Tuesday, April 3, 2012, 00:00
The other ‘Forbidden City’
Hue, which boasts Vietnams first World Heritage Site the Complex of Hue Monuments is both a historical and architectural gem.
Built on the banks of the Perfume River, the city was the capital of unified Vietnam in 1802 and also the cultural as well as religious center under the Nguyen dynasty, Vietnams last ruling family, until 1945.
After World War II, former emperor Bao Dai collaborated with the returning French colonialists and during the American War, the city was practically controlled by the United States. The Tet Offensive in 1968 and the Battle of Hue, when the North Vietnam army fought against South Vietnam and the US and its allies, saw the city suffer terrible damage due to US carpet-bombing and artillery fire.
The wounds, physical as well as psychological, took years to heal. But eventually the past was buried, the ancient citadel, tombs and stunning buildings were restored and Hue became once again one of the pearls of Vietnam and entire Southeast Asia.
Contemporary Vietnam confident, progressive and rapidly developing opened itself to the world and Hue, the city at its very center, once again became a magnet to millions of travelers, artists and historians from all corners of Asia and the rest of the world.
Only some 15 years ago, Hue felt like the Forbidden City it once contained during the rule of the Nguyen dynasty when the inner city was out of bounds for commoners. Visas were not easy to obtain and Vietnam, for most outsiders, remained one enormous, attractive but difficult to reach dream.
It was drizzling in Hue when our rickshaws took us to the citadel, built according to the notions of Chinese geomancy, with lotus-filled moats surrounding massive brick walls 6 meter high, 20 m thick and almost 10 km long. Ten fortified gates lead to the citadel.
Inside, there is a second moat and defensive wall to guard the Yellow Imperial City, emulating the Forbidden City in Beijing. The main gate to the Yellow Imperial City, called Cua Ngo Mon (the Meridian Gate), is directly aligned to the Flag Tower and is arguably the finest example of Nguyen architecture.
In the imperial times, this main entrance was reserved for the emperors. Several Vietnamese students wearing rented royal dresses now posed in front of the main gate as Nguyen dynasty emperors.
I am sure commoners had a tough time during the feudal rule, says Tran Thi Thanh Thao, a visitor from Hoi An, a city on the south-central coast of Vietnam. Hue experienced so much devastation during the wars. It is sad that I cannot see the Forbidden Purple Palace (the old imperial enclosure) as it was leveled to the ground. But I am glad many other buildings in the citadel have been restored.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum overlooking the Perfume River exhibits the revolutionary activities of late president Ho Chi Minh during the 10 years he lived in the city.
Ho Chi Minh is the father of all people of Vietnam, says Le Van Ha, one of the curators of the museum. The younger generations can learn a lot from him. If people try to do what Ho Chi Minh did, our country would be much better.
The Perfume River is ever present in the lives of Hue residents. The 30 km river running through the city was the main axis of the capital of united Vietnam. Boats available for hire go up and down the river, passing the citadel, pagodas, temples and gardens. They can also be hired for upstream trips to the tombs of the emperors.
I started to take photos of the Perfume River when I was a teenager, says Xuan Le Nguyen Phuoc, a photographer who owns the PA photo gallery in Hue and has exhibited her photographs abroad. The river always gives a sense of melancholy. I can take hundreds and hundreds of photographs and still find new angles I hadnt discovered before.
On the bank of the Perfume River is the XQ Arts Crafts Center, a beautiful complex exhibiting exquisite Vietnamese hand embroidery and traditional clothes.
XQ Fashion makes traditional clothes that are also aristocratic. All our designers are from Hue and our designs from Vietnam, says Ho Thu Thuy, manager of XQ Fashion. Our clients are mostly foreigners who come to Hue. They usually order long dresses or suits. In Hue, we have 115 staff and guarantee that all our clothes are hand-made.
Twin artists Le Duc Hai and Le Ngoc Thanh use war as one of their themes in painting. They use bold lacquer painting techniques employing color contrasts. Their New Space Art Gallery in Hue has paintings of women waiting for their husbands to come back from the war and children dreaming of different lives for themselves, all in bold colors.
The twins are also famous for their contemporary installation art, performance art and video. Besides owning two galleries in Hue, they exhibit abroad and were resident artists at several foreign universities and colleges.
In addition to the citadel, Hues other great attraction is the tombs of the Nguyen emperors scattered around the countryside. Though the dynasty produced 13 emperors, there are only seven tombs with completely different architectural designs. While some of them are in bad condition and are undergoing restoration, some are beautifully maintained and outstanding.
Old buildings in Vietnam are in excellent condition, says Rini Andrijani, research and development executive at Omni Intivision, a local television channel in Jakarta. Not only buildings, even trees are being restored with additional support, as in the tomb of Tu Duc (who lived from 1829 to 1883), I am also very impressed with their cleanliness. The level of obedience is still high and we dont see people throwing garbage indiscriminately.
The Lang Tu ?uc (lang is Vietnamese for tomb), for example, is one of the most beautifully designed tomb complexes located in a 12 hectare site in a lush pine forest 8 km from Hue. Although it was built with the money extracted from subjects and forced labor, Tu ?uc however was buried in a different location that is yet to be found.
The Lang Khai ?inh (the tomb named after the second-last emperor who lived between 1885 and 1925) is located 10 km from Hue on the Chau Chu Mountain. It is much smaller than the other imperial tombs and we have to climb more than 100 steps to reach the Khai Thanh palace area. The walls of the palace are decorated in the rococo style, inlaid with intricate glass and ceramic designs, a masterpiece of Vietnamese artisans in the early 20th century.
The most impressive and interesting of all the royal tombs is the Lang Minh Mang located 12 km from Hue on the Cam Ke Hill on the west bank of the Perfume River. Minh Mang was the second emperor of the dynasty who lived from 1791 to 1841. The architecture of the tomb matches the surrounding landscape harmoniously. The tomb has outer walls, triple gates, a court, temples, lakes, pavilions and gardens. The main entrance to the tomb was opened only once to carry the emperors coffin in and has been closed since then.
Visiting the tomb late afternoon, you feel an atmosphere of mystical serenity. The locals come in to play, fish, or just sit by the side of the lake and enjoy the magnificent view.
The visits to all these royal tombs are also to understand how brutal these emperors were towards their subjects just to have places built for them to be buried in and be remembered.
The tombs are beautifully designed and are located in lush pine forests or close to the Perfume River or in the beautiful hills. However, the emperors used forced labor and imposed additional taxes to raise the money.
It is said that there were protests at the extra taxation and forced labor. In 1866, the workers building the tomb of Tu Duc, the emperor said to have had over 100 wives and concubines, attempted a coup. However, the emperor was able to put it down with the help of his generals.
IF YOU GO
Hue lies in Thua Thien prefecture, central Vietnam, 660 km from Hanoi and 1080 km from Saigon
The dry season, March-August, has temperature reaching 40 degree C while the colder, rainy season, August-January, sees the mercury dip to 19 degree C. March-August is the best time to visit Hue.
Hues Phu Bai Airport operates daily flights to and from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Hue is also connected to major cities by regular train and bus services. See the Vietnam Railway Corporation website http://www.vr.com.vn for details.
Its past history and cultural heritage reflected by its palaces, royal tombs, temples, galleries and museums.
Places to visit:
The citadel, pagodas, royal tombs, temples, museums, galleries and the Ho Quyen Tiger Fighting Arena where tigers were pitted against elephants.
What to do:
Watch the exquisite water puppet theater, soak in the Thahn Tan Hot Springs, unwind at Thuan An beach, and shop at the Dong Ba Market for conical bamboo hats, embroideries, potteries and other local products. Try out local dishes, like the bun bo Hue, beef noodle soup served with slices of beef and lashings of chili oil, com hen, a spicy rice dish including clams, peanuts, pork rinds, green onion, mint fish sauce and peppers, and Vietnamese coffee.
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