If you take a stroll down the banks of the Perfume River at night, you will come across a scene of flood lit bridges, sparkling dragon boats and a little commerce as the locals, along with a few tourists, enjoy the fresh evening air after a hot and humid day. One of the delights of that stroll is watching the lights change colour on the Truong Tien Bridge, making the river shine and glow. The open space, parklands, good walkways and absence of motorbikes makes for a pleasurable night out for families and young couples in love.
In 1897, the French Resident Superior in Central Vietnam, Levecque, assigned Eiffel of France (known for the Eiffel Tower in Paris) to design and build the Truong Tien Bridge. The construction was completed in 1899. In 1946, 1953 and 1968, this beautiful bridge, symbol of Hue, was destroyed due to mines and bombings in the French, then American wars. The bridge was finally renovated in 1991-5 and the lighting system was installed in 2002.
The Perfume River (Huong) is named after the flowers from orchards upriver which fall into the water, giving the river a perfume-like aroma. The River flows to the northeast to Huế and passes the palaces and tombs of the Nguyễn emperors. After a day touring the tombs of the Nguyen emperors in the countryside, I can recommend a slow trip down the river, a relaxing end mesmerising way to end a long day.
Before travelling to Vietnam, my vocabulary was limited to phở, that famous Vietnamese bowl full of slurping goodness, and Nguyen, the 13th most common name in the Australian phone book and soon to become the top family name in the urban areas of Melbourne and Sydney. Not a lot to go on you might say.
The locals around Hue (pronounced hway) are keen to teach the language and correct your pronunciation: they write things down, demonstrate the tonal stresses, ask you to repeat the sounds and urge you to practice. This is good language teaching in action. Although the phonology is difficult to master, at least you get to read the language (unlike with Thai or Mandarin for example) and the diacritical marks give you some indication of the tones. I am constantly being corrected and that’s good. Words are coming fast, but today I need to practise cài baò càrôt, before heading off to the huge market across the Perfume River to begin my hunt for those magic graters.
As it turns out, my other well-known word, the name Nguyen, pronounced nwen, turns out to be quite handy in Vietnam. It is estimated that around 30 million Vietnamese, or 30 percent of the population, have this family name. Hue is the home of the Nguyen Dynasty. Established as the capital of unified Vietnam in 1802, Hue was not only the political but also the cultural and religious centre under the Nguyen dynasty until 1945. In that year, the last Nguyen emperor Bao Dai abdicated the throne and transferred power to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh.
A tour of Hue’s monuments, because of their spread throughout the countryside, is most easily taken with a tour. A bus tour, taking in the tombs of the Nguyen emperors Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, and Tu Doc as well as the Citadel, Royal Palace and the Thien Miu Pagoda, takes around 8 hours. The trip includes a Vietnamese banquet lunch and concludes with a forty minute cruise down the Perfume River. Most importantly, it includes the service of a well-informed tour guide. The tour costs 255 VND /AU$15. Entry tickets to the various monuments is an extra 360,000 VND /AU21.23. You will walk around 8 kilometers during the round trip and climb many stairs. To survive, you need comfortable footwear, a good sunhat and lots of water. Our tour guide remained cool, calm and totally charming in her apricot polyester Ao Dai and 6 inch high wedged sandals. The temperature reached 36ºC on the day of our tour and I noticed that the price of cold water increased along the way.
As mentioned in a comment by Maree in an earlier post, the Vietnamese are very forgiving people, though around Hue, one of the hardest hit cities during the French colonial period and the American War which followed, they still harbour some distrust of the foreigner, at least at the official level, when it comes to preserving their heritage. In 1885, French forces stormed the Royal Palace, burning the imperial library and removing every single object of value. This was followed by the American bombing and napalming of the ancient complex of the Purple City. Only 20 of the original 148 buildings survived. The diorama on display inside the second palace representing the Royal Complex in the past, enables one to imagine its former grandeur. The Royal Purple City of 500 hectares was dotted with ornate buildings, moats, lakes and walls before the area was severely damaged. One could say that it was comparable to the palace and gardens of Versailles.
The city of Hue became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993. The estimated cost of restoring or rebuilding the Purple City is around US$35 million. Consequently the project is very slow as funds are short. I have a few suggestions as to who should pay.
For Mark M, lover of Hue city.
Our tour was organised by MotorVina Travel, near 42 Nguyen Cong Tru st, Hue.