Phan Thuan An’s Hue

24 Hours in the Age-Old Imperial Capital of Vietnam

The last members of imperial Vietnam’s mandarin class receded from the stage with Bao Dai’s abdication to Ho Chi Minh in 1945, but the spirit of this cultivated class and its dedication to the preservation of monuments and mores, endures still in the timeless city of Hue.
No one, perhaps, embodies the prerogatives of the old mandarin class as profoundly as Phan Thuan An, a 77-year-old scholar who is married to the grand-daughter of a Vietnamese princess and who earned his credentials with a master’s degree in history, conferred in Saigon in 1972.

Historian Phan Thuan An at his house and also the Princess Ngoc Son Worshiping House

Between 1978 and 2004, he worked at the Hue Monuments Conservation Center and helped chart a course for the preservation of one of Southeast Asia’s urban wonders. Who better to steer visitors toward an itinerary for how best to spend 24 Hours in Hue?
3pm — Check In

Check into La Residence Hotel & Spa, a 1930-built art deco palace that was built as the royal governor’s guest house. Completely refurbished in 2005, and complemented by two annexes that look as if they’ve been there from the beginning, the hotel’s sublime setting on the banks of the Perfume River evokes the laid-back appeal of Old Hue. The hotel’s signature restaurant, Le Parfum, is the finest dining venue in the city, and its spa is one of the country’s best. But onward after check-in...

Le Parfum Restaurant

3:30pm — Imperial City

Begin your exploration of Hue’s Imperial City at Ngo Mon (South) Gate, a massive U-shaped brick and stone edifice topped by the airy Five Phoenix Pavilion above. Through this august entrance, an East Asian wonderland of palaces, pavilions and temples beckons. The Nguyen Emperors ruled from a throne in the Palace of Supreme Harmony. They worshiped their predecessor kings in The Mieu Temple. And they celebrated the beauty of their country on nine dynastic urns set before Hien Lam Pavilion. Much of the Imperial City was destroyed by fire in 1947 and by battle in 1968, but much was spared and much has been restored.

Ngo Mon or Noon Gate of the Imperial City

5:30pm — Heavenly Views

Before dinner, ride upstream along the north bank of the Perfume River, or Huong (Fragrance) River as it’s known by locals, to Thien Mu (Heavenly Lady) Pagoda, perhaps the most illustrious pagoda in all Vietnam. The pagoda was founded some time before the Nguyens arrived in the 1500s, but embraced by them and exalted. It commands a high ground above the river, with wondrous views upstream to the mountains and setting sun. Its grounds feature a seven-story stupa, a 2,000-kg bell, a temple populated by dazzling Buddha statues, and one robin’s egg blue Austin sedan that carried one of the 20th Century’s most iconic Buddhist monks to his fiery death on a Saigon Street in 1963.

Thien Mu Pagoda

7pm — Art at Dinner

For dinner, eat in Hue where Anthony Bourdain eats in Hue: Boi Tran’s Garden. This lovely setting outside town is anchored by a nha vuon,  traditional garden house, and another traditional dwelling that Ms. Boi Tran discovered in the northern highlands, dismantled and assembled in her garden. The menu is long on tradition with five spice shrimp, beef soup with green pepper and Boi Tran’s own twist on egg rolls. One of Hue’s most renowned artists, Boi Tran’s Gallery makes for some nice pre- or post-dinner browsing.

7:30am — Eternally Yours

Make an early start to the day with a stop at one of Hue’s most exquisite landscapes, the funereal city of Emperor Tu Duc. Born in 1829, Tu Duc ruled from 1848 until his death in 1883, albeit with an unwelcome guiding French hand from 1858 on. Like his predecessors, he designed for himself and constructed a landscaped eternal city that looks as picturesque as a scene from a Chinese ink painting. The grounds, its buildings, the ponds and the trees are park-like and inspiring. Indeed, so compelling is the space that scenes from the great French film epic, Indochine, were filmed here.

Tu Duc’s Tomb, aka Khiem Lang (Image by Huong Lan)

9am -Thich Nhat Hanh’s Stomping Grounds

Not far from Tu Duc’s Tomb is Tu Hieu Pagoda, one of the most delightful pagodas in Vietnam. Founded in the mid-1800s and funded by eunuchs who worked for the Nguyen Dynasty, the pagoda features a temple, a meditation hall, a cemetery and paths for contemplative walking. Look over your shoulder into the near-distant past, and you’ll see Thich Nhat Hanh, who lived in the pagoda as a boy in the 1940s.

Tu Hieu Pagoda

10:30 — Khai Dinh Tomb

If Tu Duc’s Tomb evokes the grand traditions of East Asia, Khai Dinh’s Tomb is something else altogether. After the penultimate Nguyen Emperor journeyed to France, he returned to Vietnam with an enthusiasm for Western architecture that manifests itself in his eternal city. Long on concrete and wrought iron, Kha Dinh’s tomb is the most imposing in the Nguyen portfolio. Aficionados of dragons will be thrilled, and there is one very good likeness of Khai Dinh, forged in Marseille during a 1922 visit.

Khai Dinh Tomb, aka Ung Lang

12:30 — Garden District Noodles

Journey back to the north side of the river where the garden district of Kim Long offers up several especially good local eateries, including Huyen Anh where the bun thit nuong, is as renowned in Hue’s culinary circles as Thien Mu is among the devout. Hue is perhaps more renowned for its bun bo Hue, but the grilled pork served over cold rice noodles with fresh mint and basil and a peanut sauce is exactly the deep cut to celebrate.

A bowl of Bun Bo Hue