THE CENTRAL COAST || AROUND HUE
For the most part the Nguyen emperors lived their lives within Hué’s citadel walls, but on certain occasions they emerged to participate in important rituals at symbolic locations around the city. Today these places are of interest more for their history than anything much to see on the ground, though the mouldering Royal Arena still hints at past spectacles. A visit to at least a couple of the Royal Mausoleums, however, is not to be missed – it’s in these eclectic architectural confections in the hills to the south of Hué that the spirit of the Nguyen emperors lives on. Taking a boat along the Perfume River to get to the best mausoleums also offers the chance to stop off at the Thien Mu Pagoda and Hon Chen Temple on the way.
Thuan An Beach is a bike-ride away, if you have the time and energy, making for an attractive journey across the estuary with views of fish farms to either side, though the beach itself is nothing spectacular. Further afield, one of the most popular excursions from Hué is a whirlwind day-trip round the DMZ. Bach Ma National Park is also within striking distance.
Boat trips on the Perfume River
A sizeable number of people still live in boats on the Perfume River and the waterways of Hué, such as the Dong Ba and Phu Cam canals, despite government efforts to settle them elsewhere. It’s possible to join them, if only temporarily, by taking a boat trip, puttering about in front of the citadel on a misty Hué morning, watching the slow bustle of river life. A day’s boating on the Perfume River is a good way to soak up some of the atmosphere of Hué and do a little gentle sightseeing off the roads. The standard boat trip takes you to Thien Mu Pagoda, Hon Chen Temple and the most rewarding mausoleums, usually those of Tu Duc, Khai Dinh and Minh Mang. However, if you want to visit some of the others or spend more time exploring, it’s usually possible to take a bicycle on the boat and cycle back to Hué, though double-check this when you book the trip. Most tour agents and hotels offer river tours starting at $2 per person, including a very meagre lunch but no guide. However, all entrance fees are extra, which can work out costly at 55,000đ per mausoleum. If you’d rather do it independently, the same agents can arrange charter boats from $30 for the day, or hone your bargaining skills at the boat wharf beside the Trang Tien Bridge.
The Hon Chen Temple festivals
Festivals at Hon Chen were banned between Independence and 1986 but have now resumed, taking place twice yearly in the middle of the third and seventh lunar month. The celebrations, harking back to ancient rituals, include trance-dances performed by mediums, usually females dressed in brightly coloured costumes, who are transported by a pulsating musical accompaniment. These events have proven popular with the few foreign tourists lucky enough to be here at the right time, and to hear that they’re actually happening.
It often took years to find a site with the right aesthetic requirements that would also satisfy the court cosmologists charged with interpreting the underlying supernatural forces. Artificial lakes, waterfalls and hills were added to improve the geomantic qualities of the location, at the same time creating picturesque, almost romantic, garden settings for the mausoleums, of which the finest examples are those of Tu Duc and Minh Mang.
Though details vary, all the mausoleums consist of three elements: a temple dedicated to the worship of the deceased emperor and his queen; a large, stone stele recording his biographical details and a history of his reign, usually written by his successor; and the royal tomb itself. The main temple houses the funerary tablets and possessions of the royal couple, many of which have been stolen, while nearby stand ancillary buildings where the emperor’s concubines lived out their years. In front of each stele-house is a paved courtyard, echoing the Imperial City’s Esplanade of Great Salutations, where officials and soldiers lined up to honour their emperor, but in this case the mandarins, horses and elephants are fashioned in stone; military mandarins are easily distinguished by their swords, whereas the civil variety clutch sceptres. Obelisks nearby symbolize the power of the monarch, and lastly, at the highest spot, there’s the royal tomb enclosed within a wall and a heavy, securely fastened door. Traditionally the burial place was kept secret as a measure against grave-robbers and enemies of the state, and in extreme cases all those who had been involved in the burial were killed immediately afterwards.
Hue World Heritage Site
Located on Huong river, Hue was once the capital of Vietnam (during the Nguyen Dynasty, from 1802-1945), and is still an important and prominent piece of Vietnam’s cultural puzzle.
If you are a history buff or someone that enjoys exploring cultures, Hue should definitely be on the top of your travel plan. The city is filled with many ancient tombs, pagodas, and monuments that attract visitors from all over the world.
Beside ancient monuments, Hue is home to two of the most beautiful beaches in Vietnam: Thuan An Beach and Lang Co Beach, perfect places to take a rest after a long day.
Boat trips are available offer the opportunity to explore the famous Huong river which features Thien Mu pagoda, one of Hue’s well known landmarks and a perfect combination between picturesque gardens and imposing architecture. While on boat tours, visitors may have the chance to sample some of Hue’s delicious specialties such as Banh Beo and Bun Bo Hue, while watching royal art performances.
In fact, the majority of Vietnamese dishes emanate from Hue, which attracted some of Indochina’s finest chefs during feudal times. For its tombs, pagodas and iconic Citadel, the soulful city with a river running through it earned recognition from UNESCO’s World Heritage committee in 1993.