Of all the cities on our itinerary I was looking forward to Hue the least. It kind of felt like planning a holiday in Hamilton.* On the surface it's not an entirely unfair comparison - Hue is intersected by a large river and ... well that's probably it. Anyway, there is nothing better than a city that exceeds expectations and given that ours weren't that high to start with, Hue certainly did that.
Our trip began with a sobering drive through the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), a 5km strip of land on either side of the Ben Hai River. Call me naive but I'd always assumed a Demilitarized zone to be a bit like Switzerland - a peaceful buffer zone. Not so - the DMZ and nearby areas experienced some of the most intense fighting of the American/Vietnam war. We had experienced some of this in our jungle trek with Hai - where we came across bomb craters and bullets, and where we learned that the areas around Phong Nha Kebang were still heavily infested with unexploded ordnance, which has killed over 40,000 Vietnamese since the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Why just a quick visit? Well - our kids were too scared to spend much time underground, and at 40 degrees, we were too hot to spend much time above it. (I'll also admit to having to rush through things due to a slightly dodgy tummy from the previous day's eco tour. It seems I have yet to master the art of doing a cannonball into the river whilst keeping my mouth shut. Believe me, swallowing a bucketful of jungle water before a long car trip is not that much fun.**)
Another couple of museums and about 4 hours later and we hit the big town - Hue. And the kids' reward for a days worth of visiting museums in the blistering heat? The flashest hotel we've stayed at so far, complete with rooftop pool, air conditioning and restaurant.
So why did we like Hue? Mostly it was like a cruisier version of Hanoi, with enough shops to be interesting, lots of nice parks, fantastic restaurants, street tailors and lots of character buildings, but without all the people or motorbikes or pushy street vendors. I was also able to get a couple of inexpensive cotton dresses made in less than half a day - trust me, when you are unaccustomed to the type of heat and humidity we encountered in Hue, being able to change from drill shorts into a light cotton dress was brilliant (not to mention the fact that I always felt so under-dressed when compared to the beautifully groomed Vietnamese women).
Our time in Hue was extra special for the kids as we managed to hit it right on festival time, when the city was lit up all beautifully and parades of people and dragons wandered the streets at dinner time. At least Dylan could pat these guys without fear of rabies.
The real reason we visited Hue, though, was to see the Citadel. The Citadel is a massive walled fortress in the centre of the city, and was the political, cultural and religious centre of the Nguyen Dynasty, the last royal dynasty of Vietnamese history, from 1802 to 1945.
Much of the citadel was destroyed by American bombs in 1968, but the parts that were left were incredible and intact enough to help us imagine what life in the Citadel must have been like.
Finally - one last reason to love Hue - it brought the most magnificent thunderstorm which managed to break the heatwave. Goodbye horrible 40, hello lovely 30 degrees.
Hue - information
Where we stayed: Midtown Hotel. NZD$214 (US$144) for two rooms, two nights including breakfast (later voted "best breakfast of the whole trip").
Food highlights: Les Jardins de La Carambole, Elegant restaurant
Sightseeing: Hue Imperial City (the Citadel).
*Sorry Hamilton. We know you're the only true city of the future. Or fountains. Or something.