MOTORING AROUND HUE
As the former imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue was centred around the walled Imperial Citadel. Inside the citadel was a forbidden city where only the emperor, empress, royal concubines, and those close enough to them were granted access; the punishment for trespassing was death. Today, little of the forbidden city remains, but there are extensive renovations works going on to try and rebuild the entire palace complex. We got to see what there is of the Imperial Citadel today during our motor bike tour of Hue. The tour also took us to visit a royal emperor’s tomb, Hue’s most iconic pagoda, and a nearby rural village. It was a great day of sightseeing, and riding pillion on a motorbike was awesome – a little hair-raising at time when the traffic got particularly bad, but certainly a fun way to see the sights of Hue!
Our motorbikes turned up nice and early this morning and whisked us straight to the Imperial Citadel of Hue.
The imperial enclosure was a citadel-within-a-citadel, housing the emperor’s residence, temples, and the main buildings of state within its 6m-high, 2.5km-long walls.
Today much of it is in ruins as the enclosure was badly bombed during the American War*, and though restoration and reconstruction of damaged buildings is ongoing, we spent a lot of our time picking our way over broken masonry, rubble, cracked tiling, and weeds as you work your way around.
*During the Vietnam War, Hue’s central location very near the border between the North and South put it in a vulnerable position. In the Tet Offensive of 1968, during the Battle of Hue, the city suffered considerable damage.
By the time we’d finished touring through the Imperial Citadel it was getting warm, so it was lovely to hop back on the motor bikes and head out of town. We passed some lovely rural scenery on our way from Hue to Than Thuy Chanh village.
Than Thuy Chanh village is famous for one thing: the Thanh Toan roofed bridge. Built in the 18th century by a wealthy local widow, the bridge originally provided a connection between the 2 villages that faced each other across the river. Today there are larger bridges and roads connecting the villages, but the Thanh Toan bridge remains a treasured monument for the villagers.
Whilst we were there we stopped by the local market to watch as the locals haggled over the price of pork and chicken; negotiated a price for the still-living fish; and exchanged gossip as they bought the day’s supply of eggs, vegetables, fruits, and rice.
Like all markets, it was a fascinating way to see a small slice of local Vietnamese life play out. Between the heat and flies, however, some parts of the market were a bit of a challenge for our delicate Western stomachs!
Hopping back on the bikes we then found ourselves at the tomb of Tu Duc, the longest serving Nguyen emperor. Built between 1864 and 1867, the tomb enclosure houses the emperor’s final resting place, as well as a temple, a man-made lake, and various pavilions.
There we learned that Emperor Tu Duc began planning his tomb long before his death in 1883. He designed some of the pavilions and buildings to serve as a retreat for himself and his many wives, and often spent time there, especially after Vietnam fell to French colonialists.
Within the walls of his tomb/retreat, the Emperor could boat on the lake, hunt small game on the tiny island in the lake’s middle, and recline by the lakeside and compose poetry in the company of his concubines.
The actual tomb of Emperor Tu Duc was behind a large wall, and was rather nondescript. The walkway up to the tomb was flanked by a guard of elephants, horses, and mandarins (i.e. Vietnamese court officials or ministers). Apparently the emperor was never interred here – the site where his remains were buried (along with great treasure) is not known. To keep it a secret from grave robbers, all of the 200 servants who buried the king were beheaded.
After a light lunch we hopped on a boat to cross the Perfume River, where our final sight for the day awaited us: the Thien Mu Pagoda.
Thien Mu Pagoda sits within the grounds of the Thien Mu Temple, the oldest standing temple in Hue. Built in 1601 on orders of the first Nguyen lords, the temple and its accompanying 7 storey pagoda have been destroyed and rebuilt several times.
Built on a hill overlooking the Perfume River, the temple is quite a simple structure, consisting of a number of buildings arranged around a large central courtyard. Behind the main pavilion were the spartan monks’ quarters, were the 50 or so resident monks live.
From the Thien Mu temple it was a short ride back to our hotel through the afternoon traffic, where we gladly sought out a shower and a bit of air-conditioned down time. It was bloody hot out there today, and we’re both a little baked. The motor bike tour was a great way to see the sights though, and a darn side cooler than trying to walk from one end of town to the other! The historical sights of Hue were interesting, though it was quite sad to see how little remains after the American War. The Vietnamese seem really proud of their history and heritage, however, and seem to be making concerted efforts to save what’s left and rebuild what they can. We can definitely see the Chinese influence in the architecture, decorative arts, and culture, but there is something distinct and unique about Vietnam that makes it very different to China. We haven’t quite worked out what the differences are exactly, but for us they’re good differences – we’re certainly enjoying Vietnam way more than we enjoyed China!