Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hue Part 2 - A Bit of Vietnamese History

On our second day in Hue, we were picked up by a couple of motorbikes and driven to a tour boat that would take us down the river to see the major highlights of Hue. Being the capital city of Vietnam during the days of feudalism before it switched to communism in 1945, Hue has many historical sites in and surrounding the city. The boat first went by a set of houses built at the water level on a small island in the river. Due to frequent flooding, the families that usually live in these houses are forced to live in small boats that are moored by the side of the river while the Government builds them more suitable houses on the mainland.

Further down the river we disembarked and went to a martial arts dojo to watch a demonstration of traditional Vietnamese martial arts. The tour guide was eager to show us this demonstration to illustrate the war-torn history of Vietnam. This poor country hasn't had a moment's peace for the past 1000 years. China was constantly breathing down Vietnam's neck, especially in the North. We were told that the Chinese wanted to occupy Vietnam because it lies in the south where the weather is warmer. The word Vietnam is made up of two words, Viet meaning the Viet people and Nam meaning South. The traditional Vietnamese martial arts were not as complicated as the martial arts that originated from China such as Tai Chi and Shaolin. The idea behind this was that it was to be kept simple enough that the common man could utilize the fighting style so they could all fight for their country. The Vietnamese boasted being one of the few countries that were able to successfully ward off constant threats of occupation by China and Mongolia. The demonstrations involved utilization of many different types of weapons ranging from duel wielding swords, single wielded broad swords, bamboo staffs, flag poles, spears to even a set of cymbals and a flute. The fighters did solo performances to show their versatility with the various weapons. The fighters also dueled with each other, showing how quickly the fight could turn and performing amusing enactments of a warrior dying on the battlefield. The men looked quick and powerful, while the women looked quick and graceful. In the final two demonstrations, one man broke a stack of ceramic roof tiles with his fist and another bent a spear that was wedged between the ground and his neck.

We jumped back on the boat and went further down the river to Thien Mu Pagoda, a Buddhist temple of worship. Our guide told us that Buddhism in Vietnam was largely influenced by China. Buddhists believe in 3 lives; the human life, the animal life and the eternal life. They believe that you cycle between the 3 lives until you can eventually reach enlightenment while in the human life to become a Buddha yourself and be accepted into eternal life. The idea came from the first Buddha who was originally a prince who felt bad about the poverty of his people, so he renounced his throne and all his possessions and learnt to become humble as to become a Buddha himself. Throughout the complex we could see Buddhist monks going about their business, living simple lives within the grounds of the pagoda in an attempt to reach enlightenment. We even saw the car that was parked behind the monk that set himself on fire to protest the oppression of Buddhism in 1963.

After the pagoda, we went further down the river to visit Hon Chen Temple. Jenni and I, along with many others in the tour group elected to sit in the shade by the river side instead of visiting the temple as it was extremely hot that day. On the way to the next stop we had lunch on the boat.

We left the boat at a small dock and ventured to the grounds of Minh Mang Tomb. This tomb was built by a very famous king in Vietnam. He died three months into its construction, but it was completed by his 1st son who rose to power after his death. The exact location of where the king was buried within the grounds is a mystery as, when he was buried, the people kept his final resting place a secret in fear that his enemies may excavate his remains and destroy them. Minh Mang is very famous in Vietnam because, to this day, he holds 3 Vietnamese records. The first record was for the most number of children. In total he was father to 142 children! His very first son was his heir to the throne. The second record was for the most number of wives. Throughout his lifetime Minh Mang had over 500 wives and concubines! Now that its A LOT of mother in laws! At any one point in time he had a different woman for each day of the week, but took a rest on the weekend  from his floozies. The third record is the most number of children conceived in one night. In one night he slept with 6 different women, 5 of which conceived a child that night. Due to these accomplishments, a popular energy drink called Ming Mang is available here in Vietnam! The grounds of the tomb have been laid out in the shape of a body. To the south of the grounds lies the river from which we arrived by boat. At the river there is a fork, which represents the legs. There are buildings within the grounds that represent the heart, body, shoulders, neck and head. All of the buildings face to the south to harness better energy, also gaining the benefit of the cool (well it could have been cooler, it was still stinking hot!) southern wind.

We jumped on a bus (which to our delight had air-con) and set off to visit Khai Dinh Tomb. This tomb complex is rather unique because it was built more recently than the other tombs and temples that we have seen. Khai Dinh Tomb is the last tomb built for a Vietnamese king, before the king in 1945 renounced his throne to form a political party which formed the communist government in 1945. At the time of construction, Vietnam was pretty much being run by the French government and the Vietnamese royal family had no money. To build his own tomb, Khai Dinh had to ask the French government for money. He ended up being given the money and had his tomb built atop of a hill so when he returned from the afterlife, he could rule above the French. Even though the day was already very hot, the temperature at this tomb was noticeably hotter. Stone steps rise up the hill, with intricate carvings of dragons with jeweled eyes flanking the sides of the staircases. At the top of the stairs lies the building that houses the king's remains. The interior walls of the building are made of marble and beautiful coloured mosaics decorate all of the pillars. On the roof is a large painting of dragons flying amongst the clouds. At the front of the tomb is a photo of the king, showing off his rude-looking "Ray Martin" style haircut. Damn that guy really needed to use a different hair-dresser! During his life, the king was rumoured to be a homosexual because he only took 7 wives and for many years did not have any children. Later when his heir was born, the rumour was that the child was not sired by him, but sired by another man; a ruse to convince the people that he was a heterosexual.

After making a quick stop to see how incense sticks and the traditional conical hats are made, we soldiered on to the final stop of the day, Tu Duc Tomb. This tomb complex was set out in a similar fashion to the first tomb we visited that day. This tomb is also known as the "Tomb of Blood" because over 2000 workers were killed during its construction. In his early years, the king slept with many prostitutes and it is believed that he contracted a STD from one of them. After taking over 50 wives and being unsuccessful in attempting to conceive a child with each, he finally came to the conclusion that his bits and bobs were not working as they should and gave up. Tu Duc died at the relatively young age of 41 because he smoked large amounts of opium throughout his life. The buildings in this tomb complex did not appear to be laid out in any particular pattern, but instead were built around a lake that wound its way through the complex. The complex was frequented by the king before his death and included quarters for his concubines, a little villa overlooking the lake so he could write his poetry and a temple to perform his worship. The buildings were in a state of disrepair, but I felt that the crumbling buildings and the overgrown foliage around the grounds made the experience feel more authentic. The fact that the place was a lot cooler due to being well shaded by tall pine trees also helped!

On the way back to Hue, our guide shared some riddles with the tour group and told us the legend behind why humans have a life expectancy of 90 years. It is said that originally humans only lived for 20 years and during these 20 years, they lived a very happy and care-free life. During this time, buffalo had a life span of 100 years, but lead a miserable life due to the fact that they had to work hard everyday. The monkeys had a life span of 40 years, but were always grumpy because they had no friends or family to keep them company. Because they were unhappy, the buffalo and the monkeys went to the Gods and pleaded with them to half their lives so they would not have to endure such long unhappy lives. So the Gods took 50 years from the buffalo and 20 years from the monkeys. The humans then asked the Gods if they could increase their lives so they could enjoy their happiness for longer. The Gods took the spare 50 years of life of the buffalo and the spare 20 years of life of the monkeys and gave them to the humans to give them a total of 20 + 50 + 20 = 90 years of life. Therefore for the first 20 years of human life, humans spend it care-free and happy as children. For the next 50 years of their lives they are miserable as they are forced to work hard like the buffalo. For the final 20 years of their lives, humans can retire from working, but become short-tempered and grumpy like monkeys, which is caused by their loneliness when their children finally grow up and leave home.

On our final day in Hue, we went to see the citadel within Hue city. The citadel is very similar to the Forbidden City in Beijing as it was a small city that was walled off from the rest of Hue to provide a private home to the Vietnamese kings. It is really a shame that large parts of the palace complex were destroyed by bombs during the Vietnam war. Jenni and I believe that the lush green gardens surrounding the remaining buildings give this place the potential to be much more beautiful looking than the sandstone jungle that is the Forbidden City in Beijing. Unfortunately, walking through the palace complex is more like walking through a construction yard as many people are hard at work rebuilding and restoring the buildings. There are buildings that have already been reconstructed and there are other buildings that have undergone restoration, so it is difficult to tell what is original and what is not. The highlight of the day was meeting a friendly bloke from Montreal and having a chat with him while wandering around the complex, before having to part ways so he could rush off to catch a train.

With so many historical sites surrounding the city, it is not surprising to hear that the entire city of Hue is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. It has definitely been one of the most interesting places we have visited so far on our trip and definitely the hottest so far!


  1. Seems to be all going well.... I just got back from America and had a fantastic time there.. but back to work ughhh (same old shit). Got all my stuff on my website blog wise about the trip, I know the feeling about being just that few blogs behind the current real time, thank god for photos to jog the memory. When do you reach the cold and wet UK?

  2. hi nice to read your experiences I am the tourguide for you in boat trip.