There has been a river port on the Perfume, just a few miles inland of the Pacific, at least since the early 14th century. The unpredictable river has intertwined for 650 years with Nguyen dynastic intrigue to inexorably shape the modern city. Hue exudes a less frenetic pace than Hanoi – although the cyclo and tourist boat drivers are just as “persistent.” It’s a city with an attitude: “I’ve seen it all before, several times, so let’s move on.” Besides, the river moves on regardless fertilizing the farms, and frequently cresting its banks creating destructive floods even the Imperial City cannot defend against.
A four day visit is not sufficient to prove, but I have a hunch that Hue has not rediscovered its role in 21st century Vietnam – and I’m not sure they’re all that concerned. In the old commercial city on the south bank of the Perfume, Hue is still a maze of narrow streets but with few pre-1970 buildings. Many charmless new narrow 5 to 6 story hotels and condos are classically jumbled along with cafes, shoe shops, clothing stores, spas and the postcard vendor. Only a few shops noticeably cater just to tourists. Perhaps that’s because most sites for visitors are outside the city or on the north bank, such as The Imperial City.
Nearly equidistance between Hanoi and Saigon, Hue has been a meeting ground of the nation’s great cultural institutions. Confucian and Chinese Buddhist Vietnam in the north blended with Khmer/Champa Buddhism from the south and both have dealt with the French legacy of Roman Catholicism. Yet even under the Confucian Court of the Nguyen emperors, and the Socialist Republic, Hue’s mascot has been the 1602 Buddhist Thien Mu Pagoda. As in all Vietnamese cities, both Confucian and Buddhist temples built through family patronage, to publicly honor ancestors, can be found tucked away on many streets.
It is convenient to walk along the landscaped river park on both banks of the Perfume River and cross either one of two bridges that connect the Imperial City with downtown. “Convenient” as long as being comfortable with the traffic, the lack of crossing lights, stop signs and constantly being asked if you want to ride a cyclo or buy something. Otherwise, metered taxis are common and inexpensive – a couple of dollars between the Imperial City and any downtown hotel. Excursions to the Imperial Tombs and boat trips on the Perfume River – both highly recommended – should be made through your hotel (more likely to get a better boat at a fair price). I prefer the freedom of not traveling with groups. A private car and driver for a four hour excursion to some of the more remote tombs was US$30. A private dragon boat for a 7 hour trip on the Perfume River stopping at tombs, monasteries and a Garden House was US$20. Rates are less if you join a group.
Hue has several luxury hotels including the newly restored venerable Hotel Morin Saigon (1904) starting at $100/double. Although featuring the comforts of a 5-star hotel with an attractive pool/garden/cafe courtyard, it possess all the sterility that goes along with such venues. There are many excellent small hotels offering much better service than their 3-stars would indicate. Although at a rate that would make most Western tourists think twice, the US$35/double per night including buffet breakfast Orchid Hotel on Chu Van An Street in the Old City was not only the best hotel at that price in which I have ever been a guest, but a fine hotel by any standard.
Clean, modern with a staff that would never even let you push the elevator button, the Orchid’s rooms were large providing ample closets, a spacious bathroom and a desk with a high-speed desktop computer included in each room! Hue traditionally is known for its Imperial Cuisine which, unfortunately, I found in few restaurants. The Orchid only serves breakfast offering an excellent selection of items typical of Hue – chicken balls rolled in flaked green rice, fried rolls stuffed with vegetable/meat mixtures, banana pastry with caramel sauce and an incomparable Beef Pho, the Vietnamese breakfast noodle soup. A large selection of fresh fruit – including tropical varieties such as whole passion fruit – baguettes and Western dishes rounded out the buffet.
Many decent restaurants are found in the Old City all within easy walking distance of most hotels. Confetti Restaurant & Art Gallery and the Tropical Garden, both on Chu Van An Street, offer well prepared standard Vietnamese food in pleasant surroundings just like the majority of the area’s venues that are patronized by tourists. Yet there are lots of small places filled only with locals with menus not written in English, but, I’ll be blunt, the sanitation methods I can see frequently make me dubious. Getting a recommendation from your hotel for local restaurants is a must or else I’d never have eaten dinner at Am Phu Restaurant a bit further down Chu Van An Street. A calamari dish with greens, peppers and cilantro and light, moist coconut batter fried shrimp were as fine as in any dining room except I was sitting on a plastic chair under fluorescent lights with a TV soap opera playing. Dinner for 2 with beer was less than US$10.
Pastry, towel art and Swan boats on the Perfume River, shade trees and gardens, ancient tombs and palaces, markets and street merchants, mountains and house boats – they were all here 500 years ago and, despite the history Hue’s helped shaped, they’re still here today waiting to be rediscovered.