When we arrived in Hue four years ago we knew little about this sleepy provincial capital and I never would have thought one year would turn into three or end with both of us giving up our jobs.
Vietnam, seemingly, has a plethora of more attractive places so what was it about this charming, small city that kept us there for so long? For a start, Hue’s weather is notoriously horrible. Certainly, it’s cheaper than any other major city in Vietnam – indeed, it’s the cheapest place I’ve ever lived in – but that’s not the reason. It is all to do with ‘heart’.
For many tourists Hue is a one- or two-day history stop. And there’s no denying its history is formidable: the former capital of the Kingdom of Vietnam, tombs, pagodas and temples – the birth place of kings. Yet tourism hasn’t reached the heights in Hue it has in Hoi An and other parts of Vietnam. In fact, outside of the small ‘tourist strip’ and around the Citadel remarkably few tourists can be seen.
Hue is a must-see walk back in time. It feels as if it has been appointed custodian of the timeworn traditions that may be vanishing elsewhere in Vietnam. And, because it possesses a singular, innocent spirit, unassuming Hue may well be the place that takes your heart as it took mine.
Between 1802 and 1945 the Nguyen Dynasty left a legacy in all walks of life, from fashion to music, from food to education. At its height 80 dishes were cooked for the king each night; on special occasions it was over 200. Clearly competition was fierce and what survived was pretty special.
But when I think of Hue, it’s the people’s essential life-force that springs to mind, not the ornately presented food or its music or the imposing Citadel fortress. Nor is it the ironically named Perfume River flagged by vast emerald pastures of open park land that divides the city North /South; it’s unquestionably the uplifting wash of Buddhism over the people.
In Hue it is common to see Buddhist monks and nuns with their brown cloaks and shaved heads in shops, on bikes and in restaurants and the steady beat of gongs and intoned chants regularly float gently in the air evoking peace and kindness.
Not surprisingly, vegetarian restaurants are scattered all over to serve the locals and on special days its standing room only. From the thatched, picturesque and ridiculously cheap Lien Hoa restaurant, run by monks on Le Quy Dong, to the glorious Tinh Gia Vien or the Park View Hotel restaurant with its plain motel-like ambience the vegetarian food is the best I’ve tasted. Even the ex-pat community has more vegetarians than anywhere else.
The absence of road rage in Hue is testament to the tolerance of the people. Not for the faint-hearted, Hue’s traffic comes in all directions at every imaginable angle and near collisions are frequent yet no-one gets upset.
Apart from their Buddhism there is a country friendliness in Hue.
Venture out of the small tourist strip and you’ll find few people speak English. Children and adults wave, smiling at you in the street practising their two lines of English: ‘What’s your name? How are you?’. They haven’t been spoilt by too much exposure to the West yet and there appear to be few ulterior motives (the hustlers of Dong Ba market aside). Family values are paramount, open smiles the norm, and an invasive curiosity (or so it seems initially) eventually wins you over with its innocent and genuine interest and warmth.