I spent a couple of nights in the pleasant town of Hue, traditionally a cultural center of Vietnam. Hue was the national capital from the 19th century, until 1945 when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated to the Communists. In the sixties the city was a major site of the Tet Offensive, a series of bloody battles sprung on the south by northern forces. During this time many of Hue’s historical sites were destroyed or damaged, and until the nineties they were viewed as politically incorrect by the Communist regime. Today they constitute a Unesco World Heritage site.

The city is small and walkable, but I decided to take a bicycle to explore the area surrounding the old Citadel in the north bank. Wandering the alleys I met several nice families, the first warmth I felt in two weeks of traveling within the country. By and large I have found the Vietnamese to be rude, gruff and borderline contemptuous towards westerners; not so here. One man was all too happy to welcome me into his living room to show me carvings he makes; despite my not buying anything from him, his family was all smiles. Further along, a nuoc mia lady laughingly asked if I was interested in her daughters as she pressed sugar cane juice into a plastic bag for me. That is not to say that everyone in town was my new best friend.. it was just a relief to find out that not all of Vietnam has a chip on its shoulder.

I explored the enormous Citadel in town, a massive complex with a 10km perimeter wall. Within are buildings where various imperial functions and court ceremonies took place, as well as the Forbidden Purple City reserved for the emperor’s personal use. Unlike Beijing’s Forbidden City, there is not much to see here, as it was mostly destroyed in 1968. Rather, the vast palatial grounds are now overgrown with vegetable plots; I wasn’t kidding when I said that not an inch of empty space goes to waste in this country.

Hiring a motorbike, I took a ride around town, visiting the Thien Mu Pagoda, described by the guidebook as a “hotbed of antigovernment protest during the early 1960s”. Indeed, in addition to the typical religious sanctuary edifices, on the pagoda’s grounds is the car that monk Thich Quang Duc traveled to Saigon in for his famous self-immolation. He and others burned themselves in protest of the government’s anti-Buddhist policies, prompting Madame Nhu, the president’s sister-in-law, to proclaim the event a barbecue.

Numerous imperial tombs lay scattered around Hue. I visited that of Tu Duc, for use as a retreat during his life as well as after death, surrounded by a ginormous octagonal wall. The grounds are home to a lake, forest, pavilions, hunting grounds and of course the royal sepulchres, though it is unclear whether or not Tu Duc was actually buried inside. Not sure what I would do given with all this space; well, I suppose I’d have kept a concubine in each building complex and tended to the lily ponds till I died, like a good emperor.

Hue was definitely fun for a couple of days, offering relaxing outdoor beer opportunities in addition to the various historical sites. But I was on my way up to bigger things in the North, and eagerly caught a sleeper bus to Hanoi.

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