You really need to know three things about La Residence, the best place to stay in the history-packed Vietnamese city of Hue. First, it’s beautiful. An art-deco mansion set on the banks of the Perfume River, it used to be the French governor’s residence, and from the wraparound terrace of the Globetrotting Guy’s room, there was a terrific view of the palace where Vietnam’s emperors used to live. Second, the massages are good, and they are cheap; my hour of bliss cost about $35. Third, the cocktails are good, and they are cheap; a gin fizz came in at under five bucks.
You will not find any of these good things beyond the whitewashed walls of La Residence, which is not to say that you shouldn’t venture outside. Really, you’d be a fool not to, because those emperors really did up Hue when they reigned here back in the 19th century. The grounds of the imperial palace are looking a little ramshackle these days—some people call it a poor man’s Forbidden City, because it echoes the spectacular complex that housed the Chinese emperors in Beijing. There are oasis-like courtyards with lily-filled ponds and tile-roofed pavilions, and there are restored colonnades with bright-red columns and richly painted detailing. (Take a taxi to the imperial tombs outside of town and you will see more architectural variety—some of the palaces they built for the dead seem grander than those for the living.) Nowhere will you see many tourists.
But Hue also will give you frequent reminders that, beyond the hot and oppressively humid weather, this is a real developing country. It is not some sanitized, Disneyfied version all cleaned up for germaphobic Western tourists. On the plus side, that means souvenirs like the conical hats still worn by many Vietnamese; in Hue’s bustling riverside market, they cost about $1.50, and we didn’t have the heart to bargain that price down. In that same market, we were told, you can also sample some of the finest street food in Vietnam. I say “we were told,” because we didn’t dare try it; as we were strolling through the food section of the market, a rat big enough to be a cat zoomed toward us as if it were a torpedo, and we saw mice scampering over a precariously balanced stack of cookie tins as if it were a jungle gym.
You can say that the Globetrotting Guy is a snob if you want—because you’re right, I am—but the real Vietnam did make me crave a little bit of the cleaned-up version. Which is why I hailed a cab and headed post-haste right back to La Residence, where I ordered a gin fizz, booked a massage, and counted all my blessings.