The base is square. Everything above – what is left of it – is in the Chinese style. Tiled caramel corrugated tubular roofs, wet and shining. Balconies, pavilions, chambers, throne rooms are propped by pillars. Outside, the main forecourt holds cylindrical posts with spiraling patterns touching nowhere. Farther-in rests a canopy on which two squiggly gleaming dragons face each other ready to do combat. Beyond is open land, apart from odd buildings at either side: corridors and roofs supported by rows of tubes. At the bottom rests a pretty lake broken by a bridge and a tree island. Nearby stands a summerhouse where dignitaries once indulged in exquisite tastes until the ravages of revolution and war swept them away. Other buildings remain blackened, leaving behind an empty shell surrounded by ghosts.
If all Hue has to offer are scorched relics of an imperial past, a drab pedestal supporting the country’s flag – not to mention a few distant tombs – I began to think that Vietnam was loosing its appeal. Furthermore, the comfort of organized tours dilutes any adventure that might otherwise be a gain. They serve as a way to rake in more money. After all, a narrow strip of land in the shape of a scythe with a fat end at the top, only takes a few days at most to travel between the north and the south.
Hoping the day would dawn dry was to be disappointing. It grayed and drizzled continuously. After eating the hostel’s free breakfast, I set off retracing my steps doing my best to scrape past a stretch of road beneath a tunnel that was heavy with traffic. Pausing outside the Palace’s main gates to take a photo, I fell in with a crowd of tourists from either Thailand or Malaysia. They got in the way, smothering the place. Bunches of them usually do.
The Imperial City, constructed from 1805 to1832, was a fine set-up for the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty beginning with Gai Long. It ended in 1945 when Emperor Bao Dai was forced to abdicate after an uprising that led to a communist take-over, which toppled the Dynasty. Reading the notices inside, the name ‘Nguyen.’ is as common as ‘Smith’, ‘Brown’, or ‘Jones.’ One of the Emperors issued a decree that all citizens should be named ‘Nguyen.’ It is now on nearly every relevant notice and some street signs in Vietnam.
The roof of the imperial throne room sadly leaked. An official tried in vain to stop tourists from taking pictures of the emperor’s chair. They usually do. The entire complex is modeled on China’s Forbidden City, although heavy bombing wiped out most of it, ending the likeness. Despite it being a heavy casualty of the Vietnam War, the historical remains are now awarded UNESCO status. A sign saying the Palace was ‘destroyed by war in 1947’ is misleading. Whatever the date, bombs know no discrimination.
I sauntered through the grounds, sometimes on muddy paths, taking pictures, thinking that much cash is needed if the whole monument is to be restored. I felt saddened by the lonely remains. Equally pleasant, however, are moats, a lake, and trees: a quietness broken only by the voices of
A guy wearing only rubber flip-flops carefully avoided the muddy sections by walking on the overgrown walls. A gardener wearing a conicled hat was trimming the overgrown grass. Traditional Vietnamese music was overheard by performers inside a building, built for the occasion.
I headed back to the hostel, feeling satisfied by my tour, having learned something about Vietnam’s fascinating history.
The bridge over the Perfume River was busy with motor bikers clad in flimsy
hooded rainwear, some poised with feet bent in flip-flops waiting for the lights to change. Others pushed or rode tricycles and pedaled pushbikes.
The bus was 40 minutes late. Vietnamese don’t seem to be in a hurry.
“Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it,” a Brit guy assured me with a hint of “don’t fuss” sarcasm.
This un-Western mindset reminded me when, during my schooldays, I was put on detention for being late when classes had finished and had to write lines. Now, it just seems absurd that our system is always the right one, while here it is of little note.
A young British blond-haired woman overheard me saying I was going to Hoi An:
“We’re all going to Hoi An.”
The sleeper bus was clean, modern, and the reclining bunk was adjustable: my first experience lying on one that shows what a lot of tourist money is being pumped into the travel industry here. It was only a four-hour journey so the bus took its time, stopping once at a roadside café. Quickly passing through Danang, a major Asian centre, although thriving with people and markets, isn’t that interesting. Passing unfinished beachside chalets show what a resort destination Danang is becoming: a commercial twist to the city’s tale.
The bus dropped me outside the Hop Yen Hotel in Hoi An’s tourist and backpacker area. I couldn’t be bothered to search for a single room around the curved street, so checked into a five Dollar a night dorm: the most primitive, and with less floor space, than so far encountered.
I went out and ordered some light noodle soup and a Tiger Beer at a restaurant across the road.
Later, after using the free internet service in the lobby area, I got gossiping with a lonely stocky-built respectable German woman with coloured blonde hair called Ruth from Cologne wearing a flower-patterned sunhat upturned at the front.
She said she’d been “kicked out” of her hotel room in Hanoi because, after two nights, she hadn’t booked a tour anywhere. There was a certain peevishness or grumbling: “oh, look at me, what a sad time I’m having” attitude in her voice. Hanoi was too cold, so she came down here to get some warmth, and some solace, no doubt. That was why she had left Europe, to escape the bleak winter, although it was still bleak and cloudy here.
I ambled around Ba Trieu, getting in tune with the character of the curved street. Some of the buildings are built in the French style behind clustered
draped telegraph wires. Others were decorated by jewels of blue lights. Frenetic motor bike riders destroyed the silence.
I bought a couple of photocopied books about Vietnam and the Vietnamese from a young couple who own the restaurant next door to where I had the noodles and beer. Besides offering a discount, they generously gave me some pancake. The father was also feeding – and nursing – his young daughter.
The country and its people began to grow on me.