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Hue, Vietnam’s old imperial capital, is best seen from a cyclo, swerving in and out of traffic, stopping abruptly at intersections but always giving you a ground-level view of this beautiful old city. It also helps to have a fearless driver.
That’s how I was traveling as I headed toward the Citadel on the north side of the Perfume River, a one-and-a-half square mile collection of palaces, pavilions, temples, gardens and gates. All are contained within a high, thick wall that is crumbling in some areas and still shows pockmarks from the famous battle between U.S. forces and the Vietcong in 1968.
The Citadel encompasses the Forbidden Purple City and the Imperial City. It was built by the rulers of the Nguyen dynasty, which lasted from 1802 until 1945 when the last Nguyen king, Bao Dai, was forced to abdicate.
Today, the Citadel, much of which was destroyed in a fire in 1947, is undergoing a massive restoration, and although it probably will never regain its former glory, it will be a magnet for history buffs who want to marvel at a bygone era of kings and princes and Asian royalty.
The early Nguyen kings were heavily influenced by China’s Ming dynasty, and the Forbidden Purple City was laid out like a miniature version of Beijing’s Forbidden City. The first Nguyen ruler Gia Long boasted of conscripting 30,000 of his subjects to work on the complex when construction began in 1804.
In 1885 the French, who took over the country three years later, established an enclave on the south side of the Perfume River. Today, that’s where most of the moderately-priced hotels are located, including the Saigon Morin Hotel, which hosted Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard on their honeymoon in 1936.
On a recent trip, I stayed at the La Residence hotel, which was once the French governor’s mansion. It was refurbished by the Apple Tree Group in 2005 but has lost none of its colonial charm. It’s in the shape of a big white boat, with nautical flourishes throughout.
The lobby bar is art deco, which reflects the “moderne” school of architecture prevalent at the time. Throughout the hotel, the lighting is subdued and the dark wood floors in the public spaces. All that’s missing is Cole Porter at the piano.
No trip to Hue is complete without a tour of some of the Ngyuen tombs, the mausoleums of the Nguyen dynasty kings and grandiose temple complexes. One, the tomb of Tu Duc, was used for scenes in the 1992 French movie “Indochine” with Catherine Denueve.
On my last night, I visited the An Dinh Palace, which was not really a palace in the true sense but a large house that was built for Bao Dai when he was still a prince-in-waiting. After his abdication, his mother was allowed to live there until her death in 1980 at age 91. Today, guests at La Residence can arrange to have drinks and even a barbecue at the house.