The drive from Hoi An to Hue (not to be confused with our guide’s name), the 19th century capital of imperial Vietnam, was through some splendid mountainous country. We stopped on the coast at a resort for a forgettable lunch. It was considered one of the most scenic beaches in the country. Sadly it was dull and overcast but the waves pounding the shore were terrific.
We arrived in Hue after 2 hours on the road. Separated by the Perfume River, the north side is dominated by the Imperial City, whose emperors rest in tombs south of the river. Built by the Emperor Gia Long in the early 19th century, the massive fortress, based on China’s Forbidden City, is staggeringly beautiful. It consists of three palaces—the Civic, the Imperial (also military), and the private, Emperor-only Purple Palace. This was home to his wives and concubines and guarded by eunuchs; for any other male to enter was a death sentence.
The Imperial City was also the site of fighting during the Vietnam War. It was overrun by North Vietnamese during 1967’s surprise Tet Offensive, and occupied for about two weeks. Much of the original architecture was destroyed by American and South VN artillery in recapturing it. I saw more than a few bullet holes in the walls by the North Gate entrance. (Americans recaptured this and other cities briefly occupied during this series of surprise attacks, but the success of the bold forays fueled speculation that the war was not going well. It is seen as the beginning of the end.)
The Imperial City is beautiful, meticulous, and serene. It is the apogee of Vietnamese culture. It rests quietly a hundred landscaped acres. Gia Long’s Nguyen Dynasty was VN’s last. In 1945 the final emperor, largely a French puppet (marionette?), ceded power to Ho Chi Minh’s communists and moved himself (and much of his country’s wealth) to France (where descendants still live as very successful business people, according to our guide Hue). But the Nguyen’s must have been powerful indeed to create such a grand and special place.
Later, Susan and I next walked from our little hotel to the large 4-star one nearby, where we both had massages, which felt very good. The hotel spa was first rate, and the two masseuses clambered all over us. They were $12 each for an entire hour.
We then walked next door to a large arts center which specializes in embroidery. Hue is famous for exquisite paintings in thread—wonderful natural scenes of flowers, bamboo, animals—and some pretty awful Thomas Kincaid-inspired ones too. The compound itself was beautiful, with ponds, bamboo and small bridges, and women in native dress rushing to serve us less-well-dressed some green tea. We saw some women at work, their fingers dancing on half-finished canvases. Somehow, their stitches seemed to perfectly capture light and movement—a reflection from a golden carp, for instance, still stays with me. We definitely felt we’d return the next day to buy a small one, a limb festooned with cherry blossoms, but ran out of time. Buy it when you find it, as Susan says.
That evening we dined at “The Royal Court,” a restaurant where you not only dress up in elaborate, colorful Mandarin robes, but given your own banquet room, where you are serenaded with indigenous music and singing. It was hokey but fun. The food was fine, but very artfully arranged and garnished—a little over-the-top, but great to look at. The music was wonderful, and we purchased the proffered CD. Ten courses at dinner, with two beers each and the show, was about $10.