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Published: April 9th 2019
When talking about this country, attention often focuses on Hanoi or Saigon as the predominant Vietnamese cities. Naturally, this is because they became the central loci of power during the famous north-south conflict. Sat between, though is Hue, the former capital city. In geographic terms, having the capital here makes sense given its central location. But Hue is more than a has-been from a vaguely remembered imperial age. Look under the skin, and you find it encapsulates as much about Vietnam as any of the other cities we have visited.
Hue’s story tells of Vietnam’s ancient history, its feudal past, the French administration and, of course, some of the most poignant stories about the war. Today we learned about the formal strictures of Nguyen royal dynasty contrasting against the devastating intensity of the Tet Offensive. But there’s so much more to see.
And the best way to do that is by motorcycle. Get set for the adventures of the Hue branch of the notorious Woodsmoor Angels MC Club.
At 1pm sharp, our bike escorts arrived to give us a full-fat taste of what it's like to drive in the crazy Hue traffic. We were each issued with an
ill-fitting helmet and allocated a driver. Everyone would ride pillion on a modern-day version of the Honda Supercub.
Except that is your narrator. I had the privilege of being driven on a powerful full-blooded motorbike. Much more to my liking. And so, with a variety of expressions ranging from excited to somewhat pensive, off we went into the melee.
On our travels, we navigated busy urban roads, fast motorways and dusty back roads. We experienced the elegant fandango of how seemingly logic-free intersections are negotiated. The etiquette (or otherwise) of overtaking other vehicles and how to vie for pole position at a railway crossing when everyone else wants desperately to get off the blocks first.
There are a couple of maxims we heard on our travels which outline some Vietnamese rules of the road. By the end of the day, we would be able to confirm or deny them.
Motorcycle riders need three things: a good bike, a good horn, and good luck! We agree.
Vietnamese traffic lights. Green light - I can go. Orange light - I can go. Red light - I can still go! Largely true we discovered.
Our first stop
was at a Japanese bridge built in 1776 and constructed to honour the wife of a high-ranking mandarin who was born in the neighbouring village.
From there, our journeys concentrated on the various mausoleum sites associated with the Nguyen Royals. The elaborate funerary structures that they envisaged before their death to allow their subjects to honour them for millennia to come. These included the Minh Mang Tomb for the king of the same name who reigned from 1820 - 1841.
By far the most impressive tomb was also the most modern. The richly encrusted tomb for king Khai Dinh who reigned from 1916 - 1925. Apparently unpopular for his active collaboration with the French he was a gambler and drug addict. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 40. Despite these personal flaws his tomb is a grand affair and is highly decorated with gold leaf, porcelain tiles and clever use of pottery fragments.
The sepulchre was richly appointed complete with a seated gold effigy of the dead king. There were also ante rooms containing some of the king’s treasures. In many ways, this was a burial just like the pharaohs of Egypt. Off into the
afterlife with one’s riches and all that. Except this was the twentieth century, and we now had cars, electricity and internal plumbing.
All the tombs were built in various places in the outskirts of Hue, and each was different in layout. All, however, were designed to invoke awe and respect. Interestingly, they all had some similar features including carved stone figures of soldiers, horses and ceremonial elephants. To guard the dead king in his eternal repose.
Between these stops we speeded around on our own bikes, enjoying the breeze on a sweltering hot day. After a brief, but predictable, stop at a tourist shop where we spent a few quid we headed to our final tourist site.
The Thien Mu Pagoda is just outside Hue. We went to have a look at the infamous Austin Westminster used in 1963 by Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức to travel to Saigon and burn himself alive. It’s captured in a grim but well-known piece of photojournalism that stands even today as a dramatic symbol of protest against religious intolerance.
That done, it was time for one last ride through the Hue rush hour traffic to the Moonlight Hotel to
cool off. We thanked our riders and our Hue tourism was complete.
OK, that’s it for Hue. If you don’t visit here on your trip to Vietnam that would be a big mistake. It’s arguably one of the most vibrant and exciting stops on a visit to this marvellous country.
Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow. Or as you might know it, Saigon.
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