the Vietnam War Hué’s position just south of the border gave the citadel an unfortunately strategic location and it became the scene of both the fiercest fighting in the Tet offensive and also a notorious ethnic massacre committed by communist forces.
After the war, many of Hué's historic features fell into neglect because the victorious regime viewed it as a feudal relic. Policy has since softened, resulting in the restoration of many parts of the city, which now feels like the country's cultural heart. In April this year (2008), one of the imperial city's most classic structures, the An Dinh Palace, reopened after the completion of restoration on its wall paintings and decorations.
Michael Di Giovine, the author of The Heritage-scape: Unesco, World Heritage and Tourism, gives his take on what makes Hoi An special.
Hoi An has been my favourite spot in Vietnam since the first time I set foot in the town. A strong and powerful sense of heritage permeates the port in ways that are more intense than many other World Heritage sites. Maybe it’s because the ‘heritage’ of Hoi An cannot be neatly traced to one people’s, but to the intermingling of communities, religions and aesthetics, which produced a unique atmosphere that hearkens back evocatively to a slower and simpler time. The town greets the visitor with the cacophonous bustle of life that stands in stark contrast to its advertisement as quaint, picturesque and enchanting, although all three adjectives are equally valid.
Click here for vacation Thailand