Longing to travel in Vietnam? This 7 part series, which travels from Hanoi in the north to the Mekong Delta in the south, will entice you to experience Vietnam’s vibrancy and beauty; meet its resilient and hospitable people and marvel at their ability to blend calm serenity with seeming chaos … and make it all work.
Some of Hue’s history plays out like a modern movie filled with sin and sex, murder and mystery … some still unsolved. Travel to Hue and walk through the settings of these feudal mayhems and debauchery – and imagine.
Not only is Hue (pronounced “way” or “whey”) geographically central in Vietnam but it was the political and religious centre of the last royal dynasty (1802-1945).
Hue nestles into a landscape protected by mountains while the Perfume River winds its way through the city leaving the old city and Citadel on the north side and the new city (most hotels) on the south.
At any time of the year Hue can experience drizzle and rain and temperatures may get cold at night and hot during the day (if it’s sunny) – good reasons to layer clothing and carry a day bag on outings.
Hue is quite compact, However, if it gets to be too much walking, consider hiring a xich lo (aka cyclo, pedicab, bike-taxi) sounds like “seat-low” or, if there are a number traveling together, a private car.
The Hue Citadel is a massive complex. Built in the style of Beijing’s Forbidden City the citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls, holds another fortress: the Imperial City, and within the Imperial city a third fortress, the Forbidden City. Plan a full day to take in the Citadel; time depending on how detailed you wish your visit to be.
Imperial City (Hoang Thanh) – within the Citadel
At the ‘South Gate’ leading into the Imperial City, there are five entrances in the “U” shaped wall: three facing south, one east and one west. The centre entrance was for the king, since the Forbidden City lay within the Imperial City. The one to the right was for members of the royal family, the one on the left for high ranking mandarin. The entrance facing west allowed in the lower ranking mandarin and any people invited within the walls. The one facing east was for soldiers, horses and elephants. Above the gate stands a two level wooden structure. When announcing the names of new mandarin, who had successfully completed all the tests required, the king would sit in the centre high above the gathered crowds. On both sides of him would be family, on his far left two high ranking civil mandarin, on his right the #1 and #2 military mandarin. Everybody in his place.
The Imperial City walls and ornate gates protected the Thai Hoa Palace (used for important ceremonies), lesser palaces, store houses for precious objects, shrines and tombs, working offices, workshops and the Kham Van Palace and Co Ha Garden where the princes studied and played.
Forbidden City – within the Imperial City, Citadel
The Forbidden City was solely for the king, his mother, wives and concubines plus selected loyal servants. Some kings had many wives and concubines (many whom they never actually met). Once a new woman entered the palace through the woman’s gate, Hiển Nhơn Gate (photo above), she never left. These women were often talented in many crafts (a sign of a desirable wife along with beauty, brains and big breasts). During some reigns the wife count was as low as twelve while others were over four hundred. The two women who held favour and therefore had private luxurious compounds were the king’s first wife (unless she could not birth a son) and his mother. Although the royal family and people who served them lived in elegant surroundings, it was in fact a gilded cage.
Little is known about the royal residences. Some information was obtained by surveillance helicopters in 1968 during the Vietnam War when opposition factions took shelter behind the walls of the Forbidden City. Original plans were not to bomb but when Americans took heavy loses fighting within the walls (bullet holes still mark the battle scene) the surveillance photos were used and bombs destroyed most of what remained inside. A few buildings survived but some, like the King’s library, have since given way to typhoons, time and terminates.
Appreciating the value of such history, different areas within the citadel are undergoing reconstruction.
Thien Mu Pagoda
You will be able to see the seven storey Thien Mu Pagoda from some distance as you approach in a dragon boat. A steep staircase emerges from the Perfume River (you can also arrive and/or leave by car). This was the first Buddhist temple in Vietnam. On one side of the tower, two shelters house a large drum and the largest bronze bell in Vietnam. On the other side within another shelter is a very large marble turtle holding a stele (upright slab) dating from 1715.
The temple itself is humble. Behind a bronze laughing Buddha you might see a monk hit a large metal bowl with a mallet; the soft deep sound carries out passed the large incense burner where the smell of incense is thought to help cleanse the mind and the smoke serves as a visual representation of prayers rising.
Walk passed the monks’ humble living quarters and stop by an old blue car which was used by Vietnamese monk, Thich Quang Duc who, in June 1963 drove to Saigon, stopped in a major city intersection, got out of the car, sat down in lotus position and set himself on fire in protest of the persecution of Buddhists monks by South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem administration. The newspaper picture, which won World Press Photo of the Year for journalist Malcolm Browne, is displayed by the car.
The pagoda’s gardens stretch on with walkways passed black pepper trees and water lily ponds to a small pagoda. When not crowded with tourist groups, it is a lovely place to be peaceful and contemplate.
Tomb of Tu Duc
Since Vietnamese kings pass the throne to their eldest son, it is usually a smooth transition. Tu Duc, in his autobiography confessed to many sins. He had lived a life of luxurious excesses and debauchery with countless concubines and even though he had 104 wives, he had no offspring so he adopted three sons; the eldest being the son of his brother. Tu Duc grew to dislike his eldest heir and came to love his youngest but there was not much he could do about the succession to the throne. When he died the eldest took the throne, however the former king’s top two mandarin saw what the king had seen in the eldest and soon the new king was also dead (having lasted only three days on the job). The second son now held the crown. The mandarin appreciating what the king had seen in his youngest son wanted to see him king. The only way to make him king was to rub out number two son … which they did. The youngest son became king and although he was very young, he was not stupid. Realizing what the mandarin had done, he had them knocked off. In retaliation, the young king himself was killed. The result was Vietnam had three kings in a very short time and came out without a ruler. For a year the mandarin ran the country until they were able to agree on a suitable prince from the balance of royal family.
One legacy old king Tu Duc did leave besides his autobiography and impressive tomb (which he used as a summer get-away during his life time) was a mystery. Because of his many sins and his dysfunctional family, he feared his burial spot might be disturbed. He had tunnels built from his casket-tomb under the crescent shaped pond to … [where?]. Immediately after his funeral the two top mandarin took his remains down one of the tunnels (Which one? No one knows) and then collapsed all the tunnels. To be sure the secret was kept, all involved with the transfer lost their heads. There have been a few attempts over the years to find the body and the jewels buried with it; without success. Since it is bad luck to argue over a grave and because the family did not know where on the grounds his body was buried, the whole tomb complex became a peaceful place. With today’s technology his last resting place could probably be located but ask a local or someone connected to the tourist industry and they will answer, “Why?”
Tomb of Vietnamese Emperor Khai Dinh
He was the father of Vietnam’s last king who abdicated the throne in 1945. Khai Dinh did not have much power and his reign was only for a few years, therefore, his tomb is small. The architecture of the tomb shows how indecisive he was: there’s a little Vietnamese, a little Indian and a little European; there are indications of Hindu, Buddhist and Christian religions … the king was covering his bases in hopes of a good afterlife. His burial place is in an opulent room glimmering with porcelain tiles and gold leaf and a statue of him.
The layout of the tomb mirrors his position in Vietnam: a large front yard, representing the royalty who came before him and virtually no back yard, representing his son who abdicated his throne and demolished Vietnam’s monarchy.
Go To Market
Leave history behind and visit the endearing, breathing, working people of Hue and there is no better place to do so than at a market. Dong Ba Market, on the banks of the Perfume River is the biggest in Hue. Arrive by sampan, car, bike or xich lo (pedal-cab) and you will find an extensive market which offers everything from kitschy tourist souvenirs to bronze goods, from fresh vegetables to eat-now meals. Displays range from mall-style stores with overstuffed shelves to small baskets on the ground in front of a beautifully aged faces. There are smaller markets in Hue which can be more intimate. For the photographer, or casual camera-clicker, markets offer a treasure trove of opportunities to capture the perfect wall-hanging image.