Searching for serenity in the city of Hue

Between frazzled expats trying to balance work and the stresses of life in a tropical country and visitors looking to cram an impossibly long list of must-sees into a three-week itinerary, Vietnam is not exactly known as a restful destination.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Hue where nearly 4 million tourists last year likely spent just a day in the former imperial city, visiting the Citadel and the royal tombs on a blur of guided tours. While international visitors spent an average of USD102 per night in Vietnam according to a 2014 survey, those who visited Hue spent the least of anywhere, coming in at just over USD75, with many opting to skip on to nearby Danang or Hoi An instead.

In this city dismissed by so many as only deserving of a harried day trip with no time to stop, I embark on a mission to discover rest in all its forms.

I begin by setting out to the royal tombs, the site of eternal rest for the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. On a steaming hot morning, we find ourselves driving by the gleaming white buses parked in front of the Khai Dinh Tomb disgorging their throngs of equally white-headed sheeple. However, I’m not drawn to the bling of the Khai Dinh Tomb or even the grandeur of the Minh Mang Tomb, well-worn stops on the “Hue in a Day” itinerary. Instead, we continue into the Hue countryside to a tomb that’s distinctly different from the others and rarely visited by tourists or even locals. Switchbacks and little-used roads lead us past landscapes made up of so many shades of green they could fill their own special-edition Crayola box – neat rows of pickle-colored peanut plants, fields of young rice so vividly emerald they almost hurt our eyes to look at, backed by the unexpected darker greens of pine forests blanketing the hillsides.

Hue - Khai Dinh Tomb - Image by James Pham-12

Khai Dinh Tomb

Some 20 kms from Hue, we find ourselves at the tomb of Gia Long, founder of the Nguyen dynasty. Being the farthest tomb from the city means it’s well off the beaten path. There’s not even a ticket booth, only a sleepy guard who rouses himself from mid-day lethargy, giddy to have someone to talk to other than the stone statues that line the courtyard. He prattles on goodnaturedly  as we wander the beautifully restored tomb, its yellow glazed tiles and red wooden doors reminiscent of Beijing’s Forbidden City writ small. Aside from the simple, well-kept collection of buildings, the serenity of the grounds is equally captivating. In place of stone walls, the tomb is surrounded by 42 hills, each with its own name. Stone horses and elephants overlook a gigantic lotus pond. We’re the only ones here, the only ones to hear the whispers of history echoing amidst the old pines.

However, if the Tomb of Gia Long whispers with refreshing simplicity, the Tomb of Khai Dinh absolutely screams with opulence. On the way back to Hue, we stop in at this memorial to the flamboyant emperor cum designer. Only a handful of visitors are around, the tour groups no doubt halfway through the soup course of their set lunches. We gawk at this ostentatious mix of glass and ceramic-adorned walls, moody painted ceilings featuring fearsome dragons and swirling clouds, and materials imported from France including a golden effigy of the king. Apparently, an abundance of glitter is required for sweet dreams in the afterlife.

Hue - Gia Long Tomb - Image by James Pham-17

On the grounds of the Gia Long Tomb

Proving what’s good for the king is also good for the people, the coastal community of An Bang has been putting together its own collection of over-the-top tombs. In the tumultuous years after the war, the fishermen here found themselves with an unexpectedly valuable resource—seaworthy boats capable of making it to Hong Kong and on to a life overseas. It’s said that half of the village was able to make it abroad and by the mid-90s, money started pouring back to the relatives left behind. We notice the houses in the village are nicer than average, multistory with gleaming tile and brick facades, some with granite or marble pillars. But it’s in the “ghost city” beyond where the ancestors slumber in sumptuousness.

As far as the eye can see, the villagers have erected grandiose monuments to the dead, pouring tens of thousands of dollars into elaborately mosaiced tombs. We meander along the quiet, sandy lanes amongst the raucously colorful mansions, and stumble upon a new one being built. Bankrolled by family in Chicago and Miami with a price tag rumored into the mid-six figures, it’s definitely very exclusive. Everyone’s dying to get in.

While the 250-hectare ghost city is impressive, I’m more interested in luxury for the living and continue down the coast to Angsana Lang Co, a gorgeous 222-room beach resort tucked away on its own little bay together with sister property, Banyan Tree Lang Co with its ritzy villas set on a hill, and the 18-hole, Nick Faldo-designed Laguna Golf Lang Co. The sea brought salvation to the fishermen of An Bang and I’m hoping it can do the same for me.

Hue - Angsana Lang Co - Rice Bowl & Lounge - Image by James Pham-33

The next few days are spent decompressing, sleeping the sleep of the dead lulled by waves crashing onto the golden sand, indulging in a heavenly spa treatment, sipping cocktails by the massive freeform pool that snakes itself around the grounds or just lazing by the plunge pool of my room with a balcony overlooking the East Sea on one side and windows on the other with views out to the mountains.

Instead of my watch, I mark the time with the passing of the sun interspersed by hunger pangs waiting to be satiated. Mornings are spent at the Marketplace, leisurely nibbling away at a beautiful breakfast spread highlighted by too many kinds of freshly squeezed juices to count and heaping portions of smoked salmon and bagels with fresh cream cheese. Late lunches are taken at Moomba, gazing at the perfect crescent beach through floor-to-ceiling windows. I get my dose of Vitamin Sea with an appetizer of chargrilled salt and chili squid, the tender squid an ideal vehicle to carry the simple yet bold flavors, tempered by a mountain of fresh greens and a squeeze of lime that together tastes like the ocean. A main of sea bass in a sweet, thick, almost Thai-like peanut sauce follows, all washed down with a tropical orange-mango smoothie. Because calories on holiday don’t count, I indulge in a ball of deep-fried vanilla ice cream, drizzled with caramel sauce and topped with slices of almond, a celebration to summer. Another night, it’s dinner at Rice Bowl, a stylishly atmospheric space where tables are intimately sectioned off with what looks like giant wooden fish traps, a local design element that runs throughout the property. The food here is sophisticated Pan-Asian and I hop from a beautifully plated dragon maki to a meaty Korean galbi-gui yangnyeom, soymarinated grilled beef ribs with kimchi.

I vow to work off the decadent meals with activities from the resort’s densely-packed summer schedule, but ultimately end up eschewing archery, table tennis and water sports in favor of something more languid in my quest for rest. One morning is spent in the beautiful organic garden, getting my hands dirty in the shadow of the misty mountains behind us, planting herbs and plucking weeds to feed the menagerie of ducks, chickens and goats housed in a nearby pen. Another late afternoon is spent on an excursion to the Lap An Lagoon, known for farming juicy oysters just this side of the Hai Van Pass. A passing drizzle only adds drama to the clouds that hover over the mountain backdrop and clears the brackish air.

Hue - Angsana Lang Co - Lap An Lagoon - Image by James Pham-30

Lap An Lagoon

I continue my peace-seeking mission back in Hue, at the aptly named “House of Peace”. Of the many “garden houses” built along the banks of the Perfume River for royalty and mandarins, An Hien is the best preserved. Originally constructed in 1885 for one of the daughters of King Duc Duc, the home and surrounding grounds are a marriage of the spiritual and material. We enter under a tunnel of interlaced white apricot trees to find ourselves in front of a reflecting pool filled with coralcolored lilies. The original house is wooden, completely devoid of concrete or steel in its construction. There’s no one about save for a caretaker and we walk around admiring the intricately carved joints and paneled doors that open up to allow the river breezes in. Strolling the grounds filled with fruit trees and flowering shrubs, it’s not hard to imagine the restful home life of a court official from a bygone era.

Hue - An Hien Garden House - Image by James Pham-2

An Hien Garden House

However, thanks to a serendipitous introduction, I find myself hearing first-hand what life in the royal court was like. At an embroidery shop downtown, I meet 90-year-old Mr. Le Van Kinh. Dressed in a crisply pressed pair of handsome pajamas, Mr. Kinh leads us to his upstairs study where he talks about being raised in the court by his grandfather, a high-ranking mandarin under King Khai Dinh. From the age of 4-10, Mr. Kinh’s life centered around learning royal embroidery and Chinese characters as well as watching his grandfather perform elaborate tea ceremonies every morning. He chuckles as he remembers going to school with the “not so clever” son of Bao Dai, the last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, and becomes nostalgic as he shows us a copper pot used to hold burning embers for keeping water hot. His collection of artifacts from the palace includes a 500-year-old tea set and other priceless treasures. “Things were gentle and quiet in those days” he recalls amongst embroidered artwork showing scholars bent over calligraphy parchment and other memories of the palace.

Hue - Le Van Kinh - Image by James Pham-11

Le Van Kinh

Even now, Hue’s tranquility continues to inspire artists. In a studio behind his cafe in the Citadel, I meet up with visual artist Tran Tuan. Growing up in Hue, the site of fierce fighting during the war, Tuan has turned his unpleasant childhood memories into art. He’s finishing up with what looks like kitchen utensils bizarrely attached to a finger, the last few pieces in his acclaimed series “Forefinger”. Seeing my quizzical look, he explains: “The forefinger represents power. You can use it to command someone to do something. It’s also the trigger finger. Some people of that generation chose to cut off the tip of their forefinger to avoid war. In times past, we were told that we were fighting for democracy or independence, but we really weren’t. My series shows that the absence of the finger affirms the presence of the greater fight for peace.”

Peaceful Hue “is a good place to create,” he continues. “While we’re far from the arts scene in Saigon and Hanoi, there’s a rich cultural history. Life is simple here. You can work for a month and earn enough to pay your basic expenses for the whole year with time to read books, hang out with other artists and think. The slow pace of life is good for artists.”

While Hue’s unchanging nature might be good for artists, it’s been seen as bad for business. Ever since the Complex of Hue Monuments was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, few attractions have been added to keep tourists around. One exception was the ill-fated Ho Thuy Tien Water Park. Opened in 2004, the USD 3 million park with waterslides and an aquarium was a hit with the locals. “We finally had somewhere to hang out,” remembers Lan. “Our whole class would go camping there on holidays.” But the park was never completed and was plagued with problems. “There wasn’t enough to do and lake was just too big. There were no lifeguards and every year, some kid would fall in the water and drown.” Abandoned after just a few years, the park now sits empty. We find a way by the guards, and wander around the post-apocalyptic grounds in an eerie yet peaceful silence. Seeing the man-made structures slowly being reclaimed by the forest after almost a decade, I’m reminded of the First Law of Motion which dictates that a body at rest is destined to remain at rest.

Hue - Thuy Tien Water Park - Image by James Pham-3

Thuy Tien Water Park

Continuing in my own search for rest, I head 30 kms north to Hue’s newest attraction, the luxe Alba Wellness Resort built around natural hot springs at the foot of the Truong Son mountain range. Espousing a holistic wellness approach, one of the co-owners likens a stay to shutting down and rebooting. It’s an apt analogy and I start thinking how amazing it would be to defrag my own life, stopping even if for a little while the endless spinning of my mind, taking all the bits of my life which seem out of place, and putting them back in some kind of order.

Hue - Alba Wellness Resort - Hot springs - Image by Alba Wellness Resort

hot springs (Image by Alba Wellness Resort)

To that end, I settle into a surprisingly easy routine of healthy living, riding a bicycle from my ginormous bungalow done up in chic stone and bamboo all around the spacious grounds, past lotus ponds, Japanese bridges and gurgling water features. Meals feature healthy, sophisticated versions of Vietnamese and international favorites, including a plethora of fruit and nuts and a delicious brown rice congee at the huge buffet breakfast. Multi-course set meals recall wholesome versions of the fussy cuisine of the Hue lords with dishes like grilled Australian beef, sea bass ceviche, homemade spicy tomato soup and beet tops with mam ruoc dipping sauce, a Hue specialty made of fermented fish featuring lovely umami flavors rarely seen even in Saigon.

Hue - Alba Wellness Resort - Image by James Pham-37

I spend mornings being active— ziplining over the forest on Vietnam’s longest free-hanging continuous zipline, swimming in the pool or touring the resort’s own organic garden in the mountains where ducks are raised for eggs, stalks of lemongrass get trimmed into straws and deer and wild boar supply natural fertilizer for the impressive array of vegetables.

Hue - Alba Wellness Resort - Indoor onsen - Image by Alba Wellness Resort

Indoor onsen (Image by Alba Wellness Resort)

Afternoons, however, are pure bliss—soaking in rock pools of varying temperatures fed by the hot springs, getting a massage or luxuriating in the onsen, a 7-step process involving indoor pools filled with mineral water, steam and sauna followed by a cold plunge and a scenic, private outdoor hot spring.

By the end, I become Newton’s First Law. I am finally a body at rest.

IF YOU GO…
Alba Wellness Resort (www.albawellness.com) is comprised of 56 rooms and bungalows surrounded by tropical forests, lakes, gardens and tranquil bamboo paths. Rooms start at USD225 and bungalows start at USD 350, including breakfast and access to the hot springs and indoor/ outdoor onsen.

With the Truong Son mountain range on one side and the sea on the other, Angsana Lang Co (www. angsana.com) is the ideal summer destination one hour from Hue or Danang. Select from 222 rooms and suites, with doubles starting at USD 184, including breakfast, daily activities and non-motorized water sports.

Hue - Angsana Lăng Cô_Seaview Junior Pool Suite - Image by Angsana Lang Co

Seaview Junior Pool Suite (Image by Angsana Lang Co)

I visited the An Bang Ghost City with a guide from Khiri Travel (www. khiri.com). Khiri offers intimate, personalized travel experiences in Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) and caters to any desire at any budget.

Hue - An Bang Ghost City - Image by James Pham-12

An Bang Ghost City

Hue - An Bang Ghost City - Image by James Pham-17

An Bang Ghost City

I visited several garden houses with Trails of Indochina (www.trailsofindochina.com) including An Hien, the garden house of Princess Ngoc Son and a recreated garden house, some of which offer home-hosted lunches on-site. Trails of Indochina organizes set and bespoke itineraries in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Visit Mr. Kinh’s embroidery gallery Duc Thanh at 82 Phan Dang Luu. If he takes a shine to you, he just might invite you upstairs for tea. Have a coffee at Then Cafe (63 Le Trung Dinh), owned by artist Tran Tuan. The cozy cafe doubles as a gallery and coworking space for local artists.

Hue - Tran Tuan - Image by James Pham-2

Tran Tuan

The Ho Thuy Tien Water Park is on the way to the Tomb of Khai Dinh. You can find the lake on Google Maps. Turn off at the sign for “Nha Hang Sinh Thai” to approach the park from the back, with closer access to the amphitheater and the waterslides.

Images by James Pham