Hue is Vietnam’s imperial city, but in fact it has been so only for the last 200 years. Somewhere early 19th century the capital was moved from Hanoi to Hue, in recognition of the fact that the country was now “united” (I commented on that before). Most of the subsequent emperors were in fact puppets of the French colonial regime, installed by the French and maintained by the French, as long as they followed orders from the French.
On the north bank of the Perfume River – no reference to its smell – is the city’s citadel, which contains the Forbidden City and the Imperial Palace. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the fairly attractive restoration of some of the buildings and pavilions in the center, much of this complex has fallen in disrepair, and the whole thing looks a bit shoddy. In one of the corridors a motorbike is parked, somewhere else a few corrugated iron-covered sheds seem to accommodate guards, or workers, building materials are stacked in a court yard that otherwise would have been quite nice. A raised platform of uncertain origin and function is overgrown with grass, and its stone stairs are crumbling. And yet, wandering around, away from the main palaces – and away from the tour groups – one gets a better feeling of authenticity, crossing small bridges over narrow moats, walking around weed-filled ponds, and peeping around gates with faded decorations. One could almost imagine the outlying quarters being occupied by the hundreds of wives and concubines, let alone the children, of the emperor.
(1) Entrance to the Citadel.
The Forbidden City, in all its glory and disrepair: (2) one of the restored buildings, brightly red painted, (3) a gate at the periphery, faded, and (4) another gate, to a gate, to a gate. (5) Some soft furnishing, even, with feeling for decorative detail.
Outside the Forbidden City is the old town, which could have been very attractive, with its many canals and ponds, but in fact is even shoddier, most of the water covered with weed, and most of the houses having been modernized, somewhat. With a little more effort, Hue could turn into a real nice gem of a city, but it seems that this effort is just too much asking for. Perhaps some of this initially had to do with all imperial being tainted, after the communist take-over of the country, but by now even the communists see the financial potential of this utter expression of bourgeois: Hue is the most popular tourist destination in the country.
(6) A pond in the Citadel, overgrown with lotus weeds.
(7) The moat must still contain some fish.
Outside Hue there are several royal mausoleums, and here it is very much the same story. Some of these places are really nice, well maintained, and surprisingly attractive; there is Tu Doc’s, with a lovely pavilion on a small pond, and old, wooden temples, as well as the emperor’s tomb, amid well-kept gardens. Some other mausoleums are equally active, so to speak, and receive bus loads of visitors, whilst others have been allowed to crumble, buildings in a state of disrepair and the site unprotected – which, of course, makes them great to explore, unhindered by these bus loads. It is not entirely clear to me what determines the fate of a mausoleum, the length of the emperor’s reign, number of good deeds, economic or social achievements, or quantity of concubines (one of the emperors apparently had no less than 142 children).
(8, 9, 10) The Tu Doc mausoleum, the best preserved and most visited.
(11) Another mausoleum, closed, and not getting better for it.
To see the mausoleums - some of them, at least - I rented a bicycle, after all, this was going to be flat country, no?, piece of cake? Right, relatively flat it was, but for an inexperienced cyclist like me, still challenging enough. And whilst most of the route was through pleasant country side, across small tracks, part also followed these mean roads I wrote about before, including 500 meters of Highway One from Ho Chi Min City to Hanoi, with all the traffic I had hoped to avoid. In addition to the cycling I found that many of the mausoleums are spaciously laid out, and have a significant number of steps leading in and out of the buildings, ie up and down, so I was well and truly exhausted afterwards. But, a nice enough day out, and a good preparation for the next golf season.
(12) In the vicinity of one of the mausoleums incense joss-sticks are being made, and offered for sale.
(13) And outside Hue, wooden sticks are being used to set fishing nets.