Romantic Journeys: Hue: the last imperial capital city of Vietnam

by Chalerm Raksanti

A phrase of an old Vietnamese folk song translates to; “wherever I go, I always miss Hue, I miss the cool breeze on the River of Perfumes, I miss the clear moon over the Imperial Mountain”. After decades of war and the legacy of grinding poverty, does that once great city still bear any resemblance to the praises sung long ago. To the visitor’s delight, most monuments and palaces in Doi Noi, the ‘great interior’ of Hue are in recognisable condition. The imperial capital built in the 19th century by the founding emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty preserves its alluring beauty and its architectural poetry.

Stone mandarins guard over the tomb of Nguyen Emperor Khai Dinh.

To its people, Hue is a poem, but it began in a legend. In 1601 Lord Nguyen Hoang, father of the Nguyen Dynasty, visited a rude village on a site now occupied by the Citadel. There, on a hill shaped like a dragon head, a peasant had seen a lady dressed in a red gown and green trousers. She prophesied that soon a true king would come there to build a pagoda that will attract and converge al the heavenly forces and energy of the Long Mach - Dragon Veins. And with that, she vanished. Lord Nguyen built the pagoda on the hill and named it Thien Mu (Heavenly Lady).

Burning incense pays tribute to the guardian of the temple in the Citadel.

Hue’s famous Quoc Hoc (National Studies School) seethes with underground politics and ‘above ground’ literature and arts. Writers, poets, teachers, and students flock to bookstores and coffee and tea houses to discuss the latest issues in government policies and social changes. In the cool of the evening as the day winds down, they gather again for a cold beer or a pernod. Garbed in the traditional ao dai, young Vietnamese women seem to epitomise the charm and grace of Hue.

The 30-acre necropolis of poet emperor Tu Doc holds the emperor’s tomb filled with porcelain and glass, and a bronze likeness. To insure eternal harmony, Nguyen kings oriented their tombs precisely amid pine and bamboo cloaked hills. The setting is deteriorating from a lack of resourses to preserve the monuments from the torrential monsoon rains and tile cracking vegetation. Nonetheless, this quiet park of eternal rest is serene. Buddhists visit Hue’s 60 pagodas regularly for prayer and celebration.

Young Vietnamese woman in her graceful national dress, the ao dai.

Early dawn over Hue reveals a sleeping city. Pale light casts a glint on the shadowy blue Imperial Screen Mountain. On the inky surface of the River of Perfumes one sees a hard working fisherman going out for his first catch of the day. All things seem possible in Hue. Optimism is a tradition here. Hue has pride in its past, and delight in its possibilities. In Vietnam, a person lives, works, suffers, succeeds, and sacrifices. But not only for the self, but for the home, the family (immediate and ancestral), for the yet unborn, for the village and the nation. These unbreakable strands are the web of relations that define one’s place in society.

On my last day in Hue I visited the tomb of Nguyen Emperor Khai Dinh. Stone mandarins guard the tomb. In 1802 the Nguyens unseated their rivals in Hanoi and established court at Hue. Attended by the country’s best musicians, astrologers, chefs and physicians, they refined cultural traditions that continue, despite the abdication of Khai Dinh’s son, Bao Dai to Ho Chi Minh in 1945. I felt the stone mandarins watching me with dead eyes. I waited for the ‘heavenly forces and energies’ of the Long March, which the ghostly woman had prophesied so long ago. A brisk wind whipped around me; then the heavens opened up and torrents of rain drove me to cover. Just for a moment, I though I heard a woman’s laugh.