On our first day we visited the Citadel – named Vietnam’s ‘forbidden city’ by some. It was home to the emperors during the 19th century. Emperors who didn’t have any power but seemed to have lots of money and big egos.
The next day we took a boat trip down the Perfume River and visited some of the emperors’ elaborate tombs. The most elaborate, and best preserved was the tomb of Khai Dinh. It was a mixture of Vietnamese and European architectural styles and had life-sized stone guards watching over it. The weather in Hue was punishingly hot, so the boat ride was sweet.
We also took a motor-bike tour around a few of the other sights in Hue with a tour guide from the Stop-and-Go cafe. Our guide, Bill, brought us to see the Japanese bridge – a Japanese-style covered bridge, built by a lady who had no children to honour her after she died. She built the bridge for the local people and within it there’s a shrine where people regularly gather to pray for her. It’s an absolutely beautiful bridge and older people sit on the wide wooden benches to rest from the afternoon sun.
Another fascinating place we visited with Bill was Ho Quyen, the tiger fighting arena. This was where the royal family would go to watch a tiger fight an elephant (as you do). It’s not a very huge arena but is still in tact and apparently was based on the Colosseum in Rome. Unfortunately for the poor tiger he/she was always drugged and had its claws removed so that the elephant always won. This was because the elephant symbolised the monarchy and the tiger symbolised rebellion. It seems that these were very decadent times but they didn’t last for very much longer. The emperors stopped using the arena in 1904 and their empire ended in 1945.
Bill also took us to some French and American bunkers which overlooked the city. He fought in the South Vietnamese army and had stories to tell about his brutal experiences of war. He was an interpretor for the Americans and after the war he ended up in a detention camp and after that mine-clearing. He said that up to 10 years ago he couldn’t speak of the war to anybody but after joining a monastery for a while and sorting his head out a bit, he can now talk about things more easily.
On our last night in Ninh Binh we were wondering how we’d get to Hue. We didn’t want to get a night bus because they’re impossible to sleep in (for me at least) and also we wanted to be able to see the countryside roll past the window. We hadn’t booked anything because all of the tourist buses travel at night and people were saying we’d be a bit mad to catch a local bus.
“No problem” they said at the hotel. “We’ll walk you up to the main road and when we see a bus bound for Saigon that we like the look of we’ll just stick out our hand. It’s the Vietnam way.”
We ended up spending 15 hours on a very crammed bright pink bus. We were a bit nervous when we got on but it turned out being an enjoyable, if not entirely comfortable journey. We got to see a lot of Vietnamese life and met some pretty interesting characters along the way. We stopped twice for food and drinks and many many times to pick up people and packages from the side of the road. There were times when the driving crew made us a bit nervous – and not just because of their driving or use of the horn – but when we said our goodbyes in Hue everyone was full of goodwill and smiles.
Hue has been fascinating. We’ve seen a lot in the few days that we’ve been here. We’ve had plenty of time to relax – especially in the early evening when you can’t do much except watch the storms – but we’ve also taken a lot in.
Hue is very close to the demilitarised zone – basically the geographical “border” between North and South Vietnam that was set up before the Vietnam-American war. It was also where the royal family lived for most of the time Vietnam was occupied by France. All of this made the place very interesting indeed.
One of the most interesting things for me was when we visited the Thien Mu Pagoda and I saw the photo from the cover of Bullet in the head, an album from the band Rage Against the Machine. I was never into the album or the band but I remember the cover. I can even vaguely remember someone telling me what it was about. In 1963, a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc drove his Austin motorcar from the Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue (where he was studying) to Saigon. He got out of the car and in front of a crowd of monks and spectators he set himself on fire as a protest against the way the government was treating monks. This action was broadcast on television in America and played a part in influencing peoples’ perception of what was really happening in Vietnam. I’m pretty horrified by what he did and I certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of glorifying it but I’m sure they were very desperate times. I see it as yet another example of just how tragic the war was for everyone. In any case, seeing the car there with the famous photo behind it certainly left an impression on me.