I’ve learned that when a city is proclaimed as a country’s cultural capital, it usually means it’s cold. True to form, Hue (pronounced h-way) features gray-hued skies, a chilly wind drafting over the river and squat buildings crowding the winding streets.
The Imperial City of Hue is a walled complex of temples, pagodas and extraordinary art: the area within the moat is the most-visited site in the city. You don’t need more than a couple of days in Hue, but it’s worth a stop between Hoi An and Phong Nha Farmstay.
Act like a local at the night market: I snatched up a kiddie-size plastic chair near the woman with a voice like a bulldog, hollering out orders and handing out steaming dishes of noodles covered in beef and gravy. Surrounded by the Vietnamese voices of businesswomen, mothers, vendors–I balanced my bowl and chopsticks on my knees and marveled at how utterly far I was yet how at home I felt.
Visit the Citadel: I wandered around the walled city for hours, completely in awe of each mosaic of porcelain, jewel-toned pagodas, golden-hued temples. Once the political center of Vietnam, American bombs have left the sprawling grounds overgrown with weeds. However, an ambiance of perfect imperfection fills the grounds.
Eat in style: A short walk from the Citadel, Les Jardins de Carambole has recently opened its beautiful doors. Featuring a sunshine-filled patio and balcony, the personable French owner has filled the space with vintage drawings and antique finds. The service is excellent; many of the Vietnamese waitresses take classes during the day to perfect their English or French. The perfect spot for a luxe lunch after exploring the walled city.
Relax on the grass: Huddled in groups on the lawn or cuddling close on a bench, the riverfront park fills up with students and young couples as dark falls. Vendors spill onto the sidewalk, selling hot popcorn dripping with butter, vanilla soft serve cones and artfully-sliced pineapple. Filled with sculptures and palm trees, it’s the perfect spot to rest your feet after a long day of walking.
Get Frenchified: The canard a l’orange at La Carambole is simply divine, a melt-in-your-mouth dish that is delicious from the first whiff to the very last bite. Don’t let the translated-into-three-languages menu (I usually refuse to eat in those restaurants) turn you off: the food is delicious, the service warm and friendly. Owned by a French-Vietnamese couple, it marries the best of both worlds.
Sleep in peace: Located across the street from the popular Hue Backpackers Hostel, the DMZ Hotel offers clean, spacious rooms for roughly the same price of a dorm bed at the hostel. It’s easy to slink into the hostel to make friends, but get a decent sleep with a bit of privacy at the hotel. Bonus: front-desk workers are super helpful!
Note: La Carambole generously offered me a complimentary meal and a pre-opening tour of Les Jardins de la Carambole (ride on the back of a motorbike with the French-speaking owner included), while DMZ Hotel gave me a discount on my room. However, all opinions are my own, and I highly recommend both restaurants and the hotel.