Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hue: How Emperors Lived

The past splendor of this imperial city cannot be justified in the less than 48 hours we allowed ourselves for this visit. The entire schedule was crazy, because there was so much we wanted to see, and so little time we had. Actually, it wasn't a full 2 days, more like a day and a half, with some sleep in between. We arrived by train from Ha Noi, and as usual, expected to be accosted by every cyclo and cab driver waiting for customers at the station. Luckily, our hotel was a stone's throw from the station, but we were carrying way too much. 

As with everything in my travels, I'm not going to take the usual route with you to Hue. That would be to take you to the forbidden purple city, and we'll leave that perhaps for last, since it's "dessert" and should be savored as such. I will take you to an emperor's vacation home, within the confines of Hue, but on the other side of the Perfume River.  Bear in mind that Hue is a UNESCO world heritage site, but it is in desperate need of repair, and some structures have suffered too much damage (during the Viet Nam War) to ever be restored.

On Le Loi Avenue, which is the main drag from the train station, it is rather quiet compared to the frenzy one encounters in either Ha Noi or Sai Gon. You can actually walk if you can stand the heat, by seeking refuge on the shady side. The avenue is tree lined, and as you approach the Truong Tien Bridge to the other side, cyclo drivers will be more than happy to transport you. Once you have crossed the river, (it's a really steep upgrade at first, and those poor drivers really need to hustle), do not get off until the driver has taken you to the gate of the Imperial City. Otherwise, you will end up like we did, - on the outskirts and live bait for other drivers that will literally hound you until you give in to them. 

This particular pair of drivers wanted to show us something out of the ordinary, so far as I was able to understand. It's usually more comfortable for each person to have his/her own cyclo, though we did double up on the way here, and it was murder for the poor driver. So one was driving ahead of the other, and since I had the camera, I was doing all the shooting while Chuck was falling fast asleep in his carriage. And so, we began rolling away from the Citadel to this mysterious destination. 

We passed some very poor areas, with street signs that were lopsided, and ubiquitious laundry lines, and children in their school clothing were either walking or on their bicycles. As we turned another corner, I made the driver stop so I could take a snapshot of what appeared to be the gate to a very elegant residence. There was some construction, apparently unexpected, so we made a detour. As I looked up, I saw rooftops with extremely ornate decorations, very typically Chinese as is the influence here. We will definitely see this influence repeated in the Imperial Citadel, which was modeled after the one in China. 

We finally stopped in front of a breathtaking gate and if a picture is worth a thousand words, then let me save mine, and have you take a look. 

the gate to Heritage House
Needless to say, anything we felt toward our pushy drivers disappeared the very instant we set eyes on this place. I learned that many of these abandoned imperial vacation homes have been turned into "heritage houses", and there are people tending to their upkeep. We were not escorted inside, but we were free to roam and look. I studied the columns of the gate, all the while admiring the ornate dragon relief decorations, all done in ceramic. There are areas that were covered in crabgrass, but they were charming ne
vertheless, as the sound of running streams permeated the air. As I carefully walked on the grass, I spotted a terra cotta container with a mostly spent candle inside. I assumed that at night, they set a romantic mood to this place with strategically placed candle holders like this one.  

I had wanted to see imperial bedrooms in a palatial setting, but this was not to be. Everything to be seen and admired was more or less out in the open, or in recessed covered areas. As you walk to the right from the gate area, you come upon a sitting area; the table and benches are faded, but one can imagine a royal setting. The carved doors are exquisite, and appear newer, or perhaps they had been restored. 

As you can see from the photo, there is a time warp between the wooden doors and the seating area. I did spot one young woman who may have worked there, and she was tending to the seating areas, as if expecting guests.  All the smaller tables in more intimate settings were covered with lace cloths, and I spotted paper menus on table tops. The furnishings in general were made to resemble Chinese cherrywood items. 

A lovely table setting in very serene surroundings

All that is missing are the guests

The architecture of Hue City is a composite of many influences. It was said that one its strongest influences came from Dong Son culture, accompanied by the influx of northern emigrants before the 2nd century and Sa Huynh culture after 13th century. These influences have resulted in the birth of Viet-Champa culture, which during its evolution, did not excluded influences from various civilizations (of southeast Asia, China, India, western countries, etc.). By the way, Champa culture has left some wonderful traces in Nah Trang, which we will be talking about later in the blog. 

Other items to look at and admire were the mother of pearl incrusted wood chests, as well as porcelain vases decorated with indigo blue motifs. The photo shows the high chest, and ceramics, and the pillar in the foreground does not betray the fact that there are only two walls to this "chamber". I got close enough to the statue to scrutinize the mother of pearl adornments which seemed very authentic. The statue must have been of a warrior. 

You might be tempted to purchase vases or ceramics, but you'll be able to make the killing at Bat Trang Village, so save your dong for that trip. However, you'll be glad you came here, which was the "playground" of the Nguyen Dynasty in all its splendor. By the way, Nguyen is the name equivalent of John or James in Viet Nam. Everyone is either a Nguyen, or knows a Nguyen. 

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