Saturday, January 15, 2011

Frozen in Time; Hue, Vietnam

Map picture

Frozen In Time: Hue, Vietnam

Yesterday we entered a time warp when we visited the ancient city of Hue and drove through the surrounding countryside. We witnessed a population that still tills the fields behind oxen pulled plows and then spends their days lovingly tending to their small plots of rice paddies. Tucked away among the hills and valleys we visited some incredible archeological sites, and in spite of the dark overcast skies we had a wonderful and exciting day.

Our ship docked at the port of Chan May, which is about the most godforsaken place I have seen for a cruise ship. The small, one ship, dock was out in the middle of nowhere. The road from the ship to the port entrance was non-existent. It was a mass of deep mud holes filled with big boulders. On leaving dockside, our bus quickly found itself in mud up to its wheel hubs, and even though the driver was going super-slow, from time to time, there would be a grinding sound as we hit some buried boulder. Finally, exiting the “port,” we gained access to a narrow one lane road that was paved in places and in others was merely a gravel path. At the end of this long access road, we turned onto the main highway in Vietnam, Highway 1, which runs from the north to the south of the country. This super “toll” road was only little better than a small two lane road with no shoulders. Again it was paved in places and in others it was gravel or mud. It was, however, filled with large trucks and bicycles with a smattering of cars and motorbikes thrown in.

The distance to the city of Hue was only 40 miles, but the trip took almost 2 hours. Along the way we saw a portion of Vietnam where time seems to have stood still. We certainly received a warm welcome; as our bus moved along, we passed a man alongside the road holding his privates in one hand, and happily urinating on the highway. As we passed by in full view, he never broke stream while raising his free hand and giving a wave. As I said, a very warm welcome was extended.

Hue, Vietnam

The highway came to a series of high hills with a steep grade and sharp turns. The heavily laden cargo trucks could just barely climb the hills. But, not to fear, because our bus driver gleefully passed everything in his way, never mind the double lines. He even passed on sharp curves when it was impossible to see what was coming the other way. So, it comes as no surprise that one of the largest causes of death in Vietnam is traffic accidents!

Our guide droned on and on about how great life was now in Vietnam since the liberation. There were some veterans on our bus, and they just about threw-up with all the propaganda being spread our way. There were communist flags everywhere, and bright banners featuring Ho Chi Minh’s visage. It would appear that people from the South are not faring as well as the victors from the North. As an example, we passed a huge cemetery where in the center was a massive monument surrounded with well-tended grave sites all prominently marked. This area was walled off from the remainder of the cemetery where grave markers were scattered about in a random fashion, and which had not been tended to in any way. Our guide casually remarked that the heroes of the war were buried in the center, and the other tombs were of those who had fought on the side of the south. As we drove through areas of obvious poverty and filth, it did not seem to faze our guide to brag about how the 30 year old son of the country’s ruler who just bought a $250,000 sports car!

Anyway, the bus finally turned off the “main highway” onto a small narrow dirt road that curved through the countryside for several miles before pulling up into a muddy clearing where we stopped for our first visit of the day.

Hue, Vietnam

As I stepped from the bus into the muddy lot, I really wondered what I was getting in to, but in time it turned out to be a wonderful experience.

During the time that Hue was the ancient capital of Vietnam, a succession of Emperors constructed around the countryside massive tomb sites for their eventual burial. If the structures were completed before their deaths, then they could also be used as a summer retreat from the nearby city. There are 13 such sites around Hue, and the government has decided to try and maintain three of them. Each is now listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. We had stopped to visit the tomb of the Emperor Ming Mang. It was built between 1840 and 1843 and covers an area of 70 sq. acres, and is surrounded by a protective wall that runs for over a mile. We had quite a walk from the parking lot to the entrance into the tomb area, but once inside the site, it was breathtaking.

Hue, Vietnam

Best of all, our bus was the first tour group to arrive for the day, thus allowing me to run ahead and capture some beautiful photographs without crowds of people in them.

After our hour long visit, we travelled the rest of the way into the inner city of Hue. Today it is a city of around 400,000 people, which relies heavily on tourism for income. Our next stop was to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda, Vietnam’s most revered Buddhist shrine.


Hue, VietnamInterestingly, only 20 % of the Vietnamese people are religious, and of that number about half are Buddhist and the rest largely Catholic. There was no escaping the crowds this time, but never-the-less I did manage to obtain some interesting photographs.

The Perfume River runs through the center of Hue, thus bisecting the city into a northern half and a southern half. In order to get from the Pagoda to our lunch stop on the opposite side of the river, our tour included a ride up river on a pontoon boat made to look like the Emperor’s old Dragon boat. It was a steep and slippery path down to the river bank, but everyone made the boat safely. We then cruised up the river for an hour in a noisy little cabin, while the family who lives on the boat spent their time trying to hustle the crowd into buying some souvenirs. We arrived at a local hotel for our lunch buffet, and were warmly welcomed with a wonderful display of colorful dancers and the pounding beat of giant drums along with a huge banner welcoming the passengers from the Ocean Princess. The buffet could not have been nicer, and during the lunch we were entertained with music and dancing by local artists; all in all a wonderful experience.

Refreshed and ready to go, we drove back to the “Royal” side of the city to visit the world famous “Imperial Citadel.” The original citadel was built in 1601 and enlarged over the centuries by successive Emperors until eventually it became an imitation of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

Hue, Vietnam

The area of the Citadel is enormous housing concentric cities nestled within one another like baskets, leaving the Imperial City at the core. While this area is another UNESCO designated World Heritage Site, it was sadly heavily damaged during the Tet Offensive of 1968 when 5,000 North Vietnamese troops turned it into a stronghold and held it for 25 days. Many of the old buildings were destroyed and rather than trying to rebuild them, they were simply demolished so large areas of the Citadel remain vacant today; it is still an impressive site.

By now we were all tiring, but still we did make the obligatory stop at the local market for 20 minutes where a thriving bazaar of sounds and smells offers for sale just about anything you could want. Boarding our bus, we were glad to see that no one had been hit by the infamous pick pockets who inhabit the market, and we set off on our two hour journey back to the ship. The day was dreary and the day was fading, so many on our bus quickly fell asleep on the long ride.

It was a long but rewarding day. Overnight we have encountered some uncomfortable seas as we continue north to our next stop, Hong Kong. While there, we have tours two days in a row, so it might be some while before I get back and caught up, but again I do hope everyone is enjoying our travels.




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