Nestled along the banks of the Perfume River in central Vietnam, beneath the verdant canopy of ancient trees and surrounded by mist-shrouded hills, lies Huế, a city that whispers secrets of Vietnam's illustrious past. Time here feels like it has stood still for centuries - back to when Vietnamese dynasties and aristocrats ruled with an iron fist, where the noble families roamed the land. Huế today is more than just another city in Vietnam… It is a portal to a bygone era, where the imperial grace of the Nguyen Dynasty and the deep-rooted cultural heritage of Vietnam converge. Curious? Follow me on Instagram and YouTube for more adventures!
To get to know the fabric of Vietnam’s Imperial city is to peel back the curtains of its past. The history of Huế dates back centuries, tracing its origins to the early 17th century when it was founded as a strategic military outpost. However, it was in 1802 that Huế ascended to its paramount role in Vietnamese history. Emperor Gia Long, the first of the Nguyen Dynasty, established Huế as the capital of a reunified Vietnam, heralding a golden age for the city. For 143 years, Huế reigned as the imperial capital, where emperors resided in opulent palaces, scholars honed their wisdom in Confucian academies, and courtly rituals and traditions thrived.
The city was meticulously designed and constructed to reflect the ideals of Confucianism, with a strict hierarchy of architectural elements and structures. The Imperial City, also known as the Citadel, was the heart of the capital, housing the royal palace, temples, administrative buildings, and residences for the imperial family and officials.
At the heart of this majestic city stands the Imperial Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that serves as a testament to the architectural brilliance and cultural significance of Huế. Enclosed by formidable walls and a protective moat, the Citadel encompasses a realm of grandeur where dynastic power was manifested. Within its hallowed precincts lie the Forbidden Purple City, a sanctuary reserved exclusively for the emperor and his closest confidants, shrouded in mystery and guarded by the enigmatic Ngo Mon Gate.
Huế was not only a political and administrative centre, but also a hub for culture and education. It was home to prestigious academies and libraries, where scholars studied classical literature, philosophy, and the arts.
Throughout its storied history, Huế has weathered the storms of time, from when Vietnam fell under French colonial rule on the late 19th century, to the turbulence of the American War. It was at this time that Huế gained international attention, when it became a focal point of conflict. The Battle of Huế in 1968 was one of the war's bloodiest battles.
These historical vicissitudes have left their mark on the city's landscape, with some of its treasures bearing scars of conflict. Yet, Huế remains unwavering in its commitment to preserving its heritage. Painstaking efforts to restore the Imperial City, along with the royal tombs and pagodas scattered across the landscape, have breathed life back into the vestiges of a gilded era. In 1993, UNESCO recognized the Historic Complex of Huế as a World Heritage Site, acknowledging its exceptional cultural and historical significance.
For those exploring Huế today, it is not merely a museum trapped in the past; it is a vibrant city where history and contemporary life coexist harmoniously. Its bustling markets, aromatic street food stalls, and warm-hearted residents offer a glimpse into the everyday rhythms of Vietnamese life. The ancient and the modern converge seamlessly in Huế, creating an atmosphere that is at once nostalgic and forward-looking.
Upon arriving in Huế, I was immediately struck by the city's serene ambience. Itching to embark on a journey through time, I chucked my bags in the hotel and hailed a motorbike to start my adventures.
You can easily follow my itinerary, or watch it unfold on my Youtube. First, start your day exploring the Imperial City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This vast complex houses the remnants of the Nguyen Dynasty's rule, showcasing intricate architecture and lush gardens. Explore the Forbidden Purple City (even its own name is enough to be intriguing), where only emperors and their closest confidants were allowed entry. Nowadays, anyone can enter these once privileged grounds.
Afterwards, head to the Thien Mu Pagoda, an iconic symbol of Huế. This elegant seven-story pagoda overlooks the Perfume River and offers breathtaking panoramic views of the city. Take a leisurely boat ride along the river, allowing the soothing fragrance of flowers to enchant your senses.
I must admit - as an architecture lover, I was seduced by the palaces and such fine details of the city but, growing up as Vietnamese - I was even more looking forward to the city’s famous dish. Huế's noodle dish that has captured the hearts of all of Vietnam, but originated here, hence its name. Bun Bo Huế, is a robust noodle dish with spicy broth, ever so tender slices of beef shanks and brisket, and a variety of accompanying Vietnamese herbs and toppings like sliced banana blossoms and chilie paste that create an aromatic and umami satisfying bowl of noodle soup. It is one culinary experience you should definitely not miss out on when in this city! Or in Vietnam, for that matter.
In between bites and cà phê sữa đá, continue on exploring sites like the Tomb of Minh Mang, an architectural masterpiece surrounded by lush gardens, lakes, and pavilions. It's a serene place to learn about the life and times of Emperor Minh Mang. There is also the Tomb of Khai Dinh, which is a beautiful marriage of Western and Eastern architectural styles. The grandeur of this tomb will leave you in awe! Nearby, don't miss the opportunity to discover the Tomb of Tu Duc, the "Poet Emperor."
In the evenings, you can attend a traditional royal music performance at the Royal Theater, an experience that offers a glimpse into the imperial past. There is also the Eiffel Tower-inspired Truong Tien Bridge to see, which the French constructed over the Perfume River during their colonial period. Or, end your day with a stroll along the Perfume River, where the city's lights reflect on the water, giving it a magical atmosphere.
As you embark on your journey through Huế, prepare to be captivated by the city's rich woven reaches of history, its well-preserved architectural wonders, and its cultural treasures. Each step will reveal layers of a city that has been both witness to and protagonist in the unfolding drama of Vietnam's past. Huế invites you to immerse yourself in its imperial charm, to explore its hidden gems, and to understand the profound influence it has exerted on the cultural identity of Vietnam. It is a journey through time, a voyage into the heart of a nation, and an encounter with a city that remains eternally etched in the annals of history.
Tam Giang Lagoon, HueJFCW+3W Quảng Điền District, Thua Thien Hue, Vietnam
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