Saturday, January 4, 2014

Seeing Vietnam by Train: The Royalty of Vietnam in Huế

Our destination after Hoi An was Huế, which was only about two hours away. By far my favorite of all the cities we've visited in Vietnam, it was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, when the Emperor at the time, Bảo Đại, abdicated as the king and Vietnam became a Communist nation. Huế is so majestic and full of ancient history, which I love. When I was in school, history was always my least favorite subject, with the dry and uninteresting way that it was taught. But learning and seeing history in person through travel is absolutely amazing and fascinating, and through the years, I have come to love learning the history of the world. I have learned so much about Vietnam on this trip. My son also has picked up a lot about government and politics, having been born in a democratic country, now living in a country with a monarchy, and then visiting a Communist country.

Huế was cool, damp, and gloomy, with temperatures probably in the low 60s. The way the people dressed for the weather was very interesting: clothes ranged from summer-weight clothes to heavy winter coats with gloves, scarves, and hats. We were bundled up, but not to that extent, with just a few layers of long-sleeved shirts and raincoats/windbreakers. Surprisingly, I actually didn't feel cold at all. Most people, particularly the women, didn't wear winter shoes. Instead, they wore summer shoes, such as sandals and flip flops, with socks. Some women even wore high heels with socks. I was dying to capture all the fashion faux pas with my camera, but of course, I couldn't without being detected.

And I don't know what it was, but by this point on the trip, I was feeling pretty homesick...for America. My homesickness had subsided by November, but being in Vietnam brought it all to the surface again. It was like I was back in Thailand, starting all over and going through culture shock again. Perhaps it was the chill in the air, which I associate with warm, heated houses and fires in fireplaces. Perhaps it was all the French colonial architecture reminding me of western-style buildings and homes. Or it could be that we were unused to traveling in Asia and were yearning for a vacation that was more what we are used to traveling around the U.S. and in other western countries -- comfortable, clean, and easy. I was tired of all the grime on the streets of Vietnam, much like it is on the streets of Bangkok; the language barrier; and the difficulty of getting around. I was worn out by the constant haggling over everything; in some other countries, at least there is no pretense that the prices are fair, but you can take it or leave it without having people shove themselves and their goods in your face and trying to convince you to do what they want. My son also was homesick, but for Thailand. He already considers Thailand to be home.

But overall, we enjoyed this vacation a lot: we had access to all types of ethnic cuisines, including American, Italian, and Korean; ate some of the best Vietnamese foods we had ever tasted; and had all kinds of delicious meats, cheeses, and pastries, as well as Asian foods, for breakfast. The Vietnamese cuisine is much more varied than Thai cuisine, in flavor and in type, so it was a nice change for us being able to eat something different with different flavors each day. Walking and exploring the cities, seeing sights that are unique to Vietnam and to Asia, was awesome. And we got to see and learn about another Asian country and culture.

Also, within the two days we were in Huế, we got to see five different weddings take place, including two at our hotel, one on each day that we were there. I had never before seen so many weddings take place in December.
Our hotel lobby.
Hallway outside our room.
A view of the Perfume River, where our hotel was located, from our room. Still pretty even through all the gloom.
The river at night.
A view of the city from another window in our room.
More of the river from the hotel rooftop restaurant.
The city as seen from the rooftop restaurant.
A view of the bridge from the rooftop restaurant.
The second wedding that took place at our hotel.
A life-size photo of the wedding couple.
Sights and scenes around the city...
A restaurant across the street from our hotel where there was a huge party going on.
Scooters taking up all the space on the sidewalk.
I don't remember what this was, but I thought it was pretty all lit up.
The streets of Huế.
Where we had our first dinner in Huế.
Look how narrow this building is!
Many of the merchants here have very low overheads...
People here can sometimes fit more on their bikes and scooters than Americans can in their giant SUVs.
A bowl of delicious noodle soup to chase away the chill.
To ensure that we hit all the must-see places while in Huế, we booked a day-long tour of the city and of the ancient imperial sites. We got to see the old imperial city, or at least the 25 percent that hasn't been destroyed by war or weather. We also got to see the tombs of three emperors. Mind you, these aren't your run-of-the-mill tombs; they are more like compounds of temples and parks built on the mountains, so each of them was quite immense. We visited the garden house of a mandarin. At the end of the day, we returned to the city in a dragon boat. It was a long day; we were gone from 8:30 to 5:30. Between the imperial city and the tombs, we must've walked at least a couple of miles and climbed at least 100 steps. But the sites were amazing and definitely well worth the trek.

We learned that one of the emperors had one wife and 499 concubines, and had over 100 children. We saw a model of the original imperial city, which included living quarters for the women and children, a school for the emperor's children, shrines for the emperor's ancestors, and of course, a hall to celebrate the emperor's birthdays and special occasions and for the people to visit the emperor. There were always several entrances for each structure, with one entrance for the king, one for the women and children, one for the servants, etc. 

We also learned that the red background of the Vietnamese flag symbolizes revolution and blood; the five-pointed star represents the five main classes in Vietnamese society, including intellectuals, farmers, workers, businessmen, and the military; and the yellow color of the star represents the skin color of the Vietnamese people. That was a first for all of us, hearing a nation of people take pride in their skin color and including it in their flag.
Our pink tour bus.
The gate to the Old Imperial City.
Some kind of tower in the Old Imperial City.
The gate where the last emperor handed over his power to the Communists in 1945.
The palace where the emperor greeted visitors, who lined up according to their ranks and status. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside, but it was breathtaking. Everything was made from gold and in its original form.
The courtyard outside the palace, where there were other structures for the emperor's use.
The other side of the courtyard.
A dragon in the courtyard. It has five claws symbolizing the five main classes in Vietnamese society.
Hall of the Mandarins, one of the structures in the courtyard, where the mandarins would get ready for ceremonies. Mandarins were senior government officials.
Inside the Hall of the Mandarins.
Visitors could dress up in traditional Vietnamese clothes and have their pictures taken.
Outside wall of the Hall of the Mandarins. I found out on this trip that I have a thing for ancient walls.
Another part of the imperial city that was destroyed by war. It is undergoing a renovation that will last 25 years.
More ancient walls.
Leaving the Old Imperial City to go to the Royal Fine Arts Museum.
The gate where we waited for golf carts to take us to the Royal Fine Arts Museum.
The sticker on the golf cart claimed that Huế was a smoke-free city...Yes, maybe the brick chimneys were smoke-free (FYI: there were no brick chimneys); the human ones were smoking like crazy everywhere we went.
The Royal Fine Arts Museum. It was exquisite inside.
An old woman and her boat just outside the imperial city.
Our next stop was at the garden house of a mandarin. The house was not as big as I would expect for a wealthy person. But its grounds were pretty and it had an orchard with all kinds of fruit trees. It is currently privately owned and is on the market for approximately $3M (my husband had to ask ).
Gate to the house and its grounds.
The house and front courtyard, where there was a huge pond.
Inside near the front door.
The family's ancestors?
The obsession with ancient walls is showing again.
We then visited Thien Mu Pagoda, the tallest pagoda in Vietnam at seven (a lucky number in Buddhism) stories. It was originally built in 1601 by the then-governor of the current city of Huế after he heard a local legend about an old lady, known as Thien Mu ("celestial lady"), who sat at the site of the pagoda and foretold that a lord would erect a pagoda on the hill to pray for the country. 

Like all the ancient sites in Vietnam, this wasn't just a simple pagoda. Its grounds were expansive and beautiful, overlooking the river, with a working temple in the back. I loved being at all these temples and historical sites; they were so peaceful and majestic.
The pagoda.
View over the wall of the compound.
River view from the grounds of the pagoda.
A structure housing a bell.
Part of the grounds.
Gate leading to the temple on the grounds.
Inside the temple.
A Buddha statue. There was a monk standing to the left of this statue, and a tourist just went right up to him with his camera in his face and started taking pictures, which I thought was very rude. We were supposed to get permission from the monk first before taking his picture.
The inside of the temple.
A gate from the temple to the pagoda.
I think the object inside is a drum.
After lunch, for the second half of the tour, we visited the tombs of three different emperors, a Vietnamese village, and then took the dragon boat back to the center of the city, where our hotels were located.
Shops we saw on our way...I thought it was fitting to have a Playboy shop next to a shop named "Hung."
One of many kids -- this one couldn't be older than 5 or 6 -- peddling bananas to tourists on our walk to the tomb. Some women were holding their babies while selling bananas, trying to play to the tourists' heartstrings.
Lake at the tomb.
The story of the tomb, which belongs to Minh Mang Emperor.

Gate enclosing the courtyard in front of the compound.
Statues in the courtyard.
The first temple-like structure to climb and walk through to get to the tomb.
The next one.
The second one closer up.
There's my ancient-wall fetish again....
The doors to a third structure.
A temple after walking through several structures.
Inside part of the temple.

Walking and climbing through yet another gate.

Ponds. It was so beautiful and peaceful.

The final temple before the tomb.
Finally on the other side, so to speak...the tomb is finally in sight.
The tomb.
Another wall.
Ancient steps.
The second tomb, which was darker (in color, that is), but still every bit as amazing as the first one. Those steep steps were no joke. By this time, my thighs were starting to burn from all the climbing! But because we were in the mountaintops, the view was amazing.


The third tomb, which we didn't explore as extensively as the first two, as we were all tomb-ed out by that point and ready to call it a day. Still, we didn't want to miss anything, so we managed to see most of the compound. This place was so picturesque that I believed it when I learned that this particular emperor used to come to this place to write poetry (while he was alive, of course).

Our last stop of the day was at a shop in a village called Kung Fu Village. Because the name of the village sounded so ridiculous to me, I initially thought it was going to be some martial-arts show. But no, it's the name of an actual village. My son and I were exhausted by this point, so we stayed on the bus and had some quiet time while everyone else explored the roadside shop and watched a demonstration of incense-making. [Despite having walked and climbed all day, my son did not take a single nap that day, whereas a girl his age on the tour with us took two long naps during the tour. And she didn't even get off the bus to go to all the sites. When I asked my son if he wanted to nap, he adamantly said, "I don't take naps." Don't I know it, kid.]
Beautiful sticks of incense.
Finally, we were driven, and then walked, to the river, where we got on a dragon boat to get back to the center of the city. I questioned whether the tour guide would get us all back to our hotels or whether we would be left to find our own way back once the boat ride ended. My husband, ever the optimist, was sure that the tour guide would get all of us back to our hotels. Well, during the ride, the tour guide passed around an envelop marked "Tips for the guide" (we were very tempted to give him a suggestion written on a piece of paper instead of money). Once the envelop had made its rounds and the ride came to an end, the tour guide stood up, said a few words of thanks, and said goodbye to us, saying, "This is now the end of the tour. You will walk to your hotels." I wish, for once, the cynic in me would be proven wrong. Luckily, our hotel was only a couple of blocks away from where we docked, so it was no big deal. And thus ended a very exhausting, but very interesting, day.
The boat.
View from the inside.
Another smaller dragon boat next to ours.

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