In 1802 when the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty established control over all of Vietnam, Huế became the seat of power and the capital of the nation. It remained so until 1945 when the last emperor abdicated and the capital moved north to Hanoi.
Even though much of the city was damaged or destroyed during the Tet Offensive of the American/Vietnam war, Huế’s dynastic past comes alive with a visit to the vast 19th century Citadel. This enormous complex surrounded by a moat and fortified stone walls includes the Imperial City, numerous gardens, and the Forbidden Purple City.
Outside the city, we toured the tomb of Minh Mang, the second emperor of the dynasty. When we say tomb, we really mean giant complex with numerous temples, buildings, and gardens in addition to the actual tomb.
We also visited the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, another remnant of the Nguyen Dynasty. In addition to its beautiful grounds, bonsai trees, and rock gardens, this temple also houses the car which drove the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức to his self-immolation in Saigon in 1963 to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.
A relic of more recent times, we scootered to an abandoned water park just outside the city. Previously an off-the-beaten-path backpacker hangout spot, this park is now a popular place for tourists to experience an eerie glimpse of a world being reclaimed by nature and for locals to make a buck off all the hype. The park’s centerpiece is a giant dragon, but you can also find old slides, statues, and - if you believe the rumors - the occasional crocodile.
The food throughout Vietnam differs as you travel north to south, and Huế had several unique dishes to try, plus one new Vietnamese beer! While most of the beer in Vietnam comes from either Hanoi or Saigon, Huda is brewed right in Huế and fits right in with the other light (flavorless) Asian beers. To go along with our new beer, we also tried:
- Bún bò Huế: Although we have had bún bò before, the noodle soup from Huế has slightly different ingredients and is spicier than its counterparts. In addition to beef, oxtail, or pork knuckle, this soup sometimes include cubes of congealed pig blood. Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds, and it really just looks (and tastes) like very firm brown tofu.
- Bánh bèo: Rice cakes served in small dishes and topped with ingredients like shrimp, scallions, mung bean paste, and fried shallots with a bit of a fish sauce mixture put on top. Small and tasty, these make a perfect appetizer or snack any time of day!
- Nem lụi: These are sausages skewered onto lemongrass, grilled, and then served with herbs, cucumbers, pickled veggies, chili paste, and a delicious sauce that you roll up into rice paper. Eat, enjoy, and be happily messy.