Hué and around

Hué, a gracious imperial city that housed generations of the country's most powerful emperors, was built on the banks of the Huong Giang (Perfume River), 100 km south of the 17th parallel. The river is named after a scented shrub that is supposed to grow at its source.

In many respects, Hué epitomizes the best of Vietnam and, in a country that is rapidly disappearing under concrete, it represents a link to a past where people live in old buildings and don't lock their doors. Whether it is because of the royal heritage or the city's Buddhist tradition, the people of Hué are the gentlest in the country. They speak good English and drive their motorbikes more carefully than anyone else.

Hué was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty, which ruled Vietnam between 1802 and 1945. For the first time in Vietnamese history a single court controlled the land from Yunnan (southern China) southwards to the Gulf of Siam. To link the north and south (more than 1500 km), the Nguyen emperors built and maintained the Mandarin Road (Quan Lo), interspersed with relay stations. Even in 1802, when it was not yet complete, it took couriers just 13 days to travel between Hué and Ho Chi Minh City, and five days between Hué and Hanoi. If they arrived more than two days late, couriers were punished with a flogging. There cannot have been a better road in Southeast Asia nor a more effective incentive system.

Although the Confucian bureaucracy and some of the dynasty's technical achievements may have been remarkable, there was continued discontent and uprisings. Court was packed with scheming mandarins, princesses, eunuchs and scholars.

In 1883 a French fleet assembled at the mouth of the Perfume River and opened fire. After taking heavy casualties, Emperor Hiep Hoa sued for peace and signed a treaty making Vietnam a protectorate of France. As French influence over Vietnam increased, the power and influence of the Nguyen waned. The undermining effect of the French presence was compounded by significant schisms in Vietnamese society. In particular, the spread of Christianity was undermining traditional hierarchies. Although the French and then the Japanese found it to their advantage to maintain the framework of Vietnamese imperial rule, the system became hollow and, eventually, irrelevant. The last Nguyen Emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated on 30 August 1945.

During the 1968 Tet offensive, Viet Cong soldiers holed up in Hué's Citadel for 25 days. The bombardment which ensued, as US troops attempted to root them out, caused extensive damage to the Thai Hoa Palace and other monuments. During their occupation of Hué, the NVA forces settled old scores, shooting, beheading and even burning alive 3000 people, including civil servants, police officers and anyone connected with, or suspected of being sympathetic to, the government in Ho Chi Minh City.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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