We first came to Hue (pronounced “hway”) in December 2001, and now we’re back in March 2015. Average December rainfall in Hue is about 14.6 inches, while average March rainfall is 2.4 inches. Thus the difference in our experiences of the two visits is explained. During the first visit we couldn’t wait to get out and away from the constant, cold rain. This trip we encountered a beautiful city along the Perfume River and would have gladly stayed another day or two more if we didn’t already have plans in Hanoi.Hue became the imperial capital of Vietnam in the early 19th century when the first Nguyen emperor, Gia Long, moved the capital from Hanoi to better integrate the northern and southern parts of the realm. It remained the capital until the last emperor, Bao Dai – by then nothing but a figurehead – abdicated in 1945 and the communist government returned the capital to Hanoi. During that 150-year span, emperors built scads of temples, tombs, palaces, and pagodas; most of them were destroyed during the American War, but enough remain to give the city a remarkable and evocative presence.
Much of the historic splendor is to be seen in the tombs emperors built for themselves along the Perfume River, so the best way to see several of them is by hiring a boat and heading upriver, which is what we did. Not much to say about it except a very pleasant few hours plying the Perfume River and walking through mausoleums of the old emperors.
The next day we wandered around the remains of the citadel, the old walled city that included the Imperial Enclosure and Forbidden Purple City that was the center of royal life (not to be confused with the temples and mausoleums down the Perfume River, which were the center of royal death…). One of the most remarkable items in the complex is a car, the car that Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk, drove to a key intersection in Saigon and immolated himself.
It’s probably impossible to overstate the impact his death had on the dawning awareness the world – and Americans in particular – had about the nature of our allies in South Vietnam. As David Halberstam, who had been tipped off that “something” was going to happen at the intersection, later wrote, “I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from ahuman being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think … As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”
Under pressure from the U.S. Government South Vietnamese President Diem claimed the government would pursue negotiations with the Buddhists to ensure their rights. The administration’s real perspective, though, was articulated by Diem’s sister-in-law, the notorious Madame Nhu, who effectively served as the bachelor Diem’s First Lady; she was eager “to clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show.” She probably could have used a better PR advisor; both Diem and her brother would soon be executed in a U.S.-supported coup.
Beyond those tourist activities, food is always high on our list of important activities. While in Hue we stumbled on one of the best Indian restaurants we’ve ever found, had a great lunch in a beautiful colonial French building, and otherwise had a very pleasant couple days in Hue, finally replacing our long-held sense that Hue was a cold, rainy city to be avoided. Now on to Hanoi.