I'll Meet You At The Pleasure Pavilion

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March 20th 2012
Published: March 20th 2012
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WE CHECKED INTO THE HUE HOLIDAY HOTEL a mere four hours after we left Hoi An, a pleasant reprieve from our usual 12-13 hour jaunts. We decided to stop in Hue more out of necessity than desire. We had plane tickets to Bangkok in only five days, and there was a lot that I wanted to see in the north, including Halong Bay, the sight that had attracted me to Vietnam in the first place. Unfortunately there wasn’t a bus straight to Hanoi so had to stop in Hue to transfer; we decided we may as well spend the day there and leave the following morning. Against our wishes our one day turned into three – there were no buses available for the next two days due to the number of people that were traveling for Tet. Although Hue did have plenty to entertain us, it felt frustrating to not be able to control of how we spent our last fleeting days in Vietnam. But there was nothing to be done, so we accepted our fate and spent the next three days exploring the historical relics of Hue.

In the words of Lonely Planet, Hue is the “intellectual, cultural, and spiritual heart of Vietnam.” This is a pretty big reputation to live up to but it fits the bill. From 1802 to 1945 Hue was the political capital of the country and the 13 emperors of the Nguyen dynasty left opulent palaces, tombs and temples in their wake. The city is divided down the middle by the wide muddy banks of the Perfume River. On the South side of the river a few narrow streets lined with restaurants and guesthouses comprise the ‘backpacker district.’ Other than these three streets the city feels very authentic and untouched by tourism. Motorbikes congest the wide lanes, red pagodas peak out from behind tall pines, and people sit in open air restaurants slurping down pho and sipping the epic, Vietnamese iced coffee.

After checking into our hotel we ventured out to find the Forbidden City (intrigued by its name of course), a former imperial city that sits on the North bank of the Perfume River. Before passing through the tall, foreboding gates of the enclosed area known as the Citadel we stopped to get a bowl of Bun bo Hue (Hue style beef noodle soup) at a local place that has been serving the stuff up for over 50 years. These concrete floor, plastic furniture, open front restaurants are one of the things I will miss most about Asia – authentic, delicious food for next to nothing. Once inside the gates we were greeted by the sight of a deserted, decaying world. Low stone fences covered in glowing green moss and rusted barbed wire ran around the perimeter. Straight ahead of was a wide, empty park. At its center stood a rusted, broken down carousel that looked like it had not moved in several decades. In the gray, shadowy light the park felt eerie; like zombies had invaded and the entire town had deserted on a moment’s notice. It was hard to imagine that this was once the city of the privileged; where only the emperors, his concubines, and close friends were allowed. Eventually we ran into the heart of the Citadel, the Forbidden City, surrounded on all sides by a moat and even taller gates. Inside was a much more polished, yet still overgrown version of the exterior – sprawling green lawns, cracked stone sculptures, and extravagant ceremonial halls. We spent the whole afternoon strolling through the lawns, ducking through hidden archways reminiscent of my favorite childhood movie, the Secret Garden, and photographing the decaying structures. The day was cool and gray and the only pop of color came from a vibrant pink carnation clinging to the branches of a bonsai tree.

That evening after resting we walked around our neighborhood and discovered an intimate little restaurant nestled inside an art gallery. Large, modern prints adorned the crisp white walls. Being the only customers there the waiter treated us like royalty. Again, I let myself order a glass of red wine (my thriftiness waning) and we tried the Hue specialties of Banh Beo (shrimp dumplings), Mem Bui (spicy minced meat), and Banh Khoai (vegetable stuffed pancakes). The meal was amazing, but I felt a bit guilty being treated with such deference, especially considering this would have been an incredibly cheap meal for us at home at about $5 per person.

The next morning we rented a motorbike and joined the swarm of other buzzing vehicles on the wide lanes. We drove alongside the Perfume River, past parks and noodle stands, finally crossing over it’s rushing currents on a narrow, rickety bridge just outside of town. On the other side a small, gravel road lead us to the forested lawns of To Thien Pagoda. The seven story octagonal structure is iconic in Vietnam – it is on postcards, t-shirts, bags, and magnets. Dozens of other pagodas with a similar outline dot the landscape, but this is the tallest of them all. A couple of young monk boys were walking around the lawns picking up leaves. As we walked by them I smiled and one of them reached out and handed me a fresh orange – a simple, kind gesture, a fleeting connection - humanity in its most beautiful form.

Afterwards we drove into the countryside to Tu Duc Tomb, a large, sweeping complex of lakes, hills, and woods built for Emperor Tu Duc as a retreat from his official duties. Apparently it was common for these guys to create these massive, elaborate tombs, sculpting the natural landscape around them as they chose. There are six of them scattered around Hue and they all contain similar elements, including a ‘pleasure pavilion’ and an altar for worshipping the soul of the Emperor (very humble beings by the sound of it) among others. Nestled amongst the pines and towering on top of hills there were over 50 structures in various states of disrepair, all containing the word ‘khiem’ meaning ‘modesty’ in their name. Some were palaces where the Emperor worked; others were used for rest or worship. Many were tombs for his multiple wives. There was even a pavilion overlooking a lake which the Emperor used to read and write poetry.

Not in the mood to do more sightseeing, we spent our final day in Hue wandering around the backpacker area, in and out of the numerous shops. Ever since we had arrived in Vietnam I had been intrigued by the multitudes of tailoring shops which were bursting with beautiful silk dresses. Since we had time to kill, I finally decided to investigate. Almost immediately a bright red, oriental dress with embroidered flowers, and a high collar caught my eye. Crossing my fingers, I asked the price. Twenty dollars, was the response. That did it, the dress was mine. The woman quickly pulled it off the rack, tailored it to my exact size and handed me my prize. I left Hue in style.

To see more pictures from Hue check out: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thejarvisproject

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