Hue, 12-17 March
12.03.2009 - 17.03.2009 26 °C
The enigmatic Perfume River and the imperial Nguyen dynasty bid thee welcome. Or so we imagine the young chap saying as he jumps aboard whilst our bus rolls to a stop on the main causeway. It takes a second or two to register the true meaning of his words. No surprises here, he's actually jabbering about his hotel and the fine swimming pool we just stopped in front off. We've joined the open tourist bus trail.
Being first timers and having spent most of our time on dodgy local buses left us wondering how the masses of tourists got around. They certainly weren't wedged in between sacks of potatoes and elderly farm ladies salivating over betel nut on dodgy local transport. With that mystery duly solved now it also explains why this random guy on our bus is shoving his business card in our faces. Since he really doesn't want to leave us alone voluntarily and (yet again) we haven't got the foggiest clue where we are we decide to temporarily enlist his services. And so he whips out his rather professional looking business card and shows us the way to the river. Not very far that way? Sweet, with our location challenge solved we set off. Leaving behind a confused Vietnamese with a trace of daft recognition flickering in his eyes as he realizes he's been had. That's role reversal for a change.
A slog down the main drag along the Perfume river follows, where rather suddenly an alleyway pops up with all the guesthouses in hiding. There are not many visitors around these days it appears. All the owners out on the street outbidding each other for our custom being the dead giveaway. One of the upmarket hotel managers promptly shows us his best room. TV kaput he continues, finger pointing at the carton 'box' that now replaces it. We chuckle, as the pun must surely be unintended. But it's an easy choice today; one lady is by far the friendliest and offers us a deal we can't refuse.
Peacefully nestled on the banks of the Perfume river lies the citadel city of Phu Xuan. Encircled by a moat and a thick retainer wall of some 5 metres high and 10 kilometres long, Emperor Gia Long and his Nguyen dynasty ruled much of the country that is present day Vietnam. The history of this place is as colourful and turbulent as the Perfume River itself. Staunchly objecting to colonial rule over Tonkin in 1885, French infantry promptly razed the city to the ground, burning the imperial library and confiscating from the palace all items not firmly bolted to the floor - nice!
The '68 Tet offensive followed and the Vietcong took over for a couple of weeks, eliminating 2,500 people, so called unfavorable reactionary elements to the regime, in the process. In response, over the next few weeks anything left standing inside the citadel was subjected to a barrage of American artillery and South Vietnamese ground offensives, killing another Vietnamese 10,000 brethren. And, shaded by dark purple skies which envelope the city in a damp broody climate somehow it's that impression the city leaves behind today; a veneer of former imperial grandeur replaced with sheer weariness. Still, many of Hue's inhabitants proudly live within its citadel walls.
With daylight slipping we make our way across the Perfume River to the citadel for a late exploratory nosey. Bathed in the strong purple hue this river is justifiably famous for we wander through one of the many fortified gates that guard the enclosure. Little too late it seems as a massive exodus of people preempts the city in front of us; the working day has finished. Aside from playing with some tanks and anti aircraft apparel there remains little to do but to search for a nourishing feed. Not much of that either it appears. Only one avenue lined with street vendors in town and they all sell garden snails marinated in chillies, with quail eggs I might add. Incredibly random, but worth the try? After all the French managed to make snails palatable with lots of garlic, and the slimy creatures from the Mekong Delta with their subtle lemongrass flavouring were also divine. But no trifling with such subtle aromas today, it really does taste distinctly like snail - fleshy, gritty and earthy flavors all fight for dominance of our taste papilla at the same time. Yep, it's definitely snail - no arguing about that. Yet another gastronomic delight we have had the opportunity to sample!
Fueled by eggy omelets, jam baguettes and a brew of coffee strong enough to stir the dead we set off to explore the Citadel proper. Meandering at a snail's pace through its streets we come, amongst others, by the Perfume River (we get to do this a few times), makeshift street stalls selling aquarium utensils (of all things), a true Ho Chi Minh shop selling communist household items (as well as a huge golden bust of the man himself), and herbal pharmacies selling jarred monitor lizards and associated fowl - whole or in pieces, your pick. There's also lots of war paraphernalia on display; cracked aviator helmets, rusty bullets, dog tags, and sure enough there's even a claymore antipersonnel mine for sale, hopefully defused. See if we can smuggle that through customs.
Once in the Citadel again we soon find ourselves pondering Hue's mighty flag tower waving the communist star; Vietnam's tallest at 37 metres. Its terrace a playground for a multitude of school children. Flanked by the nine Holy cannons which represent the four seasons and five elements, the symbolic protectors of the imperial palace and its kingdom. Never designed to actually fire a shot they stand witness to what little remains of the Emperor's royal court today.
Weighing in at 10 tonnes each they won't take off in a hurry so we wander across the road to Ngo Mon Gate - the principal gateway to the imperial enclosure. Cubed in by a 6 meter high, 2.5 kilometre defense wall it is sort of a citadel within a citadel. Richly decorated with meeting quarters on top (the Belvedore of the five Phoenixes) for such occasions as royal coronations it was obviously never intended for mere mortals like ourselves.
Inside, a bridged lotus pond with millions of mentally challenged carp who vigorously and repeatedly respond to pretend feeding, separates us from the mighty Thai Hoa Palace. A spacious chamber whose dragon-lined timber roof is supported by no less than 80 lacquered carved columns. Used mostly for state occasions such as official receptions and court proceedings it was where the mandarins paid homage to their emperor. Wandering through the hall you can imagine it happening.
But unfortunately one of the reasons it requires such elaborate description is because it is also one of the few monuments that remains standing, having survived the onslaught brought about it by successive wars. Walking through we enter the inner courtyard, sided by the onerous Halls of Mandarins in anticipation of officious receptions. Behemoth cauldrons dominate the yard, where you can drop a penny for good blessing or have your photo taken donned in imperial outfit (you pay extra to take place on the throne).
Beyond lies the Forbidden Purple City; the core of this lavish imperial cosmos. Once the holiest of inner citadels, and reserved purely for the Emperor's use. Not much remains now. Sad, even the ruins are gone. A laden air of nothingness hangs in the drizzly air which hangs over the grassy plains ahead.
Alas, such nothingness can only be cured by a mighty feed, and a taste of imperial cuisine might just do the trick. Seated in an oldish pagoda-style dining area of traditional design - a Hue family home which overlooks a peaceful pond, we go straight for the vodka and a seven course feast. Peacock lookalikes with carefully crafted carrot heads and pineapple stalk tails play host to spring roll overload. Royal banh khoai (rice cakes), steamed lotus seed rice, and green bean cake molded like fruit draped from branches.
A remnant of Emperor Tu Duc's (1843-83) legacy who demanded 50 different dishes, prepared by 50 cooks, served by 50 servants each and every meal. How's that for extravagance? Only washed away properly with a hot brew of Vietnamese coffee at a serene lakeside garden cafe where a condensed milk coffee cost as much as a rum coffee - we came to the right place!
Running out of things to do we venture further out of town, aboard a true dragon boat - mighty fine! Such little tours often schedule unforeseen activities, such as cruising past poor floating, incense and conical hat-making villages and sitting in on elaborate kung fu demo's. Fun little side trips but most of our tourist colleagues remain outside, duly disgruntled about the extra $1 admission fee that wasn't incorporated in the $6 all-day tour fee. So our crew scatters; the consequent rounding up of this chicken pen proves time costly, and so we run behind schedule for the rest of the day =). No worries, such activity ambitious tours always do.
Icing on the cake, and one of the main reasons for signing up is an opportunity to see Thien Mu pagoda. This 21-metre high octagonal stepped tower looms from the banks of the Perfume river. Such majesty leaves the monks in contemplation. The unofficial symbol of Hue city, it comes with stunning pavilions, manicured courtyards, bronze cast bells and many Buddha's. The place is also renowned for its entrenched political history; many a peaceful demonstration has taken place here on this hill since the sixties.
1963; It was from here that monk Thich Quang Duc protested Diem's harsh government policies and drove to Saigon, to publicly immolate himself to death - his image continues to haunt people's minds. Today, the aqua-colored Austin Martin remains undercover, its panel work left to the elements.
Our memorial time here runs dry; next stop another nondescript temple. Mmm, temple overload, we sit it out. Ten kilometres further south we approach the Minh Mang tomb, Hue's royal ruler from 1820-1840. A majesty hard to describe on paper and which has to be seen to be done justice truly. More of an extravagant mausoleum than a tomb, this sepulchre burial mound lies surrounded by a circular wall that nobody may cross. And set amidst the crescent-shaped lakes of Tan Nguyet (lake of the New Moon) in a phenomenal park of pine trees bedazzled with stone staircases, court yards, temples and grand pavilions which harmoniously blend into its green environment - a crazy place to wander around!
Such handfuls of these royal tombs remain scattered around the area. Back into town, we pass through a popular eatery before our final departure - Hanoi beers, hot coffees, delicious prawn pancakes, plates of salad and peanuts, and bowls of green bananas and figs -a Hue specialty.