Vietnam’s Hue Citadel and a cruise on the Perfume River

THE ancient citadel of Hue was once capital of the Nguyen dynasty but what remains of the Forbidden Purple City now sits quietly in its peaceful, grass-grown garden, surrounded by a nearly million-strong Vietnamese city.

Hue citadel

Hue citadel. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

Hue’s monuments are a battle-scarred Unesco World Heritage site after fierce battles during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Bullet holes punctuate tumbled down stone buildings.

Some slow restoration has taken place in the walled citadel and the fantastical enamelled creatures decorating the roofs of temples and residences give an impression of how glorious it once must have been.

From Hue I took a small boat cruise up the fabled Perfume River. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is brown and far from perfumed but leaving the busy Asian city behind and floating slowly up the forest-lined waterway is a retreat into paradise.

Perfume river boat cruise

Perfume river boat cruise. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

That was the idea for the Nguyen lords anyway. These feudal warrior kings held sway from the 17th to the 19th century but Hue continued as capital right through until the communist government was set up in Ha Noi in 1945.

The tombs of emperors are set beside the river – elaborate constructions with what must have once been exquisite formal gardens.

At Tu Duc a poet king spent his time enjoying the beautiful park and lakes, communing with nature and writing in what would eventually be his mausoleum.

Tu Duc mausoleum and gardens

Tu Duc mausoleum and gardens. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

A village of 104 wives and concubines perhaps added to his desire to escape the pressures of court life in Hue.

The tall Thien Mu pagoda on the riverbank is the official symbol of Hue but was a Buddhist centre of anti-government protest in the 1960s. The Saigon regime imposed restrictions on Buddhist and Catholic Vietnamese.

You can see here the powder-blue Austin in which monk Thich Quang Duc travelled from here to Saigon in 1963 to practise self-immolation as part of this protest movement.

Outside the gates, a flock of young women pass by on bicycles, each wearing a pristine white ao dai. People stop to buy banana leaf wrapped packages of sticky rice; stop to gossip and then walk back into their shops clutching bowls of noodle soup. Work and life in Vietnam carries on regardless of history and politics.

Nguyen Lords in the Hue Citadel

Nguyen Lords in the Hue Citadel. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.