Temple Crawling, Thursday September 27th, 2007
Posted by Lisa Hill on October 17, 2007
Morning is the best time to go for a walk in Vietnam, so before breakfast, we braved crossing the road and took a stroll across the Trang Tien Bridge which spans the Perfume (Huong Giang)River, so called because traders used it to ferry sandalwood downstream, and there were also beautiful scented tropical flora on its banks. There were shops of all sorts on the other side of the road, but we’d run out of courage by then and stuck to the riverside. We walked through a lovely park and discovered this dance class learning the cha-cha in one of the open spaces. One of the young ladies offered Tim a free lesson, but he gracefully declined…
After breakfast we set off with the tour group for the Citadel and the Forbidden City. Hue was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945 and its major tourist attraction is the remnants of its imperial city. Naturally, there were fortifications and gun emplacements to protect it, so at the entrance there are cannon – four on one side representing north, south, east and west, and five on the other representing the five elements: earth, air, water, fire and wood. Unfortunately, both the French and the Americans failed to be deterred by these fortifications…the French burned and looted the Imperial City in 1885, forcing Vietnam into becoming a protectorate of France, and thousands died during the Tet Offensive – which also wrecked most of the rest of the buildings. The Communists neglected it for quite some time after 1975, until they realised its tourist potential and in 1993 UNESCO declared the whole complex a heritage site and is gradually restoring it.
Once you walk in through the main gate, you can see why. It is extraordinarily beautiful, in a gently faded way. There’s a splendid moat, and a succession of lovely temples. In the Temple of Generations there are ten funerary tablets honouring the Imperial rulers, each one with a picture of the Emperor, and a couple of grey-green to-die-for porcelain vases and other ornaments. At the back behind the altar were two shrines, one for each of the Emperor’s parents. (We had to take our shoes off to go into this part of the complex, and it wasn’t easy to get them back on again in the heat!) Most things – columns, walls and the roof – were painted red and gold (for luck), and outside there is a courtyard for the supplicants, who had to line up in order of rank on a sort of grid, flanked on both sides by statues of an elephant, a horse and four impressive Confucian gents. One can only feel sympathy for any supplicant at the end of the queue on a busy day because it must have been sheer torture standing on this concrete courtyard in the humidity and heat!
From the gates to the temples,it was the intricate carvings and mosaics which took our breath away, and even with tourists crawling all over the complex there was an atmosphere of peace and serenity in the beautifully landscaped courtyards and gardens.
From the citadel and the Forbidden City, we went to the Heavenly Lady Pagoda which the emperor dedicated to a deity he had seen in a dream. She advised him where to build the citadel so that there would be peace in Vietnam, but she obviously didn’t foresee the dreadful warfare that took place at the citadel in the Tet Offensive in 1968. 30,000 civilians died when first the North Vietnamese Army took it, and then the Americans and the South Vietnamese military under Marshall Ky tried to get it back. Now there is nothing to show that there was ever warfare here but much of the complex was destroyed and although there are ambitions to restore it, it’s going to take a vast amount of money to do it. Given the sad history of this place, I suspect that the Americans – who have been extraordinarily generous with funds to support restorations in Europe, everywhere from Venice to the chateaux of the Loire Valley – will be less keen to help out with this project…
After the temple we took a ride on a so-called dragon boat which is just a flat bottomed boat with a couple of limp-looking dragons in the front of it and a vast quantity of stuff for sale on board, which was rather trying. Still, the scenery is beautiful and it was certainly nice to sit and rest, especially since it rained and there was a light breeze. Thick vegetation lines both sides of the river and here and there we could see pretty little Chinese style houses nestling amongst the trees. There were also junks carrying sand dredged from the river, which look charming too until you get up close and see how dingy they are and how hard the people are having to work in the heat. From there we clambered up a hill and back to the bus, and called in to see how incense and Chinese ‘coolie’ hats get made. We then headed back to the hotel to meet up again with Louise and family in the Panorama Bar, before dinner in a local restaurant. It was here that Tim first tried grilled duck with lime leaves, an item now added to his culinary repertoire at home – whether made with chicken or duck, it is truly delicious, with a unique flavour. Highly recommended!