16.03.2011 - 17.03.2011 18 °C
16th March 2011
7am came all too soon, and we were showering in the lukewarm water of the morning, having to hold the shower attachment above our heads as it had fallen off the wall! The room was even colder this morning and we looked outside and were dismayed to see leaden skies and heavy rain. Donning our trusty ski jackets we headed downstairs for breakfast and couldn’t believe the change in temperature! It was very cold and windy - only last night we were wearing t-shirts! We hurriedly ate our breakfast and our tour transport arrived to pick us up at around 8:10am – a large coach with a few other people on board. We then set off going from hotel to hotel to collect more passengers, which took quite a while, before our guide introduced himself to us all and told us the day’s itinerary.
Our first stop was to a local village that made and sold different handicrafts including the ubiquitous conical hat, and different coloured, scented incense sticks. We were given a demonstration on how both these popular products are made (all by hand) which was fascinating, before being given the opportunity of purchasing some of the products available (although our guide advised us not to as they were of inferior quality and too expensive!).
The pounding rain had not relented at all and we all hurried back to the dry interior of the bus, setting off to King Tu Duc’s tomb. Tu Duc was the son of Emperor Thieu Tri and became King on 22nd September 1829 amid protests regarding his coronation. Even his own brother became the leader of a rebellion against him. Scholars and bureaucrats rallied against him too as they believed the eldest son (his brother) should have been crowned King, as did peasants unhappy with taxes, missionaries of Christianity and Catholicism who were so severely persecuted during the reigns of Thieu Tri and his father, Minh Mang, (who were both fiercely anti-foreign), and corrupt officials. Tu Duc crushed the rebellion and let his brother kill himself in prison. He continued running the country the same way as his predecessors – shutting the country off from the outside world and persecuting any foreigners meddling in religious or political circles. This angered Europe and was the pretext for a French attack, and they eventually took control of the country. Tu Duc basically surrendered and made a deal with France which allowed him to keep the throne but with no powers whatsoever. Contracting mumps when he was 14 years old meant that Tu Duc was sterile, so had no natural heirs. He adopted his younger brother’s 3 sons and, after Tu Duc’s death in 1883, the eldest son, Duc Duc, became the new Emperor, being overthrown and jailed just 3 days after his coronation and then dying of starvation 7 days later!
Each tomb conforms to a set of rules to ensure the greatest chance of the Emperor reaching the afterlife. These include a courtyard containing stone statues of mandarins (officials), elephants and horses, a massive stone stele on which is inscribed eulogies to the deceased Emperor, a temple with an altar and the tomb itself.
Built from 1864 to 1867, Tu Duc’s tomb and the grounds surrounding it are very beautiful. A large pavilion sits on stilts and overlooks the lake where Tu Duc used to write and recite poetry. To the right of this is a series of steps leading up to the courtyard, where the stone effigies stand rigidly, and on through to Tu Duc’s work buildings. To the rear of these is the burial area. Although a mausoleum, it really is a quite peaceful and beautiful place despite the teeming rain! Damp and cold, we were urged back to our bus and on our way to the next Emperor’s tomb – that of Khai Dinh.
With Vietnam under French rule Khai Dinh came to the throne in 1916 and was made King by the French themselves. He had no powers whatsoever and was basically France’s puppet. He was a bit of lad by all accounts, becoming addicted to gambling and opium, even increasing taxes to pay for his habits and to pay for his tomb, ordering the best builders and carpenters to help build it. This didn’t exactly endear him to the people of Vietnam! After taking advice from fortune tellers as to the correct place to build his tomb he chose Chau Chu mountain, just outside Hue. Building commenced in 1916, taking 11 years to complete. It is a mixture of oriental and western styles and, although dour and unexciting from the outside, the inside of the tomb itself is sumptuous and extravagant. Although the smallest of all the Nguyen Dynasty’s Emperor’s tombs, it cost the most to build! One more thing made him oh so popular with his people – his 40th birthday celebrations. They left Khai Dinh broke and he put up taxes again to replenish his coffers! He was also the first Vietnamese King to travel abroad when he visited France in 1922, hence the western influences to his tomb. He died in 1926 and his coffin was interred by a number of convicted criminals in a secret part of the tomb, apparently containing many diamonds and lots of gold. The convicted criminals were all killed immediately afterwards so as to not disclose the coffin’s whereabouts! To this day nobody knows if his body is actually in the tomb! The entire complex is quite wonderful and, when you reach the top of the steps, you are greeted by the rows of life-size stone mandarins with long beards, bearing swords, with stone horses and elephants in close attendance, while other stone statues stand further back, hands clasped together in front of them as though awaiting instructions from their King. The interior of the tomb is exquisitely over-the-top with a life-size effigy of Khai Dinh himself in gold, sitting on his throne underneath a huge, golden canopy, the walls and ceilings absolutely dripping in more gold, artwork, coloured glass and ceramic fragments. Yet another life-size effigy, this one in bronze, stands in the left side of the building. Some of the objects he acquired while in France, like clocks, furniture and goblets amongst others, are displayed in glass cabinets in a room just off the main hall. While the rain still pelted down, we trotted back to the bus when our allotted time was up and hopped aboard to visit the last tomb on our tour – that of Minh Mang (we’re not making these names up – honest!!).
Minh Mang was emperor from 1820 until 1841 and was regarded as a ruler who cared deeply for his country and its people. He was a staunch Confucianist and, basically, wanted nothing to do with the rest of the world. He was not happy when missionaries arrived to spread Christianity and Catholicism throughout his country and even had some of them executed to make his point! Minh Mang planned his own tomb and it was built after his death. His tomb is the simplest of the three we visited but is still magnificent. Set in expansive grounds with lakes and woods surrounding the pavilions and buildings, it was such a beautifully peaceful place to visit. The gateway was yellow roofed, with bright red pillars and pale yellow walls. The inside of the temple was red and gold with splashes of yellow and green. The rain had abated slightly, allowing us to walk around some of the grounds. We walked through the complex to some stone steps leading up to a large gate set in a high wall, behind which the Emperor supposedly lies – but, once again, the whereabouts of the Royal’s body remains a secret.
It was lunchtime and we were all looking forward to our included meal. Packed back onto our bus, we trundled to our designated restaurant, an intriguing place with a central main building and four large gazebos at the end of pathways leading from the central restaurant. It looked lovely and we all chose a gazebo and took our seats. Unfortunately, the meal (for us anyway!) wasn’t enjoyable. It was a cold buffet and everything, including the rice, omelettes and French fries were served up cold. The Chinese contingent in our group loved it and went back for extra helpings while we pigged out on the bread and crackers,! Even whilst eating our lunch, the rain continued unabated and we left there still feeling hungry. We pulled up in the car park of the place we had both been looking forward to seeing – the Citadel, the huge walled city built by Emperor Gia Long from 1805 to 1833. We walked through the huge gate and climbed the stairs to a large room that was used by the Emperor to watch over ceremonies taking place on the grounds below. It was mainly used for important public functions like choosing Mandarins (government officials) and for publication of the lunar calendar. From here we walked through beautiful courtyards and temples and through to the Forbidden Purple City where only the Emperor and his family were allowed to enter. His concubines had their own quarters and were served only by eunuchs as they posed no threat. The First Lady (the Emperor’s wife) and the Second Lady (the Emperor’s favourite concubine!) had their very own private quarters as did the Emperor’s mother and princesses. Unfortunately much of the Citadel was destroyed by the French when they were losing the Indo-China war and also in the Vietnam War but what is left is magnificent. Every building is sumptuously decorated with reds, golds, yellows and greens with long corridors leading to huge rooms or off to pretty flower-filled courtyards. Brightly painted, ornate gateways separated different sections of the city. Some of the buildings did not allow photography for some reason which was a real shame because their interiors were absolutely stunning. We were finding it difficult to keep up with our excellent, informative and knowledgeable guide who was racing around each section while we were still snapping away at the previous one and we even got lost on one occasion but managed to find everyone after a quick double back- such is the scale of the place!
Sadly, the weather really spoilt it for us as, although the colours were bold and bright, the greyness of the day took the edge off them and when the wind increased, the rain became almost horizontal making photography difficult. It was still raining when we boarded the bus for the next stop – one of the Garden Houses of Hue that was once owned by a Princess but is now privately owned and is one of the few intact garden houses still being lived in. Only 2 people decided to get off the bus to go and see the house and the garden as it was so wet and muddy so we waited on the bus for them to return before we headed off for the last sight – the Thien Mu pagoda – the tallest such building in Vietnam with seven storeys. Built as a place of worship in 1601, it is regarded as the unofficial symbol of the Imperial city of Hue. It stands overlooking the Perfume River and each floor is dedicated to a different Buddha. It is a beautiful building in pink bricks, but did not always look like this – before 1904 it was even grander but was severely damaged by a cyclone and rebuilt. It contains a number of interesting articles including a huge stele carried on the back of a marble turtle, a bell that was forged in a village across the river in 1701 and the Austin car that carried monk Thich Quang Duc to his self-immolation in Saigon in 1963 in protest against the Diem regime.
We walked around the grounds for a while and watched some monks praying with children before walking back to the bus and driving to the river’s edge to board a boat for the journey back. Once boarded, we sailed back extremely slowly as the rain came down harder and it took an eternity to get back! Unfortunately it moored up quite some way from our hotel so we had to trudge back in the pouring rain as darkness began to fall. After drying ourselves off and having a little snooze we walked to our favourite bar, the DMZ, for some dinner and a beer before heading back to sort out a flight to our next tour stop – Hanoi.