Our time in the central city of Hue was a window into the imperial days of Vietnam and allowed for a glimpse into a long-forgotten world. Our tour also brought us out of our comfort zones, firmly cementing the city in our memory.
Hue is located in central Vietnam and was the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty from the 17th to mid 20th century. Hue was once the national capital, best known for its sprawling 19th century citadel and surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls. Within the citadel sits the Imperial City with ornate palaces and shrines and the Forbidden Purple City, once home to the emperor. Within the Forbidden City, only the emperors, concubines, and specially invited guests were granted access - and any interlopers punished with death. This complex has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site which has driven a burgeoning tourism industry in the city. Given that Hue was very close to the border between North and South Vietnam, it was badly damaged in various instances during the Vietnam War. In 1968 in what is now known as the Battle of Hue, the city suffered considerable damage by both sides due to American aerial bombardment of historic buildings, as well as massacres of civilians perpetrated by the Communist forces.
Our drive into the city took us through the Hai Van Pass, in my opinion one of the most scenic drives I have ever enjoyed. Sheer cliffs stretch out below you to the East revealing grandiose views of the coast and Vietnamese shoreline. A look to the West uncovers forbidding mountain ranges that seem to block out the sky in an unceasing ocean of green. This area is the only fast North-South passage through Vietnam and as such was heavily fortified and defended during the Vietnam War. After we arrived in Hue and settled into our hotel, we visited the Imperial Citadel. The complex was overwhelming in its size with the various pagodas, palaces, courtyards, and buildings stretching on for what seemed miles. Within the Forbidden Purple City, you could still see where many of the buildings were destroyed or partially destroyed with holes left by bombs still visible, and where sections have been rebuilt. In many ways it symbolizes the great destruction and carnage brought on by the 20th century and the modern age - a great clash of ideologies laying ruin to our history in a pitched winner take all conflict. Our first day in Hue reminded me of the best and worst of what humanity and the world has to offer.
Our second day found me clutching at the sides of a Vietnamese man with a vigor I never knew was within me, as we careened through town on the back of his small motorbike. I have always had a fear of motorcycles and am incredibly cognizant of the risk they pose to health and safety – especially in someone as accident prone as I am. Up to this point in our tour through Asia I had become very familiar with the sheer pandemonium of traffic in the major cities. Motorbikes dart in and out of traffic at breakneck speed with no sense for traffic lights or traffic laws. It was frankly a miracle that I had not seen a major motorcycle accident, and almost daily my jaw would gape in awe as I stared at motorbikes ridden by families of four or sometimes five at a time – children and all. To cross the street in Vietnam, I learned not to wait for a crossing light. The traffic was so intense, and the laws so egregiously flouted, that there was no hope in finding a safe opportunity to cross without interfering with traffic. So, what we were instructed to do, which goes against every fiber in my being, is to step into the street without regard for oncoming traffic and walk in a consistent slow pace across the street and the traffic will drive AROUND you. Any sudden pauses or changes of speed to your gait and you are almost certain to be hit. This most unnatural style of crossing the street proved to be incredibly effective. It was with this backdrop that we were told we would be riding on the back of small motorbikes. I honestly wasn’t planning on going along with it but after realizing that everyone else in the group was on board, peer pressure got the better of me. The ride turned out to be tame and very enjoyable but that did not stop the fear from running through my veins and my heart to skip a beat on every crack or bump in the road. I’m sure I looked ridiculous the entire time, but I am glad that I did it and it is an experience I can check off my bucket list. I doubt I will do it again.
Our time in Hue was capped off with a trip to the Thien My Pagoda, built in 1601 and still an active Buddhist monastery. We then enjoyed a dragon boat cruise along the river and drove to the tomb of an old Vietnamese emperor. An incredibly picturesque scene, this tomb is set along a small lake with endless pine trees, flowers, and greenery dotting the landscape. A great place for pictures in the pagoda on the water. We then packed our things and left Hue on an overnight train to Hanoi. The train was packed but surprisingly clean and comfortable. I got through the night with a few hours of sleep and I have to say, for my first overnight train in Asia I was pleasantly surprised.
Hue to me represents a myriad of crossroads. Between North and South of Vietnam, imperial and modern-day Vietnam, and for me, the familiar and unfamiliar that we all contend with in life. Next time I come to Hue, I plan on it being on the back of a motorbike but this time I’ll be in the driver’s seat ……just kidding. // Jeff