Hue—the Imperial City

Sexual Intelligence continues reporting live from a 3-week trip to Vietnam.

After an uneventful flight, I arrived in Hue, a peaceful city (population 300,000) of lakes, gardens, and the Perfume River. I was delighted to find that my hotel room faced the lovely wide river, so close I could see and hear the water taxis and miniature barges from my balcony.

The river here is everything—a source of transportation, food, poetry, and, less tangibly, the emotional heart of the area. Upstream, the river valley passes through hills crowned with old mausoleums and other royal monuments. Downstream, the river carries commerce to the sea, connecting Hue with China, Hong Kong, Cambodia, and the rest of Asia as it has done for centuries.

I spent a day touring the traditional sites. First I visited the lovely Thien Mu Pagoda, a 400-year-old Buddhist monastery (religious school, temple, burial site, and garden) on the site of a 2,000-year-old Cham Temple. By the 1930s it had become a hotbed of Buddhist opposition to French colonialism; in 1963 one of its monks became world-famous when he drove all day to Saigon’s downtown, sat down in the street and set himself on fire to protest the corrupt Ngo Din Diem regime the U.S. was supporting. The burned shell of his car, and the well-known photo of his self-immolation, are on display here.

Next I went to the gigantic 19th-century Citadel, a small city that was home to emperors, their hundreds of wives, concubines, and mandarins, and thousands of workers supporting them. A walled compound with spectacular buildings in various condition, it’s a showcase of Vietnamese architecture, religious practice, and a 200-year-old ruling dynasty that only ended with the Communist “liberation” of Vietnam in 1945.

The next day I went outside Hue to visit the mausoleums of 3 different emperors. Each contained the traditional elements (giant ceremonial gate, mammoth stone staircases, giant stone obelisks and inscribed stealae, life-sized stone soldiers guarding the tomb), although each was executed differently. In addition, each offered a carefully designed lake, lovely formal gardens, thousands of trees in their natural setting, and grounds for royal meditation. Meditating on the grounds of your own future burial site must be interesting, if a person can stand it.

In addition, I had a few more prosaic adventures. At the end of a country lane, I found the small temple dedicated to the elephants which sometimes died battling tigers in the Royal Arena. My guide was skeptical that we’d find it, but we did—the first tourist-free place I’d enjoyed in the whole country.

I then went to a workshop in which a dozen half-naked men sweated to make enormous bronze bells weighing tons each. The fires (over 1,000 degrees) roared as apprentices fed hardwood into or around various clay molds. I also watched old craftsmen, sitting barefoot on their heels or a single brick, carve delicate designs (backwards!) into the molds. There was still plenty to see and questions to ask, but with my hair and clothes reeking from smoke, I finally ran out of the hot, dark, noisy—and wonderful—place.

I was really eager to see a Vietnamese train station. Access inside them is strictly limited, so Saigon and Hanoi were out; Hue was my big chance. Of course, the petty bureaucrat in charge firmly dismissed my idea, asking for an actual ticket going somewhere. Finally, I had my guide push the guard really hard on behalf of the famous professor from California, and I was allowed to see…tracks! Unused trains standing still! A few workers “examining” things and even pretending to repair stuff.

It was a long day, capped by a bath, room service, and writing this blog. It was easy to go to sleep. I was sure I’d dream about driving south to Danang, Hoi An, and the South China Sea.


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