Travel Vietnam

Mixed Fortunes In Hue’s Imperial City, Vietnam

There were three reasons that it appeared as though our visit to Hue to see the Imperial City nearly went down in the history books as a bad luck trip.

1. Rain

2. Rain

3. Rain

But, you might say, that’s all the same reason! Not so, for the effect of that bad luck rain can be expanded as follows.

First it’s the dampness, it gets in your skin and your hair. Under your nails there’s a softness that makes you feel as though you’re made of jelly. Your hair never quite dries, and you’re left in a straggly-headed state waiting for the sun. Then there’s your clothes. They’re wet, can you feel them? They’ve been wet for days now, and without a ceiling fan or any sun to dry them they look to stay that way. They stick more so than usual to your body. It is not that sticking that comes with sweat, it is a cold, clammy stick. Your entire body feels like its swathed in the frigid, dead hands of all those ghosts swirling around you. This is what the rain does.

You’re trapped here now. Outside, the rain has clogged the ground and the drains. It flows into the streets and down to that gurgling brown vein, the Perfume River. When you try and walk in the street your feet slip, your shoes become skates on the slippery pavers, sliding down curbs and into puddles waiting to swallow you. In thongs, every particle of dirt that finds the bottom of your shoe flies towards the back of your calves, wanting to be a part of your journey onwards. The rain consumes us all.

Hue Imperial City, Vietnam

Worlds in Central Vietnam, so open and welcoming for the elements than our Western bubbles, halt to wait for the ceasing of the rain. Shops close because they’re fed up with periodically hauling their wares in off the street. Restaurants made up of garden dining cannot be bothered to continue. Cars avoid the roads, strewn with trees and branches from this typhoon’s angry rage. You walk the streets, hunched in your poncho feeling like a wayward wanderer in an abandoned town. The rain commands stop, and we obey.

Also closed on the first day was the Imperial City… you know, the one that we’ve come to visit. On long car trips and overnight buses Dean has regaled me with the tale of the beautiful Imperial City of Hue, and it’s finally got under my skin. It wants me to be there. It’s daring me to come and visit. The story has all the wonders and wilds of any historical hijinks. There’s a man who proclaimed himself an emperor and built a monumental palace and citadel with a wall and moat measuring 10km around. Within the 2 metre thick walls, the Emperor made a grand kingdom, with palaces for his family, sprawling gardens and of course, the Purple Forbidden City. But all reigns end and the Imperial City saw more than its fair share of damage from fire, cyclones and the Battle of Hue before being made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.
We stand out the front of this monument, the entrance gates like gaping eyes with a stone face, watching the howling wind beat the closure fences against each other. It is a depressing moment. Holding on tight to each other we do one lap of the city, and then fearing death by tree branch, head back home.

Hue Imperial City, Vietnam

This is what assures us that Hue is a good luck trip:

There’s a tiny cafe down the street from our place that serves the sort of food your mum would cook if she was a tiny Vietnamese woman. It’s hearty, heart-warming and delicious. The dishes are tiny, but the food is so good you want to order a few things anyway, and try and get through the whole menu. Plus, it’s cheap like you wouldn’t believe, and when we’re done gorging ourselves on Hue’s best Pho and saliva inducing juices , she delivers perfectly ripe bananas to us just because she can.

We stumble upon a field of military aircraft and vehicles, some sort of outside museum, on our first day trying to get into the Imperial City. To me, it is a series of rusted machines sitting on concrete slabs awaiting their inevitable decay. But for Dean each machine tells a story, each has a purpose and served towards some greater goal, although what exactly he can’t always be sure. There’s no one about, and he runs between the tanks, and guns and planes like a kid in a toy store.

Hue Imperial City, Vietnam

On the third day, when we’re just about done being wet and miserable, the sun comes out. It feels to me like the world suddenly got a fantastic idea, and decided to share it with us. The haze of rainclouds that has hung heavy over our minds clears, and like perfect clarity everything seems to work again, if just for a little while. This is when we make it inside Hue’s Imperial City.

What once was grandeur, stands in effective ruin. Over a hundred buildings once found themselves within the protection of that stone embrace, but now few remain. In the grassy fields, evidence of their foundations sits like a stamp on the earth, a footprint fossilised in the ground. We wander without a guide, or an idea of where we’re going. In the end we aren’t looking to learn all there is about this place, or discover anything in particular. We find ourselves perfectly content with the idea of remaining totally embedded in what our ideas of this kingdom might have been. Between the ruins and the renovations, we come out with our own Imperial fairytale. The stones in the wall hold strong, while everything inside them crumbles and falls into nothing, and soon everything is forgotten. But while it lasts, we walk in the shadow of something that once was great, and try to understand.

Hue Imperial City, Vietnam

This post originally appeared on, the pre-evolved version of Maps And Mandalas. I’ve republished it here with its original date because I love it that much.

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