Rain is not usually a great attraction; rays regularly receive top billing. But it depends where you live. Saharan nomads, for example, adore a long downpour and a pleasant drizzle will do a Kalahari bushman just fine. Much better than that old devil sun. If you live in the tropics, escape from solar frazzling is no bad thing - but it does pay to choose your moisture wisely. I recommend central Vietnam, Hue in particular, from now until December. As the year draws towards a close, the rains come to the old royal capital beside the Perfume River, endowing the imperial citadel and the grand mausoleums of the Nguyen emperors with a soft, moist cloak and a calming, cooling greenness. It's a good time to be here; and besides, in Hue it rains often during the 'dry' season, so why not go the whole hog? Hue is the most historic city in Vietnam and is regarded as the most cultured too - a Florence or a Kyoto of Indochina. Vietnam retains few vestiges of a civilisation that had endured for millennia before war ripped the country apart last century. Hue stands unique in the land for its wealth of historical monuments, even though it wasn't pronounced a royal city until 1687 and its grand imperial epoch ran only from 1802 to 1945. It was in 1802 that the Nguyen lords united Vietnam and made Hue the capital of their new imperial dynasty. Heavily influenced by Chinese custom, the Nguyen emperors created a complex governmental fortress. Like Chinese boxes, there was a Forbidden Purple City, for the emperor, his wives, concubines and eunuchs, within a walled and moated Yellow Imperial City, dedicated to ceremonial uses, surrounded by a vast citadel from where mandarins and officials ran the show, protected by more high walls and two moats. Here, there sparkled one of the last great oriental courts, full of antique splendour. With the French conquest in 1883, the emperors lost most of their power and their customary pomp faded towards their 1945 demise. Neglect of the palaces and halls set in: a 1947 fire wiped out most of the Forbidden City, then the American war, as the Vietnamese call it, wreaked havoc, as battles raged within the walls. A process of repair and reconstruction has been ongoing for years, but this will never recreate the old atmosphere. The most beautiful sections of the old compound are the elaborate original gateways, their colours faded, their tiling chipped. They speak directly from another age, protected by - at Cua Hien Nhon, the Gate of Humanity - ferocious ceramic dragons prowling their archways. By contrast, within the Imperial City, the gleaming, newly painted reconstructions look garish and false, even if they give an idea of how things were. In most places you need a lot of imagination: most of the half-a-kilometre-square area comprises grass-covered foundations, with little left of the wondrous Forbidden City. There are spots of colour, however: in a rebuilt robing hall of the mandarins, baldly called the Left House, is a display of gorgeous imperial costumes. In the facing hall, called, yes, the Right House, you can dress up as the Yellow Emperor in a rich silk robe with voluminous sleeves, a tall yellow hat and huge yellow slippers, and have your photograph taken. However, a real feeling for the Nguyen court comes when you see not where they lived, or what they wore, but where they were laid to rest. The Nguyen emperors wanted to secure an afterlife that suited their tastes. Accordingly, they had grand mausoleums built whose design was an expression of the occupant's personality, planned in detail during his lifetime. Taking years of work to ensure the harmony of structures and nature, court cosmologists collaborated with architects and designers to contrive the correct balance of pavilions, temples, tombs, hills, lakes, woods and waterfalls. The result is a series of beautiful funeral parks, set among low forested hills in the valley of the Perfume River, that survived the American war intact. The ideal way to see them is by taking to the river, hiring a dragon-prowed boat and heaving to at each access path. There are no worries about onward transit; where necessary, some form of taxi (motorbike, cyclo or tuk-tuk) will take you to the mausoleum. As for food, the boatman's wife will knock up a near-constant supply of snacks on her little stove. For complex reasons, only seven of the 13 emperors ended up with mausoleums. Though all have their appeal, two stand out: those of Tu Duc (who reigned from 1848 to 1883) and Minh Mang (1820 to 1841), splendidly justifying a contemporary French comment: 'These wise kings of Annam, who make death smile.' Lang Tu Duc, designed by Emperor Tu Duc himself and built from 1864 to 1867, is the most exquisite of the mausoleums, built on a grand scale but with a poetic sensibility. Palaces, pavilions and pagodas stand amid fragrant pines, frangipani trees and a pattern of rich green, lotus-graced waters. The emperor made full use of this 'pleasure dome' in his earthly life, abetted by 104 wives and a battalion of concubines. It was his habit to recline in the pretty lakeside Xung Khiem pavilion, composing poetry and drinking tea made with dew collected from lotus blossoms. Emperor Minh Mang was a strict Confucian and his mausoleum (called Hieu Lang, Tomb of Filiality) follows a formal Chinese pattern. Within 15 hectares of beautifully landscaped grounds, a series of pavilions proceeds symmetrically from east to west, each raised on a mound. Following a processional way, you alternately climb steps to pass through a traditional Chinese structure glistening in red and gold, then step down into formal gardens. At last, emerging from the Pavilion of Pure Light (Minh Lau) into a stone garden that traces the Chinese characters for long life, you see a huge grassy mound that appears to rise out of a lake. Beneath this slumbers the second emperor of Vietnam. Come rain or shine, Hue presents the richest insight into Vietnam's courtly past. Getting there: Vietnam Airlines ( www.vietnamairlines.com ) and Cathay Pacific (www. cathaypacific.com) operate a code-share agreement on flights from Hong Kong to Hue via Hanoi. Staying within Hue Citadel at the Thanh Noi Hotel (57 Dang Dung Street; tel: 84 54 522 478) is peaceful and, at US$20 to US$35 a night, affordable.