Hue and the Perfume River

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Asia » Vietnam » North Central Coast » Thua Thien - Huế » Hué
January 13th 2002
Published: October 1st 2017
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Geo: 16.4635, 107.599

Up and okay breakfast at hotel. Nice view of river. At 07.30h, we met our guide. First to airline to reconfirm our flight - Keegan and Kyla are not in the system again. We wait a few more minutes, and soon all is okay.

We went to the boat dock and go onto a small boat. Our guide tells us that this is the type of boat that people took to Malaysia or Hong Kong to escape the encroaching Viet Cong during the war. It's so small, so exposed - hard to imagine (and I can't help but thinking about an colleague of mine, who did just that, living in a refugee camp in Malaysia, maybe even while I was there, for several years before coming to the US). We had a lovely trip up-river, however.

During the trip, our guide tells us that his family was among those who were left at the US Embassy in Saigon in 1975. His mother tied him to her back and his sister to her front. She tried to board the helicopter, but there was no room. He says he can still see the image of the Marine who tried to lift them up onto the helicopter - he was a Warrant Officer, with a name badge that said Kelly. The pilot said there was too much weight, but they would try to come back, but it was too late. Then, his mother ran with the two kids to the boat dock to try to get on the boat for Australia, but they couldn't get on. After that, the NVA entered Saigon, so his family just went home.

Our first stop was a Buddhist monastery, with large pagodas in the front. We visited the classroom, kitchen, garden, and saw the main chapel. There were many young monks about, including two just about Keegan's age. We saw a photo of the father monk who burned himself in 1963 in protest of South Vietnamese policies against Buddhists. After his protest, a few other monks also self-immolated. Then the army had a coup d'etat against the government and built a giant Lady Buddha across from the temple, as a promise not to discriminate against Buddhists.

We returned to our boat and continued up river. We saw many people/couples/families dredging the river - all hand labour. They collect the sand from the riverbed and sell it to construction companies. We also saw other boats, full of gravel and firewood.

Our second stop was Minh Mang tomb, in a beautiful setting, with an artificial lake and many trees. The buildings were in some need of repair - made of wood, they are decaying because of humidity and insects. The "best" king is buried here. He died at the age of 53 years - in fact, several kings died at that age, and, consequently, it is an age that many men fear. One building was being repaired with the cooperation of the US government and Vietnamese government. The king's grave is a large mound. A tunnel was dug into the mound, and the body was placed inside. Enclosed in his casket were supposedly diamonds and gold, but no one has exhumed it yet. The king's 500 concubines lived the rest of their lives on the grounds of the compound. Their role was to offer incense to the king every night. A beautiful place, but I would not want to be stuck there forever. Side note: One of the guards belongs to the old Royal Family; the government hired him to protect his ancestor's tomb.

Across the river, we said good-bye to the boat and go back into the car. We made one stop on our way back to Hue: the tomb of Khai Dinh, the king who died in 1925. His tomb looks like a Baroque palace. Inside, the walls are decorated in (stunning) mosaics ... made of broken Chinese antique vases and pots. The king emptied the treasury to buy enough antiques to make the mosaics. As beautiful as they were, it is definitely the type of thing that should lead towards revolution.

Only 20 minutes to Hue - then lunch, which was just okay. Then to hotel to swim, journal. Out again at 15.00h.

We visited the Imperial City in the afternoon. Very little remains from the Imperial City mostly just foundations of buildings, though one or two have been preserved or reconstructed. What I found most interesting, however, was the inconsistent stories we heard how they were destroyed. Our guide told us that many of the buildings were destroyed in 1947 when the French attempted to take Hue back during the "French War." The signs around the compound, which were, of course, placed there by the government of (North) Vietnam, say the same thing. But our guidebook, and what I had always heard, was that the buildings were destroyed during the Tet Offensive of 1968. Our guide agrees that there was fighting then - and shows us bullet holes from that time period - he assures us that the bulk of the destruction occurred in 1947. I asked if they had photographs of the buildings from the 1950s and 1960s ... but he said there is nothing here, in the Imperial City. It seems a very strange controversy - surely, it could be easily demonstrated. But maybe it's just a matter of definition of what "destroyed" means - or how much was ruined in each conflict. Is it relevant that the restoration work is being funded by the French government (and UNESCO)?

We saw the Imperial Gate which was used only three times a year. The Emperor was supposed to be a great supporter of higher education and would distribute the diplomas to Ph.D. recipients. The formal palace was intact, as was the library, but the living palace and Queen's palace were gone. The queen and concubines lived in a single compound with the king (which must have made for interesting drama couches). The women were never allowed to leave the compound once they arrived. After the king's death, they would go live at his tomb. Any woman, from rich or poor family, could be made a concubine ... and the king could choose any of the concubines to be his Queen. The Queen was not necessarily the first wife.

In one of the Mandarin's buildings (the one with bullet holes in the cement and a mirror), there is a replica of the throne. For a fee, one can dress in copies of the Emperor's robes and sit on the throne - and a professional photographer will immortalize it in a photo. Our guide said that the Vietnamese love to come pretend to be king, and, indeed, we saw a lot of people - not Euro/Amer/Anglo tourists - pay to do just that.

Our car met us at the side gate, and we returned to the hotel for a brief rest. Dinner was at a nearby restaurant - we walked, though it took some convincing of our guide and driver that we could find our way around town at night. We found a nice garden restaurant with traditional music. Walked around a bit, then back to the hotel to sleep.

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