Down the Vietnam Coast – Part 1 – Hue - A Tangent on Black Eyes and Busted Lips

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September 6th 2013
Published: September 7th 2013
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I am not a sociologist or an anthropologist, so I hesitate to posit theories concerning the deep-rooted psychological causes of cultural behavior shared by the individuals that make up that culture. Even if they may seem evident to me, I’ll leave any intellectual asseverations to the experts because mine will surely be missing facets I could not even conceive. However, I am more than happy with being an observer, reporting on what Klaudia and I have seen, and on what we’ve experienced along the way. And, in all honestly, knowing that subjectivity is part of the fun in writing about our experiences, I do try to keep any dramatization or exaggeration to a minimum. Thus, it is not a question of having misinterpreted perceptions on people’s attitudes towards us, or in misrepresenting them – we experienced some very real hostility all over the North of Vietnam. The acrimony can be a theme in and of itself; yet, when all is said and done, Vietnam was still one of my favorite countries by far during our trip, so I do not wish to make it a vitiating theme. Not able to help myself though, I will relate one more incident that I thought was interesting.

When we left Sapa, we booked the entire way to Hue, which meant a train ride to Hanoi and then a transfer to a night bus to finish the trip. It took a little time to figure out, but, in terms of the Vietnamese rail, we learned that various companies own various train wagons, which means not only various classes as the word is used in the typical sense, but various echelons within those classes dependent on the company with which you book your seat. In other words, Vietnamese Companies X and Y can own the same class of wagon, but, for instance, Company X can excel in the upkeep of theirs. So, it was significant that, when we’d booked our ride in Sapa, our agent accidentally booked our trip with one company, but gave us a ticket voucher of another one. This created some confusion when we appeared with our voucher at the wrong rail company, and were subsequently told to wait at a restaurant for our tickets. Clearly, this is a bit hard to comprehend as a tourist and has “scam” written all over it. Moreover, our agent in Sapa warned us about scams that proceed in this manner exactly and even asked our driver, who drove us to the train station, to look after us once we arrived at the station. We worried a bit at the restaurant and, once our driver departed as he was obliged to leave, I walked back to the initial rail company. I didn’t receive much help there, but, with some flattering cajoling, was able to finally have the woman at the counter agree to allow me to use her phone. I called our agent, who asked me to wait where I was and that someone would arrive with our tickets. At this point in our travels, I understood that, for the most part, Asians do not like to admit mistakes – not that they don’t work to fix them when they’re made, they just don’t articulate them, preferring to leave you in the dark until, hopefully, a positive outcome has been achieved and you are none the wiser. It is a cultural norm that one learns to pick up on, but can lead to misunderstandings that could have been solved with an apologetic admission. I’d put two-and-two together when the woman arrived with our tickets and she conceded to my question about us having received the wrong voucher. Well, no harm done - other than some wasted time and unneeded concern - and I went on my way.

When we began to review the ticket, we’d discovered that the wagon, cabin and seat numbers did not match our voucher initially provided by the tourist agent. The fact of the matter is that tourists are consistently ripped off with the bait-and-switch in Asia: it is as commonplace as rice and, as a tourist, you can either accept it (not recommended because that only encourages the behavior) or you can stand up for yourself (my preference). This constant vigilance that we had to keep sometimes would lead us to question things that didn’t need to be questioned; but, it was always just a matter of clarification: if it was a bait-and-switch – which, again, happens all the time and we were even warned about it at this point – then we’d either ask for our money back or negotiate better terms somehow; if it wasn’t a bait-and-switch, that was all the better and we could travel peacefully. We sought clarification with our ticket at the same agency when a younger man, who’d been sitting quietly the whole time, suddenly stormed out of his seat, began yelling roughly about “platform one and stupid tourist go there!”, and slammed the door directly in our faces. Well… Unsurprisingly, I told him what I thought about his behavior through the glass window to the office; he stood up and stormed towards the door; opening it, he was about to step through it when several individuals held him back. And all this was over a question of clarification, which, I can say with all honestly, may have been insistently annoying, but was in no way posed in an impertinent manner. As we got on the train (which was nice, by the way), I noted to Klaudia how interesting it was that, throughout Asia, we’d not seen a single Westerner with a black eye, busted lip, or some other injury that could be made with a fist; in Vietnam, just after a couple weeks there, we’d seen upwards of twenty – it was a very evident phenomenon. Without argument, the causes of bodily injury are many, especially clumsiness and/or drunkenness, but we’d personally witnessed several instances of arguments along busy streets being settled the old-fashioned way. From that point on, I decided, for safety’s sake, a better tact for me was to not run my mouth. Things never really did get any better with that tact either, but much calmed down once we’d found ourselves passed Hue.

Hue, the nation’s capital until 1945 and the Nguyen dynasty’s religious, cultural and mercantile center, was located on the border of the South and North of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. With this ill-fated position, the city was bombed heavily by both the Americans and the North, thus, many areas were reduced to rubble, and remained in this bleak state for many years. However, with a change in the Communist government’s mentality towards historical sites that are not directly linked to Communism, many places of touristic interest are being restored, the main one being the citadel.

Surrounded by a moat and a brick wall spanning a couple kilometers-squared, the citadel is more like a citadel, within a citadel, within a citadel, with the first layer being the citadel itself, the second layer being the Imperial City and the third layer being the Forbidden Purple City. We drove our motorbike across the moat, whose waters are diverted from the Huong, or “Perfume” River along which Hue sits, and through the main walls. Inside, motorbikes continue to whir along roads around the Imperial City; homes, restaurants and other places of business are also found within this fortress. We parked our motorbike, then headed towards the Flag Tower of the Imperial City, which proudly waves in front of the second set of walls. After walking through these walls and into the Imperial City, we toured several ancient buildings, including the Thai Hoa Palace, or the Palace of Supreme Harmony. Constructed in the early 19th century, the palace was the emperor’s coronation hall, a place to meet with foreign dignitaries, and the setting for high meetings of state. In its center stood the emperor’s throne, surrounded by red, cylindrical columns bearing gilded dragons. Along a railing in the ceiling are inscribed the words “Palace of Supreme Harmony”.

We next visited two Mandarin buildings, which are located directly behind the palace. Originally constructed as administrative offices, they now serve as museums and hold souvenir shops, where we saw some beautifully painted Vietnamese art. This area led into the Forbidden Purple City. Much of it has been unfortunately destroyed, and restoration efforts are lagging in this part of the citadel, but the Forbidden City was once the reserved residence of the Nguyen imperial family. During the dynasty’s reign, it contained many buildings of grandeur.

The next day, we joined a boat tour along the Huong River. The tour, as promised, took us along the river in a “dragon boat” to some garden temples, the Thien Mu Pagoda and several emperor tombs.

Thien Mu Pagoda, at seven stories, is the tallest in Vietnam and the unofficial symbol of the city. Behind it is a beautiful Buddhist garden with a path leading around a small pagoda and through styled Bonsai trees growing from ornate stone pots. From what I understand, it is usually possible to enter the pagoda, but on the day we visited it was chained closed. After closer inspection, however, I noticed that the lock linking the chains was not locked, so I opened it and was about to proceed inside when I was invited out by some rather irritated Buddhist monks.

Following the visit of the pagoda, we set out on our tomb tour. The tombs, exquisite pieces of architecture in their own right, more like vast royal complexes with halls, temples and gardens, were mostly built around the French colonial era, thus their construction includes as much controversy as historical relevance. Nevertheless, the tombs beautifully display various eastern and western architectural motifs.

The first tomb we visited was the Royal Tomb of Minh Mang. Construction of the tomb began a year after the emperor’s coronation, but was not complete until after his death. Past the main entrance, we walked a path that led through several buildings and which divides the 40-acre lot in half. All monuments, ponds, and points of reflection are arranged around this path. With some ground to cover, we walked to the Stele Pavilion, which contains a stele on which is inscribed the emperor’s biography. After crossing the Lake of Impeccable Clarity and the Lake of the New Moon, we were met with a long staircase with dragon-shaped banisters. At the top of the staircase is a locked gate, beyond which is an artificial hill with brush and pine trees which is said to hold the remains of Minh Mang.

We next visited the Tomb of Tu Doc, who was the longest reigning emperor in the Nguyen Dynasty. He built the 30-acre tomb area as a retreat, a place to examine his life, write poetry and books, and have a little fun with his concubines. Though not lacking in majesty, the tomb complex is less stately than that of Minh Mang’s, representing more of a modest natural landscape intertwined with regal luxury. The mixture of modesty and grand elegance goes beyond the landscaping, however, and is most apparent at the stele pavilion, which relates this emperor’s story on an enormous 20-ton stone tablet under an opulent stone-gate structure. It is said that the stone tablet’s journey from Thanh Hoa, where it was chiseled and inscribed, to Hue took over four years. Yet, the biography, which was written by the emperor himself, makes an effort to sound humble, perhaps even submissive in parts, as it recalls life’s problems and illnesses, and the fact that he may have erred in his decisions. It is the largest stele in Vietnam.

Just beyond the stele is the emperor’s sepulcher, designed, of course, in a simplistically modest style, but encircled by a thick brick wall with ornate sculptures along the top. Supposedly, the emperor is not buried there, but instead laid elsewhere in a secret location with his vast treasure. In his perpetual modesty, the emperor ordered that those that buried him after his death be beheaded, an order with which his mandarins complied. The emperor’s wife and son are buried not far from his tomb.

Finally, we visited my favorite, yet most unpopular at the time due to the heavy taxes laid on peasants to build it – the Tomb of Khai Dinh. This tomb too is a mixture of motifs, but it is one of sensible Eastern design topped with an ostentatious show of French artistic and architectural influences. Requiring eleven years to complete (also after the emperor’s death by his son), the tomb is a monumental structure, imposing and royal. It is reached by climbing a long staircase, purposely designed to make visiting difficult so that effort was needed in order to pay one’s respects to the emperor - personally, I was annoyed by this as I was drenched in sweat on a hot day by the time I made the top of the staircase, but that was nothing compared to the annoyance I experienced once I noticed another staircase to the actual mausoleum. But, perhaps the emperor was on to something when he’d ordered this design: I relished the grandeur of the staircase with its dragon banisters and solemnly walked between the guarding mandarins at the forecourt at the top of the stairs. Inside the mausoleum, amid a beautiful porcelain mosaic, stands a life-size bronze statue of Khai Dinh seated upon a royal throne under an ornately decorated concrete canopy. This statue marks the place of the emperor’s burial and the final tomb erected to a Vietnamese emperor.

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