Our visit to Hue was short and was more of a passing through in order to see some of its impressive sights, rather than a chance to soak up the atmosphere of the ancient city. This was a shame. It is a pretty city set on the Perfume River and the tombs and citadel of the Nguyen dynasty comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The royal tombs are set along the bank of the Song Huong and each represents the characteristics and personality of the emperor who had it built. You could spend hours visiting all of these impressive structures, but we chose 2 that were very different and this was sufficient given the heat of the afternoon sun that we were sightseeing in! Firstly we went to the tomb of the 2nd emperor Minh Mang who ruled from 1820 to 1840. It has a real feel of the Chinese emperors and was carefully planned to create a balance of Ying and Yang. It is set between the mountain and the river; is symmetrical across a central line and has beautiful surrounding grounds. Minh Mang appears to be have been a popular emperor who is seen to have done a lot to consolidate the dynasty and to unite Vietnam. He was opposed to the French influence and worked to reduce the growing Catholicism in the country. He was a romantic and this is definitely apparent in the style of his tomb. He had 400 wives and 142 children, so as our guide put it “he was busy as a bee”!
From there we went to the tomb of the 12th emperor Khai Dinh (ruled 1916-25), which was a real contrast. He had been much more open to the influence of the French and the tomb is a real combination of Occidental and Oriental styles. Although the tomb is small it was 11 years in the making, due to the intricate design. The walls of the main room are covered in mosaic designs made from porcelain imported from Japan and China. The ceiling is a vast painting of imperial dragons in the clouds. The artist painted the ceiling by foot as an insult to the unpopular emperor who had raised taxes by 30% across Vietnam, partly to pay for this tomb. Khai Dinh lacked the romance of Minh Mang and allegedly was more inclined to men than women, though he still had several wives. The place, while striking, has a darker feel than the peaceful tomb of Minh Mang.
The next morning, we took in the citadel – the final major site that we visited. It is extremely impressive and a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours wandering around. It is currently undergoing a significant amount of restoration, much of it having being damaged in fighting with the French and then in the war between the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese/Americans. It is great to imagine what it would have been like in all its glory when the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty would have been surrounded by their entourage of mandarins, wives, children and concubines – each group having their separate entrances and working and living areas. A good guide will ensure that you leave with many interesting and amusing stories about the different emperors and their time ruling Vietnam, which was a period of massive change and upheaval.
We also took a river cruise in and this was a tranquil and pleasant way to take in the beautiful surrounding countryside and to watch the world go by. We also managed to sample some local cuisine – always a must! We had some interesting pork kebabs that are cooked on stalks of lemongrass and are then placed in light rice paper with salad leaves and banana and finally dunked in a light, sweet chilli sauce – yum! We also tasted some beef wrapped in loi leaves, again very delicious!
So then it was off the Hoi An – which we had heard so many good things about. It is only a short journey from Hue and the views of the coast along the way ensure that it is a pleasant one!
‘Til next time
Harriet and Ben
(Harriet and Ben’s trip is proudly sponsored by the Nam Hai)