Hues of Huế, Vietnam
Why are hotel breakfasts so awful and why am I always surprised by how awful they are? The only thing that marked this breakfast out from a thousand others was the procession of ants on the breakfast table, dispatched from this veil of tears by the killer hands of my wife and her napkin of terror. For a vegetarian, she can be quite murderous when she wants to be.
I came back to the room, wrote up some notes, showered, shaved and prepared for Hue’s Citadel. It’s two and a half kilometers long, the guide book informed me, but I couldn’t seem to see it from my seventh floor balcony, south of the River, so we went out to take a closer look.
The Citadel was the home of the Nguyen dynasty, but they ruled here, in real terms, for only a short time. Indeed, Vietnam was only finally unified in 1802, and ‘unified’ is perhaps too grand a term, since this pre-industrial empire had only a rudimentary transportation system, the Great Mandarin Road, linking Hanoi in the north with Saigon in the south and Hue, equidistant, sought to rule them both.
Vietnam’s long and difficult terrain made central control difficult even at the best of times, and the empire suffered many revolts and rebellions. Some came from peasants objecting to harsh taxation, corvee labour and the abolition of reforms won under the Tay Son revolts, and some were led by more aristocratic patriots, objecting to the emperor’s Sinification of Vietnam and supporting the alternative Le dynasty.
While Europe was about to expand into its Age of Empires and France was to sketch its grand designs on all of Indo-China, Vietnam was internally divided and embroiled in the affairs of its near neighbours, Loas Cambodia and Siam. The Nguyens, like the Qing to the north, paid little heed to the threat from the West, thinking they could ignore the outside world and slumber in the moral certainties of Confucianism. The Son of Heaven and the Court around him dismissed technology as an irrelevancy. Even when the French took southern Vietnam; even when they took Hanoi; even when French naval cannon blasted through the Citadel walls in 1883 and turned the Nguyens into Gallic puppets; even then they did not modernise, but sat instead, in the gilded cage of the Citadel.
But we still had to find this cage and all the historical background knowledge in the world wasn’t going to help us.
We walked over Troung Tien bridge, a delightful turn of the century construction, which reminded me of the much larger Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi; and so it should, since they were both designed by Gustav Eiffel, of phallic Gallic tower fame. Who else could put such poetry into steel and girders, bolting beauty and functionality together? Further down the gently flowing Perfume River, a new bridge crossed from A to B in a functional and forgettable way.
Architectural appreciations were quickly pushed aside by insistent rickshaw riders, who alight on foreigners who so much as glance at the bridge. The toll on the old bridge, payable on both sides, is to run the gauntlet of cyclo pushers, motorbike men, boat people and purveyors of postcards from eight years of age to eighty. Everyone in Hue seemed determined to prevent me from walking anywhere, but I walked on nonetheless.
My skin registered a tingly sensation that I should have recognized as the beginning of sunburn. Up north, winter had set in, and sunburn was no longer an issue; and since it was late December, I decided without thinking that it would not be an issue here either. There was slight cloud cover too, misty wispy clouds, silk scarves in the sky, further reassuring me that the sun cream was not necessary. I walked on, a burning purposeful flaneur, heeding not the crispy smell from my cranium, and sought the lost empires of the Nguyen Dynasty.
Most of Hue, I must tell you, is a fairly unremarkable place, lacking the charm of Hanoi or the bustle of Saigon, but this, of course, owes much to the French shelling and looting of it in 1885, and the American flattening of it in 1967. While not part of north Vietnam it had fallen in the Tet Offensive and 10,000 died in its recapture, including a paltry 150 US marines. If the US is the good guy, then why do civilian casualties always dwarf American combat deaths?
In Hue, what was rebuilt, for the most part, is rather insipid. Not ugly, but not pretty either. I do not mean to condemn. Vietnam had more important issues to deal with in the eighties than a historically accurate reconstruction of Hue’s imperial heritage.
The exception is the Citadel, Hue’s raison d’etre, at least in the eyes of tourists. We followed touts following tourists following maps and soon found it.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the Citadel are the walls designed to prevent you from seeing inside it. It is surrounded by these high sturdy walls, two metres deep and thirty metres high, punctuated by towers. And under them, a four-metre-deep moat; and all of these impediments to invaders stretch for ten kilometers around the Citadel. While the Palace is a museum, the Citadel is not and its beating heart is where a sizable chunk of Hue’s 330,000 inhabitants still choose to live.
Rising from the front of the wall, facing the south side of the city, reaching almost forty metres above the height of the wall, an enormous Vietnamese flag swirls, but the flag was so large and the wind so gentle, that when I saw it, it seemed to be moving in slow motion, oscillating like waves in a pond at times and folding in on itself at others.
I headed towards the Noon Time gate to its right and entered this once-forbidden city, across the gate where once only the emperor was allowed to walk. I still felt in some danger, if only from the Honda Dreams and Waves, who careered past me and were not daunted by the lack of a pavement for me to avoid their metal horsepower.
Inside the Citadel walls, there is another citadel, the Imperial Palace and the heart of the empire, and the Forbidden City, the Purple City, in which only the emperor, his nymphs and eunuchs might frolic.
I walked towards the Belvedere of Five Phoenixes, from where he the last emperor Bao Dai abdicated, in 1945, to Ho Chi Minh, recognizing that the game was up, ten thousand days before the French and the US could bear to admit it.
To the untrained eye of your narrator, it looked a great deal like the Forbidden City in Peking, except smaller, of course. There were courtyards, temples, and dragons; there were enormous hanging drums and cauldrons and ornamental cannons. There was every other thing I had seen in the Forbidden City in Peking.
Gia Long, the first emperor, had clearly taken China as the template to follow, imitating the Qing not only in Palace design, but also in government structure, which would prove disastrous, since the Nguyens, like the Qing, were to prove incapable of dealing with a changing world headed by a rapacious West.
I hesitate to write these words, and I fear they would irritate any Vietnamese reader, since the troubled history between these two powers means that the one thing the Vietnam does not like to be compared to is China. As a child, I always thought the ‘Hundred Years War’ to be an impossibly long time for any conflict, but the Vietnamese spent a thousand years freeing themselves of the Chinese yolk, and even in modern times, the two socialist brothers last came to blows in 1979; and the military’s eyes still look worryingly northwards, I imagine.
However, Vietnam can no more be free of China than Scotland, Wales or Ireland can be free of England. Those countries with powerful neighbours are forever destined to glance over their shoulders.
Apart from an occasional clucking tour group, however, the Chinese were nowhere to be seen. I passed ornamental cannon and made for the Palace of Supreme Harmony, deflecting the unwanted attentions of vulpine taxi drivers who wanted to drive me elsewhere.
Pausing briefly to admire the lacquerwork of the columns that support the structure, I found myself joining a crowd seated in front of a giant flatscreen Samsung TV, watching a badly made South Korean documentary about the Palace.
What is it about the power of the flickering image that even when you have the real thing in front of you, you can easily find yourself watching two-dimensional images of it? When 3-D is perfected, no-one will see anything! Instead the great museums of the world will play host to crowds of goggled viewers, appreciating the enhanced reality of the special effect.
I moved away from the LED light and into the light of the sun, my eye moving from the Chinese characters on the stalae to the Halls of the Mandarins to the left and right and the ruins that surrounded both. How curious, I thought, that when the Americans napalmed the Palace to cleanse it of communists they had left these core structures intact?
Walking deeper into the grounds, I passed sleeping workmen and carpentry tools in resting piles. I smelt fresh paint on doors that were soon to be adjoined to freshly-minted historical building. The Palace, in short, was being rebuilt, from the centre out.
‘Is this real or fake,’ I asked myself? Was the Palace I had just walked through authentic, or was it just a simulacra, a shadow of a shadow of a lost past? There is a very thin line between renovation and reconstruction.
Outside the Palace Complex, the rest of the Citadel enjoyed neither fate, and it has been largely rebuilt in a faceless twentieth-century manner.
And what were the Vietnamese to do? After the Americans retook Hue, only 20 of the original 148 building in the Imperial Enclosure were left standing, and even they were damaged. While the most important of these have been restored or rebuilt, much of the former palace is still just rubble or ill-tended garden.
It was all very atmospheric and a testament to the frailty of power and the futility of seeking it, and Shelly might have penned a verse or two here, urging mighty tyrants to look on the ruins and despair.
Even taking into account the ravages of war and time and renovation, the temple looks a great deal older than it is. It was only built in 1804, which in much of the world was a time was emperors and kings were being shorn of real power, if not eliminated entirely. The Colonies had become the United States, Napoleon was trampling on the Ancien Regimes of Europe and the Industrial Revolution was about to tear the world apart and set the masses free, giving birth to its terrible beauty. It was not a propitious time for absolute monarchs to set about building vast antiquated palaces and populating them with harems and eunuch courtiers, but Gia Long’s geomancers did not see this coming. It was only a matter of time before some European power came-a-courting.
As I left the Citadel, I wondered if history would have been any different if Vietnam had become a British rather than a French colony, or like Thailand, had been wily enough to avoid colonialism altogether. I tried to interest my wife in a little historical revisionism, but ‘what if’s’ do not a belly fill.
We wondered off in search of sustenance, but the vegetarian restaurant refused to serve us any hot food, labouring under the common delusion that vegetarians are enamoured with cold comestibles. Disinclined to shovel frigid noodles into our respective gullets, we went to an Indian restaurant, and enjoyed 30 minutes of pleasure followed by hours of indigestion.
Feeling tired and disinclined to walk or do anything that required thought, we bought a couple of DVD’s to watch in the hotel room, but their price tag of 50 cents a piece should have raised questions in my mind concerning the quality of the merchandise.
One didn’t work at all and the other kept skipping forward. It was called ‘Facebook’ and from start to finish it only lasted twenty minutes. Unaware of the technical problems, and having already drunk three Bia Hues, I thought it was a piece of avant-guard film making whose plot had jettisoned traditional approaches to chronological integrity. I imagined it would flash back later to all the unfinished chapters, but it never did and I was none the wiser as to the history of the social network and its time-travelling founder.
We left Hue the following day, and as the bus awkwardly made its way through the narrow streets, I tried to chisel out an epiphany and tap it into my netbook. That is how a travel piece is meant to finish, is it not, with a mini-revelation; with a bite-sized piece of insight.
My pantry, however, is empty, and I will not manufacture a eureka moment. I took from Hue nothing that I did not already know: empires decline and fall; war is bestial; and dodgy DVD’s are a risky business.