Historic and cultural capital of Vietnam, Central Provinces
A scene of tropical lushness greeted us as we woke after a long overnight journey on the Reunification Express, this time from Hanoi to Hue (pronounced h-weh): rural Vietnamese life in all its green richness, waterlogged rice paddies, conical-hatted women working the fields, water buffalo ploughing the earth, flocks of ducks being herded as they swam amongst the paddies, a fisherman catching even the fish which swim in these rice paddies, an ancient way of life that still continues, mainly without mechanisation, seeds planted by hand and fields ploughed by man and beast. Vietnam is a very wet country, small lakes and pools of water dominate the landscape alongside green fields and palm trees. Amidst the fields the humble rural dwellings, the little country pagodas and temples, the rural lanes, even the cemeteries attest to the wonderful way the Vietnamese country people live in harmony with their surroundings.
Having reflected at length on train travel in China, at this juncture I feel I need to dedicate at least a paragraph to our experience of Vietnamese trains: we have so far mainly been in the supposedly more luxurious soft sleepers, other than a couple of shorter journeys which only required soft seats. The soft sleepers seem to be more available and less expensive here than in China. Having said that, although air-conditioned and with 4 beds instead of 6, they have generally been of a worse standard too, much older and more rundown than the Chinese trains, with old furnishings and finishes. But despite this downside, the upside to taking trains here has been that there is little if any music and loud announcements made during the journey leaving you to enjoy the scenery and your sleep. Also, the beauty of soft sleepers as opposed to hard sleepers is, of course, that you have an enclosed compartment and the ability to lock your door. For double the price, an exorbitant amount, you can go on special carriages such as those owned by ET Pumpkin and Livitrans which are attached to the standard train and are meant to be more luxurious and are mainly for use by foreigners.
Back to this train journey however. I was eager to get to Hue as it is a city well-known for its history and architecture. It was the final seat of the last emperors of Vietnam, the Nguyens who ruled from 1802 to 1945, and who left behind a gloriously rich heritage of beautiful buildings and monuments, all set on the banks of the wonderfully-named Perfume River.
Hue is a large city, spread out over both banks of the Perfume River: the southern bank, where the hotels and restaurants are located; and the older more characterful Citadel side on the north: we got lost on this side, trying to make our way to the Imperial Enclosure our first, very humid, hot day and ended up wandering through a shanty town running along the back streets. Here the residents sought shelter from the midday sun in their small homes, often making up a bed on the cool floor. No matter how basic these houses were each was equipped with a television which took pride of place in their living areas, broadcasting a favourite midday show! Rats foraged for scraps among the piles of rubbish in the street outside unmolested by the people around them; the ever-present birdcage hanging from the eaves, inside them multi-coloured wild birds, the favourite being the Red Whiskered Bulbul with its red cheek and red belly, some Mynahs, the tiny yellow Oriental White Eye and many more exotic breeds. One resident was gently spraying water at his delighted bulbul, an attempt to relieve it from the muggy heat of the day. This is one of the better relationships between man and caged bird that I've seen here; unfortunately, most are kept as mere decoration for a restaurant or shop, the birds left lonely, sometimes without water, often with no stimulation, a necessity for these intelligent creatures.
We only found the Imperial Enclosure, Hue's most famous monument, the next day! Within the old walled citadel, the enclosure where the Nguyen emperors lived, is a square fortified city within a city, so to speak, surrounded by a moat.
Entered by the impressive Ngo Mon Gate, with its covered area, Ngu Phung, the grandeur that must have marked the early days of the Nguyen Emperors' reign is overwhelming. This is where the emperor would appear on special occasions and where the end of imperial rule came about with Emperor Bao Dai's abdication in 1945. Built mainly in a traditional style, at its height the Imperial Enclosure was a huge complex of 520 hectares with beautiful temples, a large theatre, residences, lotus ponds, lakes and covered walkways.
At the centre of the enclosure is the Forbidden Purple City where the emperors lived and only eunuchs, who posed no threat to the imperial concubines, were allowed to enter. Sadly, most of the Forbidden City and other parts of the Imperial Enclosure were quite badly damaged in both the French and American wars and so mainly consist of ruins, old overgrown gardens, lakes and lily ponds, but it was nonetheless a grand complex in its day. In the Halls of the Mandarins where court officials prepared for court business, there is now an exhibition of photos of the Enclosure in its working days: some of these photos show the presence of the French, often in the background in their splendid white uniforms, clearly wielding their influence as emperor after emperor who showed any hint of nationalist sentiment was replaced (sometimes after mysterious deaths!); also visible is the court life with processions of kowtowing mandarins and a coterie of servants carrying the emperors in royal boxes.
With its history, Hue is a great place to visit but to see all that it has to offer it's a good idea to either hire a motorbike, bicycle or perhaps a local boat as some of the sights are fairly spread out. We decided to take up an offer we saw at a local cafe for a day's outing on a dragon boat: for a mere US$5, one could visit a range of sights along the river: a Sampan village first, the ubiquitous traditional boats moored on the river's north shore, each serving as its owner's dwelling - bedroom, living room, dining room and office all in one; an old temple along the river banks; the iconic Thien Mu Pagoda 4km southwest of the city with its 7 tiers each dedicated to a manushi-buddha, with child monks in their purple robes wandering contemplatively around its peaceful gardens; and most important of all for us, the famous tombs of the Nguyen emperors, Minh Mang, Khai Dinh and Tu Duc.
Minh Mang was the son of the first Nguyen Emperor, Gia Long, and ruled from 1820 to 1840. He was known for his anti-Catholic and pro-Confucian attitudes and, by extension, for his opposition to western influences, namely the French. Although his reign was short, he produced 142 children!
It took fourteen years to find the location for his tomb and only three years to build. The whole complex, set in a lush green wooded park with large serene lakes crossed over by ornamental bridges, fits beautifully into its natural surroundings; like many tombs, Minh Mang's resting place was chosen by geomancers to have perfect feng shui. As is customary with these mausoleums, it includes a stele pavilion to list the achievements and virtues of the deceased emperor; a temple for the worship of the emperor and his wife; a sepulchre where the remains of the emperor lie (or are meant to lie, sometimes they are buried elsewhere to throw grave robbers off the scent!); an honour courtyard where statues of elephants, horses and mandarins stand to honour the emperor; and a lotus pond.
A short drive from Minh Mang's resting place is the very different tomb of Khai Dinh, an emperor far more influenced by the west, a fact that becomes evident upon seeing his mausoleum. Looking up from the bottom of the grandiose dragon-bannistered stone staircases at its entrance, the tomb appears dark and almost gothic, a mixture of eastern and western architecture. Lacking the beautiful gardens of Minh Mang's tomb, it is nevertheless impressive with its ceramic mosaics and glass finishes, as well as its honour courtyard with two tiers of mandarins. Although Khai Dinh ruled for only nine years, 1916-1925, his tomb took eleven years to build!
Last on our tour was the tomb of Tu Duc, once again in stark contrast to the green lushness of Minh Mang's tomb, but nevertheless striking. More of a wintry landscape to Minh Mang's spring, it is also set on large grounds with beautiful gardens that shone gold in the fading sunlight. A pavilion set on stilts on one of the lakes overlooks a little island on which Tu Duc would hunt for small game; he used the complex as a sometime residence before his death, a place to meditate and write poetry, with residences built for some of his concubines to accompany him. The grandeur of the tomb reflects the luxurious life that Tu Duc was said to lead, he had numerous concubines and 104 wives but no children, apparently due to smallpox contracted early in his life. It is to Tu Duc's notoriously fussy pallet that Hue owes its reputation for fine cuisine, but more on that later. Noteworthy at the tomb of Tu Duc is the fact that in contrast to other emperors, the emperor summarised his own reign on his stele, including reference to difficulties encountered and mistakes made. Also, his honour courtyard is unusual in that alongside the horses and elephants standing guard to honour the emperor are diminutive mandarins, made so especially because of the smaller stature of the emperor who was 153 cm tall.
All in all, our little boat trip was US$5 well spent, an excellent day, seeing a range of sites as well as taking in the Perfume River, so atmospheric aboard our dragon boat conquering the waters of this immense river! Lunch on the boat was included, and transfers to the sites that were further away from the water.
Other than for its history and architecture Hue is also well-known for its food: Imperial-style meals, banquets of various dishes, each beautifully garnished and presented with amazing attention to detail, a type of eating created to satisfy the fussiness of Emperor Tu Duc. One restaurant is said to serve 7 courses of artistically-presented gourmet dishes, food carved into unusual shapes continuing this Imperial tradition. We were keen to try out this way of eating with Hue being known as foodie heaven but, as with most visitors to Hue, we stayed on the south side of the river and the restaurant was on the north side and was a bit of a trek to get to at night. Also with December approaching and the high season drawing closer, we had a struggle with our first hotel being full after the first night and had to search for a hotel and settle into a new place. And with spending a day on the boat sightseeing, we often arrived back at our hotel at night and just wanted to go somewhere convenient. I'm sorry to have missed out on this particular experience but having spoken to fellow travellers, most did the same. Having said that, I do feel we missed out as although Hue is known as a place to eat well, we struggled to find anywhere extraordinary to eat!