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Published: March 11th 2015
Gates at the Royal Palace
Coming back is always an interesting experience. My usual attitude to travel was and is that the world is a big place and that my time is limited: Thus, coming back to a place has never been an option. More recently I have discovered that coming back can be an interesting experience nonetheless. To Europe because nothing ever seems to change, and coming back home is like a time travel to the far 1990s, when I used to live where I was born. Asia is a different story. Once in a while I leave Hong Kong and when I come back I suddenly find myself in a different city. Of course still high rise, of course still crowded but things magically appear and disappear. A good example is the huge Ferris wheel that adorns the skyline now: Was not here when I left for the USA, when I came back it was all up and running.
In the economic and political hustle and bustle that is Asia one can nonetheless easily find oasis where time seems to stand still. One of these places is particularly dear to me as I used to live there for 1,5 years: The ancient city
The flagpole as seen from the royal palace
of Hue in the center of Vietnam. I took the chance to go back after almost 3 years to visit THH's family during lunar new year for about a week. Arriving in Da Nang I could see traces of the Asian miracle. I remember the city as being mostly empty, something like a big construction site. Now Da Nang is booming like never before. A skyline is slowly rising up as a river front that scarily reminds of Chinese mega cities. A new bridge was built in the shape of a dragon that actually spits real fire (!!) during the weekends. Roads have been enlarged to almost American standards. Nonetheless, the project seems far from finished. Cars are still a rarity, public transport almost nonexistent. Motorbikes swarm noisily and chaotically through the broad lanes and sidewalks are still filled with old conical hat wearing women selling food out of steaming pots. All like China, Da Nang seems to be a victim of its own success: facilities are improving while the general public seems to be behaving like they did throughout the last hundreds of years.
Anyway, back to Hue City. Only a couple of hours drive from Da Nang,
Dragon in the Royal Palace
Hue is situated on the Perfume River, carefully chosen by the former emperors of Vietnam based on Feng Shui principles as being the capital of the Southern Empire. Having been the nation's capital for approximately 100 years, in 1945 the Communist Party took control of Hanoi and the last emperor was exiled to France. During the war between North and South Vietnam, Hue was also not particularly lucky due to its position near the DMZ. The darkest days of Hue followed soon, when in 1968 the communist forces invaded the South and massacred up to 6.000 civilians which did not fit the regime and an unknown number of Hue inhabitants were sent to North Vietnam for imprisonment. In a city which was known as the intellectual, traditional, imperial and spiritual capital of Vietnam, the high number of presumed "reactionaries" did not come as a surprise. Up to today there is no mention of the massacre in the war museum of Saigon. The golden flag of South Vietnam has since been replaced by the communist flag of the north on the imperial flagpole at the Hue Citadel, where it still flies in the wind.
After the war the new regime
had obviously a huge interest in neglecting the imperial, spiritual and colonial history of Vietnam and thus Hue fading into oblivion was a welcome phenomenon. Imperial insignia have been removed, the American-napalmed Hue citadel had never been restored and north Vietnamese were moved in to replace the murdered intellectuals and "reactionaries". A dark cloud has been hanging on the historical capital ever since. In this context, it was interesting to see how the city of past glories is experiencing the Asian economic miracle.
After the hint of development that I experienced in Da Nang, Hue initially appeared exactly as I left it. Provincial, crowded with motorbikes, green trees lining beautiful Le Loi street on the Perfume River. The forbidden purple city lies on the west banks of the river and dragon boats still float their way downstream. In the heat of the lunar new year the government has also thought about painting the city red: Uncle Ho still smiles from soviet style propaganda posters, hammer and sickle flags fly in the wind and almost every building has the red Vietnamese national flag hanging from a flagpole.
Pham Ngu Lao is still "foreigner street", where white backpackers dressed in
Hue food at its best
baggy pants and Bia Hoi tanktops jug the local Huda beer and devour burgers and westernized Vietnamese food. Motorbike taxis and cyclo drivers still aggressively promote their business with the steady "hello, hello, you, you". All in all, everything seems the same and life still flows in slow motion. The local shopping mall Big C had a minor makeover, now showcasing a movie theater showing mostly Vietnamese movies and the 80s video game hall has (sadly) been replaced with a polished version of a KFC fast food joint. Nonetheless, Hue is still a relaxed backwater and the former glory of the empire has never returned. Hue is not a testimony of the Asian miracle by any means. This raises some more questions.
What is really happening in Vietnam? The former Asian tiger is in a deepened political struggle with China about islands and oil rigs in the South China Sea. Saigon is still the economic capital of the country while the Hanoi government persists. The struggle with their red neighbor China though has spurred Vietnam to re-open American airfields in the country and work on their relationship with the States (!!). Meanwhile, Da Nang is slowly creeping on place
And nothing changed...
3 as the capital of the center. But what about the rest? Nothing has changed in Hue and, all in all, Vietnam seems to be stuck in political indoctrination and messy authoritarian politics (I paid almost 80 USD for a single entry visa while most of the neighbor countries don't charge anything for the same process). A local friend of mine studying the Vietnamese education system in Japan has told me that Vietnamese higher education has been surpassed even by Cambodia and there is no improvement in sight.
In all this struggle, the crumbling ruins of Hue are a sad testimony to what Vietnam once was, to what Vietnam could have been. The pain, the pride, the history of the Vietnamese people is nowhere better represented than here. If the wind of change ever should blow in the country the Hue flagpole would be the first one to know as it has been changing several flags throughout the last century. Asia is changing fast, or so they say. What is Asia then? Skyscrapers in Manila, subways in Shenzhen, or the ever lasting air of oppression that hangs over many of the Asian countries? I do not have the answer
View of the Perfume River
for this question but I hope this post might make you think a little bit about your own. Have a nice day folks!
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