The Different Hues of Huế

On a visit to Vietnam's former imperial capital, I discovered a sleepy city full of history that is worth a week's stay, rather than a quick pit stop between Hanoi and Saigon

No more than a mile from the sprawling citadel of Hue, a short ride by cyclo – the four-wheeled pedalled rickshaws ubiquitous to the city – through narrow lanes, past a market, and across a gently curved bridge, lies the home of Phan Thuan An. Accessed through a ornate iron gate, the small one storey home is painted yellow, the colour reserved for royalty, and a clue to the status of the elderly couple that reside within.

As we step from our cyclos, a slight but well-kept man, his shortly cut black hair streaked with grey, and wearing the traditional all-white tunic and loose pants, emerges from the interior. A calming, educated presence, with the unmistakable air of a scholar, Mr Phan is arguably Hue's most learned historian, and is married to the great grand-daughter of Emperor Dong Khan, who ruled over Vietnam in the late 19th century from the nearby Purple Forbidden City. He shakes hands with us firmly, welcomes us to his home, and then tells us of his mission to preserve the past. 

“The heritage found in Hue cannot be matched anywhere else in Vietnam,” begins Phan. “This city is my home, but the history it represents belongs to the entire country.” China ruled Vietnam for some 1,000 years, which, along with other cultural and culinary influences – such as the noodles in the country's famed pho – left a nation that used Chinese characters for their written language. It explains all the Chinese that is found inscribed inside the Purple Forbidden City, the majestic monument to the Ngyuen family, the last emperors of Vietnam, and of which Phan's wife, Nguyen Thi Suong, is a direct descendant. After the Chinese came the French, who created the colony of Indochina in 1887. “Because much of Vietnam's history was recorded in Chinese and French, I learned how to speak, read and write both,” explains Phan.

Born in 1940, Phan came of age with the end of French colonial rule in 1954, although, continuing the long history of foreign involvement, the Europeans' defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, and ignominious departure was followed just seven years later by the arrival of American marines at 'China Beach' in Da Nang, some 100 kilometres to the south of Hue. Once a history teacher, the final victory of Ho Chi Minh's North Vietnamese forces in 1975, and subsequent political pressures, led Phan to switch careers, and devote the rest of his life to preserving the heritage of his hometown.

Phan's house is built in accordance with the ancient Chinese philosophy of feng shui, with the house facing onto a small courtyard and rock garden, while behind is a large pond surrounded by leafy trees, and a small wooden boat to paddle out on, presumably when a little solo contemplation is needed. “When the river floods, we can paddle around the entire garden,” he tells us. Inside, rooms lead off a central foyer dominated by a large shrine, bracketed by tall glass-fronted cabinets packed full of curios. It is from a drawer in one of these that Phan retrieves a stack of weathered photos.

Phan flicks through a few, looking for something, then holds one up, in vivid colour. With a pause for breath, he says, “This was the day the Americans attacked the imperial city. I watched it all happen from here.” In the grainy image, a huge orange explosion looms over one of the main gates into the citadel, as US GIs gather urgently in the foreground. The next image he pulls out is even more jarring: it shows a group of young, khaki-clad, gun-toting American marines huddled close to a radio on what looks like a bomb-destroyed hill, devoid of all vegetation. It immediately makes us recall a battle scenes in one of those '80s Vietnam War movies, but this isn't some remote upcountry patch of jungle accessible only by chopper, this is the heart of Hue being ripped apart. That Phan doesn't share our muted shock – he's already busily opening another cabinet that houses his collection of royal objet d'art – is rather understandable. After all, while the continual pop culture references keep it firmly in the Western eye, the war – perhaps more accurately known in the country as the American War – was more than 40 years ago, and he, and the country, have moved on.

A few days later, I'm walking down the marble-lined corridors of La Residence (now known as Azerai La Residence, Hue, it’s part of famed hotelier Adrien Zecha’s group), a grand art deco-style hotel in Hue once the home of the French governor, on my way to have dinner with the general manager Phan Trong Minh. As the first Vietnamese to ever run the resort, and one of the few local GMs of any five star hotel in Vietnam, he is a uniquely-placed observer. I start by asking him about how Hue approaches its heritage. “Tourism is a double-edged sword,” he says. “Of course you want people to come, but at the same time you must preserve what makes them come in the first place.” While Hoi An, an ancient town a few hours to the south, is packed to the gills, Hue is yet to see such numbers, which seems remarkable given all it has to offer.

Formerly the imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue is home to the Citadel, a vast complex surrounded by a 10 kilometre long moat, and entered through one of 10 gates. At its centre lies the Imperial City, and at the heart of that is the Purple Forbidden City, as the inner sanctum was known, an area that reserved exclusively for the emperor, his concubines, and eunuch servants. Over several decades, the sprawling citadel was expanded to include hundreds of rooms, temples, and living quarters, but all but 10 of the buildings were destroyed in 1961 in the fierce fighting that took place between American and North Vietnamese forces. Today, a number of buildings are slowly being restored, part of an ambitious rebuilding project being funded by the government. 

Meanwhile, scattered in the hillsides surrounding Hue are the imperial tombs, of which the grandest is that of Emperor Minh Mang, a sprawling 44 acre site protected by statues of soldiers and animals including horses and elephants that took more than 20 years to complete. The emperor was buried inside a fenced off hilltop which remains locked to outsiders – it's claimed that no-one knows exactly where his body lies. Then there's the huge cave system in the Phong Nga national park that you can explore by boat, and My Son, a miniature version of Angkor Wat that was the spiritual home of the Champa kingdom for 1,000 years. With its rich history, Hue doesn't lack for attractions, but the GM Phan reveals visitors to the city are usually bused in and out. It's almost as if they visit just to tick it off the bucket list. Been there, done that.

“Our guests stay an average of only 1.2 nights,” explains Phan. “Most of them are on a few weeks tour of the entire country, and so only have time to see the highlights in Hue before they have to get back on the bus and head to the next stop.” Tucking into my entree of banana blossom salad, with smoked duck breast and foie gras ice cream (the inventive Vietnamese head chef is a magician at blending classical French dishes with local ingredients), I comment that it seems a shame that they're in such a rush. After all, would you visit Phuket, Bangkok and Chiang Mai in two weeks and claim to have seen Thailand? Or do the same in China with Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing?

I think back to when I met with the historian Phan Thuan An at his peaceful garden home. After putting away the last of his priceless royal artefacts, he had sat down at an ornate table (“gifted to us by the dowager to the last emperor” ) and opened up another photo album. However, this one showed something rather different. “Here's me at the monument, and here I am in front of the library.” With their grand neo-classical architecture, and his western clothing, it was apparent that these weren't taken in Vietnam. In fact, they were of the Monument and Library of Congress in Washington D.C., which he visited in the 1990s. Beaming, he then pulled out one of his proudest possessions: a snow globe of San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge. I realised that it doesn't matter how long you stay. It's the memories you take home that count.