From November 28 to December 3, I travelled with my parents to central Vietnam for a relaxed getaway. In five days we covered Hue, Hoi An and Da Nang. This post is dedicated to sightseeing in Hue. Click below to quick jump to individual sections.
Huế (prounounced ‘hway’ or ‘whey’) is at the heart of Vietnam and the former captiol of the Nguyen kings who reigned for 143 years through the 19th century (1802-1945 specifically).
The city is crisscrossed by dozens of bridges and lakes, the most prominent being the Perfume River. On the river’s north bank is the ancient imperial citadel and residential areas, while the new commerical area and hotel district are on the south bank. Further south are the revered collection of Nguyen tombs which dot the countryside. While its rich heritage is credited as a UNESCO world heritage site, it remains an easygoing city that fortunately has not been overrun by tourists.
Huế has the soul of a granddaddy of cities – steadfast, sensible and lumbering. This may have something to do with the crumbling ruins of the citadel that serve as a poignant reminder of the city’s imperial past.
The behemoth Hue Citadel bears concentric layers of “mini cities” including the outer Imperial Enclosure and inner royal Forbidden Purple City. It was commissioned by the Ngyuen dynasty’s first king, Emperor Gia Long and fashioned after Beijing’s Forbidden City. While it suffered violent bombardment during the Vietnam War (1954-75), most of the buildings have been partially restored and during our time of visit, restoration work was still actively carried out. The mosaic-laden temples, intricate dragon-rooved pavilions and landscaped gardens are awe-inspiring. A half-day at Hue Citadel is bound to transport you back in time as you soak in the marvellous architecture and envision living in past times.
The tombs of the Ngyuen emperors are scattered on the west and south of the Perfume River. Although the dynasty had 13 kings, there are only seven tombs built and maintained to date. Interestingly the kings’ tombs were built during the time of their reign; hence unlike what you would expect, they are not dismal melancholic places but well-thought out structures housed amidst romantic landscapes. The style of each tomb is a reflection of the demeanour and tastes of the king. We visited two tombs – the second king Minh Mang and the twelfth and penultimate king Khai Dinh – and noted a stark contrast in architecture and style.
Minh Mang (reign 1820-1840) was an authoritarian monarch highly respected for his Confucian outlook and opposition to French influence. Set amidst bucolic green pastures and moats, his mausoleum blends the beauty of nature with majestic Chinese architecture. Altogether, it has a quiet but stately aura that reflects the romantic and impressive soul of the king.
By the way of complete contrast, Khai Dinh (reign 1916-1925) was an extremely unpopular ruler and often regarded as a French puppet. His tomb is a radical departure from his predecessors for the absence of gardens, living quarters and unique location. Perched on a steep hillside is an elaborate Gothic concrete edifice clothed in a confection of oriental Vietnamese and occidental French architecture, which of today has been blackened by the elements. The interior is juxtaposed by an explosion of colorful and intricate mosiac of ceremic and glass. For all its glossy lavishness, it sadly comes across as kitsch. While I suppose Khai Dinh intended his tomb to leave a legacy of his imperial stature, ironically, it seems to be a legacy to his extravagance and disconnect from the ordinary man. Although Khai Dinh ruled only for nine years, construction of his tomb took 11 years and blew the budget so high that he taxed the people heavily to finance its building.
The visit to the tombs made me reflect on the kind of legacy I’d like to leave behind – a quiet strength like Minh Mang or loud and flamboyant like Khai Dinh?
Among the many pagodas in Hue, Thien Mu is one not to be missed for a scenic view of the Perfume River, monastic living and the infamous Duc relic. In itself, the pagoda is the oldest and tallest in Vietnam, a seven-storey monument rising from an octagonal terrace with each tier representing a different reincarnation of Buddha. It was built in 1601 by the first Ngyuen lord Nguyen Hoang.
Behind the temple is a complex of monastic buildings and living quarters for monks. During our visit there were a group of young monks, known as samanera, in the midst of a classroom lesson. Our guide highlighted a plate on the monastery’s wall that set out their daily activities. It shockingly starts at 3 AM and ends at 9 PM, and includes martial arts, lesson times, meal times and resting times. The boys were impervious to the throngs of tourists and continued their chanting undisturbed.
Thien Mu Pagoda also houses a national relic of terrible connections – a Tiffany-blue Austin car that drove the venerable monk Thich Quang Duc to self-immolation in Saigon, 1963. Leading up to the 1960s, Catholics were given preferential treatment over Buddhists and discrimination was institutionalized under President Ngo Dinh Diem’s repressive regime. The breaking point was when in 1963, the government massacred nine Buddhists. In desperate protest against the regime’s religious persecution, Thich Quang Duc drove down from Thien Mu in Hue to Saigon, stepped out of the car in an intersection, sat down in the lotus position, and burned himself to death. His actions inspired other six more monks to follow suit. In grusome photogrpahs and news that captured headlines all over the world, the government of Ngo Diem was forced to ease the persecution. Although what remains of these turbulent events is the rusty blue car, many find the temple an inspiring location and the car a potent memorial to Duc’s desperate protest.
Having been to a few Asian wet markets, Dong Ba was not particularly exceptional. It had the requisites of fresh fruit and vegetables, fermented pastes, spices, jewellery and sundries. The walkways were cramped and you had to bargain for a good price. I restocked on ground cinnamon, but due to language barrier I could not verify if it was Ceylon or Saigon cinnamon. At a corner of the market something caught my eye – chickens in cages and squawking noisily. I shudder to think of what might be their fate although it is almost certain. With the truth right in front of them, I wonder why people would still want to consume animals – and cruelty?
In the next post I will cover what you have been waiting for – Hue cuisine and eating vegan in Hue!