Tourists flock towards the Thai Hoa Palace, also known as the Palace of Supreme Harmony. Picture: Ronan O'Connell

As his sinewy legs pumped the pedals of the rickshaw, our guide explained his distaste for Vietnam's rapid modernisation.

The South-East Asian country was changing too swiftly, Pham argued, and was forfeiting much of its heritage and culture.

Given his standpoint, Pham is fortunate he did not grow up in Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang or Hanoi - Vietnam's three biggest cities, all of which have undergone dramatic renovations due to the country's development.

By comparison, his home town on Vietnam's central coast has so far escaped relatively unscathed. Amid the nation's frenzy for economic growth, Hue has retained a strong sense of its cultural identity, perhaps more so than any other Vietnamese city.

Well into his sixth decade of life, Pham is holding tight to a romantic version of the past.

He became a tourist guide of Hue's ancient citadel as a way to immerse himself in the Vietnam of yore. Here, within the perimeter walls of the timeworn complex, Pham said he could absorb the tales of those who went before him.

Many tourists come for the same reason. Despite the ravages of war, the citadel remains one of the country's most prominent drawcards.

Perched near the banks of the Perfume River, which bisects Hue, the citadel owns a charming location. Its thick, lofty walls stretch for almost 10km in a square, enclosing a network of residential areas and gardens.

At its heart is the Imperial City, which itself surrounds the Purple Forbidden City.

These are the grand vestiges of Hue's reign as the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 to 1945. The city was the political, cultural and religious hub of Vietnam during this era.

The citadel, which is ringed by a large moat, offered robust protection and was reportedly inspired by European fortresses.

It suffered significant damage during military conflicts in 1885, 1947 and 1968. The latter of those clashes occurred during the Vietnam War, when the North Vietnamese Army captured Hue for 25 days.

Much of this history was passed on with enthusiasm by Pham, who offered to wait for us outside the entrance to the Imperial City.

That was not necessary and as we parted ways he offered a final piece of wisdom in reference to our tour of the complex. "Imagine," he said, tapping a finger against his temple.

Striding into the courtyard of the Imperial City I did just that, transposing on to the sprawling space shadowy images of royal servants scurrying around in robes.

The Imperial City houses temples, parks and former administrative offices.

Deeper within are the palaces of the Purple Forbidden City.

These edifices have undergone significant renovations in an effort to restore them to their prewar grandeur. These reconstruction efforts were fast-tracked in 1993 when Hue was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

The citadel at one point contained more than 300 palaces, tombs, temples and associated royal buildings.

While not all of them remain, the Thai Hoa Palace is a fabulously well-restored centrepiece. Also known as the Palace of Supreme Harmony, the intricately designed building once served as a ceremonial space where the emperor would celebrate festivals and receive guests. The emperor's throne still sits in the centre of this stunning hall.

North of the palace we wandered through a large swathe of grass from which the remnants of demolished buildings protrude.

Further, beyond the Imperial City, Hue locals take part in the gentle rhythms of life fostered by their stately neighbourhood within the citadel walls.

Pham lives in this area, somewhere. A generous helping of peaceful gardens and pagodas ensures it is one of the most serene residential enclaves in any of Vietnam's cities.

With a population of slightly more than one million people, Hue is a bit more than half the size of Perth. It does not, however, sport a skyscraper-punctuated cityscape like Ho Chi Minh City or Da Nang.

It is split into three clearly defined areas - the citadel, the original merchants' areas of Phu Cat to its west and the newer commercial district of Phu Hoi to the south of the river.

Most of the best accommodation and restaurants are in this latter part of Hue. Amid a maze of alleyways and backstreets in Phu Hoi is a wide assortment of hotels, guesthouses, cafes, eateries and shops.

The area caters well to foreign tastes without being tacky and hyper-Westernised like some other tourist havens, such as Pham Ngu Lao in Ho Chi Minh City.

Silk clothing outlets, handicraft dealers and tailors abound. For a more captivating and thrifty shopping experience we traversed the river to explore the teeming Dong Ba market near the citadel.

The ramshackle bazaar by the water's edge draws throngs of consumers, traders and people watchers. A lively wet market flanks the southern edge of the two-storey building which houses the stalls of most interest to travellers.

Traditional clothing, souvenirs and the ubiquitous Vietnamese conical hats are the best sellers. As the market is frequented by many tourists it pays to bargain hard with the vendors, many of whom initially quote prices which are inflated by three to four times.

Similar stringency should be employed when booking daytrips to the renowned tombs and temples on the outskirts of Hue.

In the hills south of the city lie the Royal Mausoleums. Travel agencies offer relaxing boat trips down the Perfume River to these tombs, with the option to pause along the way at the Hon Chen Temple and Thien Mu Pagoda.

Like Hue itself, it is the storied history of these structures which makes them so beguiling.

FACT FILE

Tour agencies in Hue offer daytrips to the former demilitarised zone on the border between south and north Vietnam. The tunnels of Vinh Moc, 100km north of Hue, are the main attraction.

Travellers looking to cool themselves after a day of touring Hue's historical sites can visit one of the many beaches near the city. Thuan An beach, about 10km north-east of Hue, is among the best options.

Hue is one of the wettest cities in South-East Asia and receives a huge amount of rainfall between September and December. The best time of year to visit is from January to April when the weather is dry and mild.

Hue has its own international airport. It is, however, worth comparing the prices of flights to Da Nang, which also has an international airport and is just 100km to the south.

The West Australian

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