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Andy’s Travel Diary

Monday, 19 Feb 2007

Location: Hue, Vietnam


From Hoi An we travelled by bus to our next stop, Hue. It was short enough for a daytime journey which allowed us to appreciate the scenery, including a spectacular seven-tiered pagoda perched high on a limestone karst.

On route we stopped at a small beachside hotel for a disappointing lunch. After the delectable meals and snacks in Hoi An perhaps our expectations were just too high. Either that or the food was plain crap. Ruth ordered a cheese and tomato salad and received a plate of sliced tomatoes with a triangle of dairylea in the middle. Raymond fared even worse with his Potato Salad - a plate of sliced, boiled spuds. This michelin-starred meal was made worse by the small fortune it cost.

By mid afternoon we had arrived in Hue, a quiet city that is firmly established on the tourist trail thanks to its close proximity to the nearby Demilitarized Zone, and its wealth of historical monuments. At this point in our trip we were in a slight rush to reach Hanoi so i could arrive in Beijing for Xmas. So we dumped our stuff in a hotel in the main backpacker area (a few guesthouses and cafes down a small side alley) and decided to make use of the day.

Hue is a city divided between the old fortified Citadel, which contains all the main historical sites, and the newer town of predictable urban sprawl. The city is small enough to cycle around however, so we hired some bikes and headed across the river.

Established as the imperial capital of a unified Viet Nam in 1802, Hue was the political centre of the country until 1945. Ruled by the Nguyen dynasty, the country was run by 13 emperors from within the Citadel, the old imperial complex and the centre of the historic city. The old town consists of three walled enclosures. The vast outer section, encased within a ten-kilometre perimeter wall, is known as the Citadel and once accommodated 12,000 people. However, it is only within the second section, the Imperial City, that there is much of interest.

We hired a guide to show us around this UNESCO world heritage site. She was a friendly local woman who taught us the colourful history of the buildings while constantly drawing comparisons between the imperial regime and the current government; "Now in our country we are all equal" she said as we passed the Women's Gate.

The Imperial City is a carefully organised series of impressive gates, pavillions, moats, grand courtyards, lotus and carp filled ponds, and large halls. The Emperor had consciously mimiced the Forbidden City in Beijing. Chinese architecture therefore fundamentally informed the style of the complex, immediately apparent from the main gate with its low, sloping and eaved roof.

Most of the buildings were wooden structures painted red and gold, and topped with glazed, yellow tiles. No touch was just artistic embellishment. Meaning infused every decorative touch. Yellow was traditionally an important colour, symbolising the emperor; the mosaic covered dragons decorating the roofs signified his power. Numerology also informed the architecture of the city. Three, five and nine were repeated throughout; Vietnamese culture considers nine the number of perfection, five, the total elements of the universe, and three symbolises man, earth and heaven.

The Palace of Sovereign Harmony (all the rooms had such grandiose names) was the most magnificent building. 80 vast red pillars supported the roof of this grand hall. In the middle was a throne carfeully placed on a three tiered base of gold covered wood. Unsurprisingly it was not overly ostentatious. Apart from its size, the hall was understated, which gave it a sense of grandeur rather than vulgar excess.

The most interesting room, however, was filled with shrines to the Nguyen emperors. Each had furniture, a small house and a funeral tablet located behind a table with a picture or painting of the relevant king.

The final enclosure, the Purple Forbidden City was reserved solely for the Royal Family and served as the Emperor's home. The city was once filled with beautiful palaces and gardens. However the operative word in the last sentence is 'once' . Hue's central position in Vietnam placed it very close to the Demilitarized Zone that separated North and South. During the infamous Tet Offensive of 1968, the city was subjected to considerable damage from American firepower and house to house fighting. Little remains of the Purple City, just a neglected field. As the centre of the old feudal regime, the victorious communists took little interest in the cultural relics of Hue and renovation was not forthcoming. Recently however, with an upsurge in tourism sentiments have been changing.

After being shown how Vietnamese royalty lived we spotted an opportunity at the back of the complex to gain a deeper understanding of the Nguyen lifestyle. More importantly it was a chance to look foolish. Naturally we said yes. For a few dollars each one of us was dressed in traditional imperial robes and allowed to sit in a sedan chair or throne while pictures were taken and we practised our royal waves. The last picture was outside, in front of the building. Sod's Law dictated that a crowd should walk by at that very moment, point, laugh and take pictures. Damn paparazzi. I must say i looked especially dashing and begged to keep the pixie shoes. Photos will be forthcoming i promise.

When the final emperor Bao Dai abdicated in 1945 and a Communist government was established, Hue ceased to be the political centre of Vietnam and the Imperial city fell into disuse.
Though the dynasty ended, its influence did not; the emperors each built elaborate tombs for themselves. A highlight of any visit to Hue is a cruise up the beautiful Perfume River to stop and marvel at these grandiose resting places.

Our boat was a small vessel with a painted dragon on the front. We set off in a small boat for the long trip up the river, stopping every half hour or so to disembark and walk around the historical sites while the crew prepared lunch.

Each tomb is a walled compound containing pillared temples, grand wooden palaces and forecourts leading up to the relevant Emperors mausoleum. Most are set amongst beautifully landscaped gardens and lakes, with islands, and small pavillions.
The tombs are fine examples of Buddhist and Vietnamese architecture, but though these sites are mere toddlers of the centuries long history of Vietnam, many of them look twice their age, crumbling into picturesque but neglected semi ruins.

Entry to each tomb costs around 55,000 Dong (just under two pounds). But not for Vietnamese. Most tourist places in Vietnam still subject foreigners to a form of price apartheid. Non-Vietnamese can pay two, four or even six times the price a local will be charged. Fair? Perhaps, after all the Vietnamese are paying tax which contributes to the upkeep of these monuments (or should be). But other countries do not have similar systems. It would appear the logic stems from the mistaken belief that foreigners are always wealthy. Justified or not, visiting every tomb can become costly. So we picked the ones recommended in the guidebook such as the Tomb of Minh Mang, an impressive, opulent complex with a courtyard surrounded by lifelike warrior statues. Other times we stayed on the boat picking at the leftovers from a delicious lunch and offerring some to a decrepit old lady living on a tiny shoebox boat.

Along with the tombs we also stopped at a number of pagodas. Hue was not simply the political capital. Until 1945 it was a foremost cultural and religious centre. One of the schedlued stops was to visit Thien Mu Pagoda. Overlooking the Perfume River from a high bank the seven storey tower was built in 1844. Attached to a fourteenth century monastery, the complex is famous because of the monk Thich Quang Duc. His act of self immolation, burning to death as he sat peacefully and unmoving on a busy Saigon intersection was a violent protest against the treatment of Buddhism in South Vietnam and produced one of the most shocking and disturbing images of the twentieth century.

The journey back to the city was long and lazy. It was an enjoyable and relaxing end to the day in sharp contrast to the manic rush back to the hotel to pack and book tickets to Hanoi. We made a snap decision that there was nothing left to see in the city and it would be prudent to move on that evening. So, after only a day and half in Hue we hopped on a bus to Hanoi.