Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Huế - once the imperial capital of Vietnam

MONDAY 17th October

The river was still rising and parts of Hoi An were flooding as we boarded our bus in the pouring rain for our trip to Huế. This is the lady we bought our bottled water from... set up for business in spite of the rain. She was very friendly, and waved goodbye as we drove away.

Flooding was evident most of the way to Huế.

The deepest was not far out of Hoi An. We wondered if the bus would have to turn around
but that was the worst of it, and we passed through without incident... can't say the same for this truck, though. These guys were trying to push it through the flood water...


It often floods in the rainy season here, and the people learn to live with it. Our tailor in Hoi An lives on the riverbank there, and she was telling us that last year during the big flood, her family lived on their boat for a couple of months before they could get back into their house. We drove for hours looking out at flooded countryside.

There was a pit stop along the way at this place on the beach

Even the surf looked wild and stormy.

 And all the rivers were breaking their banks.

From our posie on the back seat, we could see the backs of all our fellow passengers' heads and I was fascinated with this guy's ear...
(Katie was horrified that I took this photo ... but what can I say ... check it out!)

Around lunchtime we arrived in Huế. The bus driver told us our hotel was just around the corner, so we shouldered our backpacks and off we went. Trouble was, our street was flooded! So we took off our shoes and continued on...
We must have looked a sight... it was pretty hilarious. We were wading through water that was knee deep before we got to the end of the street and still hadn't found the Bamboo Hotel, which was where we were booked. So we phoned Giang (our travel agent in Ho Chi Minh City) and asked him if the details on our Itinerary were correct. There was a 'Green Bamboo Hotel' across the road from where we were standing, but Giang insisted that we were booked into the Bamboo Hotel. But when he read out their phone number is was the same as on the sign  for the Green Bamboo Hotel, so we splashed our way across the road and checked in. Turns out they recently changed their name, but hadn't updated their website.

Our room was pleasant enough
so we relaxed a bit then went for a walk around and found a place for lunch. We waded down our street, but it was no longer raining and the water was receeding.

We found a little restaurant and had lunch... The food was pretty ordinary. After that, we walked over the bridge and down to the market for a quick look around, then headed back to the hotel. You could see the workers already cleaning off the silt from the boat landing by the bridge.

Both of us needed to be close to the loo for a bit... must have been that dodgy lunch... Anyway, we talked to the family on the phone and watched some TV and had a nap in what was left of the afternoon. I had noticed a Big C supermarket on the way in, so we walked to it and bought some baguettes, ham and cheese for a simple dinner.
Then it was more TV and an early night.

TUESDAY, 18th October

We had breakfast at the hotel

A baguette for Katie and delicious Pho Bo for me
A baguette for Katie and delicious Pho Bo for me
At 8:30am we were picked up for our tour. Huế originally rose to prominence as the capital of the Nguyễn Lords, a feudal dynasty which dominated much of southern Vietnam from the 17th to the 19th century. It was the national capital until 1945, when Emperor Bao Dại abdicated and a communist government was established in Hà Nội (Hanoi), in the north. Our tour included emporers' tombs, temples, the Imperial Citadel and a boat trip on the Perfume River.
Our first stop was a souvenir shop where a lady was rolling incence sticks.

I bought some incence sticks and one of the watercolour paintings
Then we visited the tomb complex of the Emperor Tự Đức. He designed it himself to blend with the natural setting of the landscape and achieve perfect harmony. During his lifetime, Emperor Tự Đức used the tomb as a palatial retreat together with his many wives and concubines. He visited it for recreation, for meditation, and to write and meet with other writers and intellectuals. It is quite beautiful and we would have easily spent many hours here.
The following info I lifted from the net but they're our photos...

Tự Đức Tomb (built 1864-67)
Tự Đức Tomb is one of the most beautifully designed complexes among the tombs of the Nguyen dynasty. Embedded in a lush pine forest, this tomb is the final resting place of Emperor Tự Đức (1848-83) who had the longest reign of all emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. As usual at that time, Tự Đức had begun planning and constructing his tomb long before he died in 1883. Thus, the major parts of the tomb complex were built around 1864-67. The enormous costs, extra taxation and forced labor necessary to build the tomb caused protest among the workers, who attempted a coup in 1866. With the help of his generals Tự Đức was able to suppress the coup and continued enjoying the palace within the tomb for the remainder of his life. The royal amenities available at this tomb are unmatched by any other such structure in Vietnam.
Inside the complex, which covers 12 ha, there are about 50 gates, buildings, terraces and pavilions. All of the names of the constructions include the word "Khiem" (modesty). The tomb is divided into two main parts: the temple area and the tomb area itself.
The temple area starts with the Vu Khiem entrance and the romantic Luu Khiem lake where the Emperor used to go boating and fishing,
with a small game hunting ground on a tiny island in the midst of the lake,
This is the luxurious Xung Khiem Pavilion where Tự Đức is said to have retreated to relax and recite or compose poetry in the company of his concubines. He was an expert in eastern philosophy and literature, composing 4,000 verses and 600 works of prose.
The lotus plants were dying off, but they must look spectacular when they're in bloom.
It feels like a very tranquil place.

This is Du Khiem Pavilion with ornate detailing... also overlooking the lake.
This is Hoan Khiem Palace, which was the Emperor’s working place and is now used as an altar devoted to the Emperor and Empress.
On its sides, there are Phap Khiem House and Le Khiem House for the military and civil mandarins.

The tomb area consists of the Honour Courtyard (Bai Dinh), the Stele Pavilion, and the sepulcher. In the Honour Courtyard, you walk past two rows of statues of high-rank military and civil mandarins, which are deliberately made shorter than the emperor... and he was VERY short...
  Even the elephant and horse statues are scaled down...
This is the Stele Pavilion
The stele for Tự Đức Tomb was brought there from a quarry over 500 km away, and it is the largest of its type in Viet Nam. It took four years to complete the transport. Although the Emperor had over a hundred wives and concubines, he did not have any offspring. Lacking a son to write his biography and merits, which would be part of the stele inscription, the task fell to himself, a circumstance he considered to be a bad omen. It is interesting to know that Tự Đức’s modest, self-written inscription includes not only his achievements - like in other tombs - but also mentions his misadventures, mistakes and diseases.
The inscription...
Everywhere you look there's fascinating detail
On the hillside opposite the semi-circular Tieu Khiem Tri Lake, there is the Buu Thanh brick wall. In the middle, there is a stone house, where the Emperor was to be buried. The most interesting part about this tomb is that despite the grandeur of the site and the amount of time Tự Đức spent there, he was actually buried in a different, secret location somewhere in Huế. Even today, the mystery of Tự Đức’s hidden, real tomb still keeps many historians busy.
Emporer Minh Mạng's Tomb
was our next stop.
Emperor Minh Mạng (1820 - 1841) was the second son of Emperor Gia Long, who founded the last Vietnamese dynasty, the Nguyen Dynasty. The Minh Mạng Tomb is renowned for its architecture, which fits harmoniously into the surrounding landscape. Like in other tombs of this period, the general elements of the tomb architecture are: outer-walls, triple gate (Tam Quan Gate), Salutation Court, Stele House, temples, lakes, pavilions, gardens and the tomb itself. The entire tomb complex covers 18 ha and is laid out along a 700m long axis from the gate to the grave. (This rigid layout is completely opposite to the free-flowing Tự Đức Tomb where the structures blend in harmoniously with the landscape.)

The Dai Hong Mon Gate is the main entrance to the tomb. The gate was opened only once to carry the Emperor's coffin to the tomb, and has been tightly closed since then. It must have been an awesome spectacle. Only the Emporer's coffin and presumably his closest entered through the middle gate. Mandarins and court officials used one side gate, and the military used the other. And then it was sealed up, never to be re-opened. We came into the honours courtyard from a side entrance.
Adjacent to the main gate, there is the Honors Courtyard, which hosts a number of stone statues: two rows of high-ranking mandarins, elephants and horses.
each statue is unique
Minh Mạng was obviously taller than Tự Đức!
This bronze beast is a unicorn.
Our guide explained that the layout of the complex was designed to represent the human body. With the entrance gate as the feet, The Stele Pavilion - the stomach, the lakes on either side are the legs and arms (with little bays for fingers). The temple area, the worship site for the emporer and his wife represents the chest / heart, and the Minh Lau Bright Pavilion is the head.

Looking from the Stele Pavilion towards the Hien Duc Gate which is the main entrance to the ritual area of the tomb.
And this is the 'head'... Sung An Temple, the worship site for the Emperor and his wife.
Everything here is symbolic. For example, the Minh Lau Pavilion is placed on top of three terraces representing heaven, earth and water. Behind Minh Lau, there are two flower gardens designed as the Chinese character "Longevity".
The terraced landscaping, lakes and gardens are lovely and there is much to photograph...
View from the Minh Lâu pavilion in the Minh Mạng Tomb. The actual grave site is in the distance
Khải Định Tomb
The third tomb we visited was that of Emperor Khải Định (who ruled 1916-1925), on the slope of Chau Chu mountain, 10 km from Huế. The construction of the tomb was started on 1920 and lasted for 11 years. The architecture of this tomb is the most criticized of all the tombs of the Nguyen dynasty. The structure of the tomb is a mixture of Vietnamese and Western concepts. It can be seen as an attempt of fusion building style or a symbol of the decline of Vietnamese culture during the colonial era depending on your point of view.

Compared to other emperor tombs in Huế, Khải Định Tomb is much smaller, but it has 127 steps. As you can see, the steps are quite steep...
At the entrance, we climbed 37 steps with dragons as side walls to the first gate. Some 30 steps further one arrives at the imperial audience court, with an octagonal stele monument, again made of reinforced concrete.
On both sides of the courtyard, there are two rows of stone statues facing towards the center, representing mandarin advisors and bodyguard soldiers.
ornate detail everywhere you look...
and fabulous views
Going up one more level one reaches the altar area. This complex has many rooms connecting to each other. The walls are densely decorated with inlay of elaborate glass and porcelain designs.
The floor is covered with tile with decent flower design, the ceiling painted with nine dragons in fine fleeting clouds.
The rear room of the Khải Thanh palace hosts the main temple, with a statue of Khải Định, his grave and his altar.
Khải Định was a most flamboyant gentleman... this is his crypt
and this is his altar..
That was the last of the tombs for the day. Next stop was the Imperial Citadel – which is what remains of the palace complex where the Nguyen Dynasty ruled between 1802 and 1945. It occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the Perfume River. Inside the citadel was a forbidden city (resembling the style of the Forbidden City in Beijing) where only the emperors, concubines, and those close enough to them were granted access; the punishment for trespassing was death.
This lady, in her tiny little boat was harvesting water greens on the moat as we approached the outer wall and the flag tower.
The impressive Outer Wall, which surrounds the complex, was built between 1805 and 1832, measuring 11 km in length, 6 m in height, and has 11 gates as well as 24 towers. Its Inner Wall (Nội Thành) surrounds the Forbidden City where the Emperor’s Palace is. The area inside this wall used to be reserved only for the imperial family and the royal household. Upon entering the Citadel through the “Midday Gate” (Ngọ Môn), a lotus pond sits right next to the entrance of “Hall of Highest Harmony” (Điện Thái Hoà), considered the most important building. This hall used to hold royal ceremonies and was used as an important venue for official receptions.
Today, little of the forbidden city remains, having suffered extensive damage during the War between North and South Vietnam.
Where once there were beautiful buildings, now there are ponds in bomb craters.
Thousands of people lived here once... serving and being served. No longer.
Reconstruction efforts are in progress to maintain it as a historic tourist attraction.
This is one of the restored buildings
After The Imperial Citadel, we went to look at a Mandarin's house. It was set back from the road surrounded by a beautiful garden orchard.
It is a simple timber building... very unpretentious and uncluttered... mind you. I don't know how mant people lived there - only that the men slept at one and and the women at the other end of the house.
Our final stop was the Thiên Mụ Pagoda, which was built in 1601 during the reign of Southern Vietnam ruler Nguyễn Hoàng (1525-1613). According to an old legend, a Holy Lady who often appeared, predicted that a popular leader of the country would one day establish a pagoda on this hill to bring peace and prosperity to the people. This canny ruler is said to have built this pagoda in order to fulfil the prophecy. Thiên Mụ (Pagoda of the heavenly woman) lies on the banks of the Perfume River (Hương Giang), approximately 5 km from Hue.

It is the largest pagoda in Huế and the official symbol of the city
It was the monastery of Thích Quảng Đức, the monk who burned himself to death in 1963 to protest the South Vietnamese regime’s persecution of Buddhist monks. There is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of his immolation that made his sacrifice famous.
The monastery is on the banks of the Perfume River on top of a steep little hill... we got to climb lots of steps today! It has altars, turtles, temples... and monks!
It must be difficult to concentrate on prayer when they are constantly being subjected to the scrutiny of tourists. Never-the-less tourists are welcome to enter the temple during services as long as they remove their shoes. The monastery is very well maintained and looks to be well patronised.
Then we boarded a boat for a cruise down the Perfume River – so called for the flower blossoms that drift onto the water in the spring. For the fifth time that day, we had to wait for 15 minutes for this ignorant man who seemed to deliberately keep everyone waiting at each stop. His wife had to get off the boat and go to look for him... then the tour guide went after them both... Eventually we got away for a leisurely scenic little cruise back to the city centre.
our tour guide
At 4:30 we disembarked not far from where we photographed the workers cleaning off the silt from the flood yesterday. Then we walked back to our hotel for a bit of a lie down! It was raining heavily when the taxi picked us up later and took us to the station where we waited for the overnight train to Hanoi. It's a little disconcerting to be unable to communicate with anyone and having no idea which train they are announcing over the PA... but it was all good. Our train was called (heading north) at the same time as the boarding call for the train heading south. And we all went through the same exit. We lugged our bags over several train lines to get to our platform, very relieved to find some westerners heading the same way who were also going to Hanoi. Once our train pulled in, someone appeared who helped us to our carriage and we found our compartment without any trouble.
We put our scarves over the pillows, locked the door, changed into our PJ's and settled down for an interesting night's sleep en route to Hanoi...

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