As Good As Vietnam Gets
Why Hue Is The Most Profound Destination
I love Hanoi. I do. I really do. It’s the ancient cradle of Vietnamese civilization, and I would recommend that every international traveler to Vietnam visit this city. But if you are asking me which city is a more profound cultural experience, which city provides the more fundamental experience of Vietnam, Hanoi or Hue, I am voting for Hue.
Let me make full disclosure: I was born in Hue. I grew up in Hue, and though I went away for many years, it was for an economic opportunity as a young man, not because I had tired of the place. You might say then that I am biased for Hue. And you’re right.
But I am biased with good reason because Hue has two things essentially Vietnamese that Hanoi cannot compete with. One, Hue has better stuff and two, Hue’s natural beauty opens the door to an intimacy of living that is more essentially Vietnamese than anything else I know. This second idea is a bit complicated. I’ll explain more below. First, I’ll talk about Hue’s ‘stuff.’
By stuff, I’m talking about palaces, pavilions, gates, temples, theaters, walled citadels, imperial tombs and gardens. This is the big, bold Vietnam of a traveler’s dreams. There is the walled Citadel that was built at the beginning of the Nguyen Dynasty in 1803, a two-kilometer square enclosure with intact walls some 6.5 meters high, complete with ramparts, bastions, and a moat. Inside this city, there is a second 600-square meter walled city, the Imperial City, that once served as the capital of Vietnam. And there is yet a third walled city, the Forbidden Purple City, where the emperor dwelled with his family.
Though the Citadel was severely damaged by the First and Second Indochina Wars, much remained and has been rebuilt. If it seems like the rebuilding is not authentic, bear in mind that the climate of Southeast Asia is such that renovation is an ongoing fact of life here.
I won’t dwell here on the magnificent temples of the Nguyen Emperors, which together with the Citadel and Imperial City, are why UNESCO inscribed Hue on its World Heritage List in 1993. Suffice to say that nowhere is the essential, visual identity of Vietnam so apparent as it is in Hue And that matters much for the traveler.
Now onto the second point about intimacy of living. To the Vietnamese, the village is everything. Our identities and sense of selves are borne of the village. We dwell within it, and it dwells within us. Hilary Clinton wrote the book, It Takes A Village. But really, we the Vietnamese wrote that book.
Hue is not a village, but it’s a small city of just 300,000 people. The mountains erupt from the land just beyond town. You only have to cross the lovely Perfume River for a view of the wondrously beautiful landscape of Vietnam looming all around. You can’t stay within Hue for more than a day before you travel into the outskirts, into its suburban villages, if you will, where the pulse of Vietnam maintains its timeless beat. Come to Hue and you can’t help but experience village life. Go to Hanoi and you might miss what is essentially Vietnamese altogether.
As I said at the start, Hanoi is great. It’s just that, well, Hue is greater.