Hué, the old imperial capital of the Nguyen emperors, sprawls on the banks of the Suong Hung about halfway up Vietnam. Arriving in the city was a bit of a shock to the system after pretty little Hoi An – it is large and looming and rather soulless. But we were not there for the city; we were there for the tombs and temples, the palaces and pagodas on the North side of the river and so it was on bikes that we pedalled our way over the Perfume River to the Imperial Citadel. We nervously joined the flow of traffic over Trang Tien bridge and, miraculously, flowed with it. Nobody signals, everybody honks their horns, but there is a definite rhythm to the traffic in Vietnam as it flows loudly along. It is invigorating being part of it.
We cycled under the blackened old arched outer wall of the citadel and parked our bikes next to a line of bronze cannons. We then wandered over to the Ngo Mon Gateway, the entrance to the Imperial Enclosure, where a huge picture of Ho Chi Minh hangs by multicolured flags, reflected in the surface of the moat. It is impressive, looming above the tourists gawking up at it, a handful of other tourists peering down from its two tiered elaborate roofs. We paid our entrance and entered the citadel. Thai Hoa palace is the first thing you see, where the emperor would have greeted visitors from his gilted golden throne. We crossed to it over a bridge lined with flowers across a pond of bright orange koi. Dragon mosaics curl across the roof, coiled and fierce in blues, reds and greens. You climb the steps and enter and stare in silence at what might possibly be the grandest room you’ve ever been in. Scarlet and gold laquered ironwood columns stand proudly down the room, the walls covered with more scarlet and gold calligraphy, grids of ancient poetry. There are a few translations but the symbols far outnumber these, telling unknown stories that I wish I could understand. The throne that stands, elevated, between the columns, is truly fit for an emperor, huge and gold and intricate. The building has been massively restored and an animation in the next room shows what it would have looked like in its heyday, at the height of the Nguyen dynasty, robed mandarins lining the walkways. It makes you realise how much the buildings have been restored (and makes you wish you could go back in time), especially when you step out the other side of the palace and you see the buildings that haven’t been so lucky.
Hué’s imperial enclosure was a cultural victim of the French and American wars – it was badly damaged to the extent that only 20 of 148 buildings are still standing. Unesco-sponsored restoration, reconstruction and conservation work is still ongoing. In the future, maybe the buildings of the ancient citadel will stand, elaborate and proud, once again. But for now the enclosure is a place of contrasts – grandiose golden palaces stand next to crumbling ruins, ornate arches lead to overgrown gardens and horses hoofs echo in empty courtyards. Saying this, a fair number of structures still stand and the enclosure is big enough that you can get lost, walking through ancient halls feeling like you’ve stepped back in time. It is also large enough to escape the groups of tourists at Thai Hoa palace to peacefully navigate your way through the rubble and royal residences, the only sound a fountain in the distance and your own thoughts, lost in a rich daydream of what this place would have looked like before it was scarred by war. Before we left, we climbed up onto the citadel’s walls to look out over the forbidden city, where the Vietnamese flag rippled in the currents of the wind, bright red against a pale grey sky.
We spent the afternoon getting lost and discovering quiet temples, not a tourist in sight, doors slightly ajar and singing voices carried on a soft breeze to where we stood with our bikes. This was in stark contrast to the bustling market place we visited to buy some fruit. It was crammed with people and sold pretty much everything – bright fruit and veg, fish still flopping, glittering fake jewellery, clothes of all patterns, electronics, stationary, DIY…you name it, they had it. Our final stop was Thien Mu Pagoda, a few kilometres cycling, on a hill which overlooks the Perfume River. It has its roots in legend: long ago, an old woman appeared on the hill and prophecised that a great lord would build a Buddhist pagoda for the country’s prosperity. Of course, upon hearing this, the lord of the day ordered the construction of Thien Mu ‘Heavenly Lady’. Many lords have added to the site since, including an impressive 21m-tall octagonal tower, Thap Phuoc Duyen, its seven stories each representing a manushibuddha (Buddha in human form) or step to enlightenment, depending on who you ask. Inside the pagoda, incense swirled and a monk sat quietly chanting and occasionally hitting a bronze gong in meditation.
As we cycled back to the empty sprawling city, it started to rain. It felt almost like we had pedalled through time – from the ancient and spritual to the modern and spiritless. Don’t expect much from the city of Hué itself (apart from its cuisine – fried nem and bun bo hue – if you know where to look) but its rich history and beautiful buildings of the past are certainly something to discover.