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October 25 continued ...
After our speedy drive from Hoi An, we arrived in Hue (pronounced "Whey").

Even though Imperial rule in Vietnam ended in 1945, the city of Hue still bears the marks of its royal past. From 1802 to 1945 Hue was home to thirteen Nguyen emperors whose palaces and tombs today provide fascinating glimpses into the luxurious and secretive world of Vietnamese court.
The Huong Giang Hotel's lobby also reflected a world of grand luxury overlooking the Perfume River while our room's balcony looked over a causeway across the water.  Two men were building a raft of green bamboo.

We walked to the Tropical Garden Restaurant where we enjoyed a traditional Vietnamese dinner accompanied by live performances.  Although a popular tour bus stop, the restaurant was uncrowded. 

From our room's balcony we looked down upon a dock where several wide tour boats were departing and returning with crowds of tourists. Our itinerary today included a boat trip up the Perfume River and we assumed we would be joining many other tourists on one of these crowded boats.

After we met Binh (our Trails of Indochina guide) in the lobby ... instead of taking us out the front entrance to the car or out through the side to the tour boats, he guided us out to the hotel patios facing the river, down a set of stairs which disappeared into the river's swollen waters (currently covering sun decks where sun bathing tourists would normally be catching tans on lounge chairs) and onto a waiting boat for just the three of us plus the husband and wife crew.  As at Vinh's uncle's and aunt's home, there were (to us) children sized chairs to sit in. 


The rain came down in earnest as we ploughed through the muddy brown waters of the Perfume River. That's not it's real name. The real name sounded like "per-fume" to tourists and this positive image caught on with other visitors. 

For some distance down river, we could see the seven storey Thien Mu Pagoda above the river bank. Our boat pulled up to the steep staircase that emerged from the water and we climbed up, turning around to wave as our boat pulled away. We would be met here by Tap with the car.

This was the first Buddhist temple in Vietnam, Binh explained. At one time there was a building in front of the tower. When it was destroyed by a hurricane, the people appreciated the better view of the tower so the structure was not rebuilt.

Next to the tower are two other shelters (common in pagodas), one to house a very large suspended drum, the other in which to hang a large bronze bell. The bell here is the second largest in Vietnam and weighs over 10,000 kilo.

We removed our shoes and entered the part of the temple which displayed a golden Happy Buddha. 

Near by, a monk hit a very large metal bowl with a mallet and the soft deep sound carried out past the incense burner in front of the temple. The smell of incense is thought to help cleanse the mind and the smoke serves as a visual representation of prayers rising.

Walking passed the monks’ humble living quarters; we stopped to see the car used by the Vietnamese monk, Thich Quang Duc, who in June 1963 drove to Saigon, stopped in a major city intersection, got out of the car, sat down in the lotus position and set himself on fire in protest of the persecution of Buddhists monks by South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem administration. The newspaper picture, which won the World Press Photo of the Year for journalist Malcolm Browne, was hung above the car; a picture we both vividly recall.
Passed the monks’ building the gardens stretched on.   Binh pointed out a black pepper tree and we took some pictures of water lilies in a bonsai setting.

Tap was waiting for us and we drove back towards Hue to the Imperial Citadel. At the front, or "South Gate" there are five entrances in the "U" shaped wall: three facing south, one east and one west. The centre one was for the king, since the Forbidden City lay within the citadel. 

The one to the right was for members of the royal family, the one on the left for high ranking mandarin. The gate facing west allowed in the lower ranking mandarin and any people invited within the walls. The one facing east was for soldiers, horses and elephants. Above the gate stood a two level wooden structure. When announcing the names of new mandarin who had successfully completed all the tests required to become mandarin, the king would sit in the centre high above the gathered crowds. On both sides of him would be family, on his far left two high ranking civil mandarin, on his right the #1 and #2 military mandarin. Everybody in his place.

During the American War, opposition factions took shelter behind the walls. The Americans fought them within the walls (bullet holes still mark the battle scene) and bombed the Forbidden City (the king's private residence in the centre). So little was know of it before since those within the walls stayed within and now there is little that remains.
Binh guided us through a multi-tiered courtyard where markers indicated where differing ranks of people were allowed to stand before the king. 

Binh pointed out the king's library (pictured right) and the theatre, both buildings now too unstable to allow people to enter.
Binh showed us the Mimosa plant (sometimes called the bashful or virgin plant) who's leaves curl up "in shyness" when they are touched. 

He also pointed out huge "kettles" made from armaments captured from enemy troops.  To make decorative objects from enemy's weapons demonstrated the king had plenty of his own. 

Some kings had many wives and concubines (many whom they never actually met).  Once a new lady entered the palace, she never left again.  These women were often talented in many crafts (a sign of a desirable wife along with beauty and brains and bigger breasts) and those who were bored would take their crafts and trade them with each other at a pretend market held in this field (photo above).

For some reigns the number of wives counted as low as twelve while others were over four hundred. The two women that held favour and therefore had private luxurious compounds were the king's first wife (unless she could not birth a son) and his mother. Question: where did the king's father live? Answer: he was not living for if he were, he would still be king and his son prince.

Although the royal family and the people who served them lived in elegant surroundings, it was in fact a gilded cage. So little is known about the inside. Some information was obtained by the helicopters which flew surveillance over the Forbidden City. Any further information was destroyed by the bombs those surveillance photos guided.

We left the citadel and returned to our hotel to freshen up before moving on to the tomb of Vietnam's 12th emperor, Tu Duc. Originally it was a palace with all kinds of supportive buildings. It became his tomb upon his death. 

He, we are told, wasn't a particularly good king, in fact had done several things the populace did not like.  He even admitted to sins and had a crescent moon shaped pond built to catch rain water so he could wash away his sins. He also admitted -- it didn't work. 

His claim to fame was his longevity which gave him the time to build his own elaborate tomb which includes Vietnam's largest rock tablet mounted on a huge rock turtle. On the tablet is written his autobiography.

Couldn't read it but doubt he mentioned how he had servants collect dew from lotus blossoms to make his day's first cup of tea.

Since kings pass the position to their eldest son, it is usually a smooth transition. This king didn't have any sons so he adopted. Over time he adopted three, the eldest being the son of his brother. He grew to dislike and distrust his eldest and came to love his youngest but there was not too much he could do about the succession to the throne.

When he died, the eldest took the throne but the former king's top two mandarin saw what the king had seen in the eldest son and soon the new king was also dead. We believe our guide said he lasted 3 days on the job.

The second son now held the crown. The mandarin saw what the king had seen in his youngest son and wanted to see him king. The only way to make him king was to rub out number two son ... which they did.

The youngest son became king. Although he was very young, he was not stupid. Realizing what the mandarin had done, he had them knocked off.   In retaliation, the young king himself was killed.
Dragon with 5 claws represents the king. 
The result was Vietnam had three kings in a very short time and came out without a ruler. For a year the mandarin ran the country until they were able to agree on a suitable prince from the balance of the royal family.

One legacy the old king did leave besides his autobiography and tomb was a mystery, ripe today for telling tourists. Because of his sins and his dysfunctional family, he feared his burial spot might be disturbed. He had tunnels built from his casket-tomb under the crescent shaped pond to ???. Immediately after his funeral the two top mandarin took his remains down one of the tunnels (which one no one knows) and then collapsed all the tunnels.
There have been a few attempts over the years to find the body and the jewels buried with it, without success. Since it is bad luck to argue over a grave and because the family did not know where on the grounds his body was buried, the whole tomb complex became a peaceful place. With today's technology the site could probably be located, but as our guide asked with a shrug, "Why?" 

It was wonderful to see star-fruit and almonds growing on the palace grounds.  

On to the next and last tomb of a Vietnamese emperor, Khai Dinh.  He was the father of Vietnam's last king, who abdicated the throne in 1945.     

Khai Dinh did not have much power and his reign was only for a few years, therefore, his tomb is small. 

Through the architecture, it was pointed out, one can see how indecisive he was. There is a little Vietnamese, a little Indian, a little European. As well there are indications of Hindu, Buddhist and Christian religions ... he was covering his bases.  His burial place is in an opulent room glimmering with porcelain tiles and gold leaf, under a statue of himself. 


Binh observed that the layout of the tomb mirrored his position in Vietnam ... a large front yard, representing the royalty who came before him and virtually no back yard, representing his son who abdicated his throne and demolished Vietnam's monarchy.



It had been a full day.  The sun was just setting when we returned to the Huong Giang Hotel and the traffic on this portion of the Perfume River was becoming quieter.   A lady stood on the back of her pea boat and moved the single oar with rhythmic grace.  We would pack tonight in preparation for our morning flight to Ho Chi Minh City.   

click here to continue to October 27 and Ho Chi Minh City ...

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