Thursday, January 5, 2017

Roaming Around Huế, the Last Imperial City

                                      by Jim Goodman

boats on the Perfume River
       When Nguyn Ánh finally emerged victorious in 1802 after a protracted civil war, changed his name to Gia Long and founded the Nguyn Dynasty, he chose Huế to be his capital.  In its previous incarnation as Phú Xuân it had been the capital of the Nguyễn Lords, Gia Long’s predecessors, from 1687 to its capture by the northern Trịnh Lords’ army in 1775.  It was also roughly in the center of a newly expanded and unified country, with the borders it has today, and halfway between Gia Long’s long time base at Saigon and the former Đại Việt capital of Thâng Long (now Hanoi).
boat traffic near Đông Ba market
       The city had been devastated by war and virtually nothing was left of its former glory.  The first building the new Emperor ordered erected was a massive Citadel on the northwest side of the Perfume River running through town.  Still standing today, renovated and repaired, its buildings are the primary tourist attraction in Huế, along with the imperial mausoleums, mostly in the southern countryside.  But besides these historical monuments, Huế has much more to appreciate.
Trường Tiền Bridge at night
       The Perfume River neatly divides the city into two parts.  On the northwest side lie the Citadel and the commercial district that grew up on its eastern side in the early 19th century.  It suffered considerable war damage and today the best surviving remnants are the Hainan and Guangdong Chinese Assembly Halls on Chi Lăng Street, the main thoroughfare, and Chùa Ông, built by Chinese from Fujian Province in the mid-19th century and often restored, featuring highly ornamented roofs and pediments.
    .  At the lower corner, next to the southeast corner of the Citadel, is Chợ Đông Ba, the large riverside fresh produce market.  Small boats fill the waters here, coning to deliver items or buy things to take home.  The Trường Tiền iron bridge at the end of this market, that connects this area with the new city, is illuminated at night with a succession of different colors on separate portions.
unloading a boat on the Như Ỹ RIver
       When the French conquered Huế in 1885 they left the Nguyễn Emperors in their Citadel as figurehead rulers and moved the capital back to Hanoi.  In Huế they built a new city on the other side of the Perfume River, just opposite the Citadel, in between two tributary waterways; the Như Ý River in the north and the Phú Cam Canal in the south.  Lê Lợi Street, running along the Perfume River from the train station just across the Phú Cam to the Như Ý River confluence, contains some of the best examples of colonial architecture in the city.
Nguyễn Dynasty monument on Lê Lợi Street
       On the lower part of this road the French opened a spacious high school campus of red brick, European-style buildings in 1896.  Hồ Chí Minh was a student here once, but was expelled after a year for taking part in revolutionary activities.  Other famous ex-students were Pham Văn Đông, Võ Nguyễn Giap, Le Duàn and Ngô Định Diềm. Across the road on the riverbank stands a Nguyễn Dynasty memorial building, flanked by two tall columns, in a style common to buildings in the royal tombs.
       Further up the road, between the Phú Xuân and Trường Tiền bridges, are some of the elegant French administrative buildings.  They are two or three stories high, with gently sloping roofs, narrow, multi-paned windows, colonnaded balconies and white or pale colored walls.  Today they serve as local government or corporation offices.
schoolgirls riding home
       Beside the Trường Tiền Bridge is a park full of odd and fanciful modern sculptures, mostly in sleek white marble.  Nothing neo-classical here, the works are both abstract shapes and strange statues like two swimmers, one atop the other, mounted like a flag from a post, or of the upper torso of a big-breasted woman with a bare, oval head, or the one of a naked bronze woman sleeping while cuddled by a black tree trunk with ten pairs of outstretched arms. Equally unusual sculptures stand in a park on the other side of the Perfume River near the Citadel. 
       The modern business district of Huế begins here, on either side of Hùng Vương Street, which proceeds several blocks from the end of the Trường Tiền Bridge.  Most of the hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and other businesses catering to travelers lie in this area.  On the wide avenues and side streets are more colonial-era buildings and a few churches.  A Cao Đài church lies on the lower end of Hùng Vương Street, perhaps the northernmost example of this very Southern religion, recognizable by the All-Seeing Eye depicted on its façade.
colonial building on Lê Lợi Street
       The most imposing church, in a thoroughly modern style, but with an Asian-style tiered spire, is that of the Redemptorist Mission of the French Catholic Church; the Notre Dame Cathedral, built 1959-1962.  It is near the southeast bank of the Phú Cam Canal, not far from the An Định Palace, another wonderful colonial-era building.  The second last Emperor Khải Định had it constructed in 1917, displaying his personal preference for a European-style mansion.  Three stories high, quite wide, with balconies and large arched widows, the façade painted white and yellow, the palace looks totally French, except for the roof of the octagonal pavilion in the courtyard, with sculpted mythical animals on its tiled roof.  Along with the Citadel and the Nguyễn Dynasty memorial on Lê Lợi Street, it is one of the venues for performances during the bi-annual International Huế Festival.
Phú Cam Canal
       Huế is still a relatively small city, so it doesn’t take long to get out to the suburbs and countryside.  At the lower end of Lê Lợi Street, a turn south on Điên Biện Phú Street eventually leads to Nam Giao, the former site of annual rituals the Nguyễn Emperor made to the Lord of Heaven.  Only the mound remains, but a right turn here, the route to the Tứ Đực Mausoleum, puts one in typically attractive Huế suburbs.  Unlike the outskirts of Hanoi or Saigon, here the houses are sited on bigger plots of land, spaced comfortably apart from their neighbors.    
Notre Dame Cathedral in Huế
       Likewise, the Buddhist temple compounds are larger than those in the city.  The most attractive is Chùa Từ Hiếu, set in a wooded area off the main road alongside two ponds. This is an active monastery with over a hundred resident monks and nuns.  The compound includes an entry gate with three arches, a couple temples, a cemetery, a shady walkway along the ponds, quarters for the monks and nuns and a bamboo rest house beside one of the ponds. 
       Buddhism still has a significant influence in contemporary Huế culture.  More Vietnamese take up the religious life, at least for a time, than in other cities.  And except for the Khmer-inhabited provinces in the south, Huế is the place travelers are most likely to see monks and nuns circulating in the city in the daytime, even visiting the tourist attractions, or happen upon Buddhist priests conducting rites on a city sidewalk.  Its religious reputation has even spread abroad.  At Chùa Diều Nghiệm, just up the slope from Chùa Từ Hiếu, next to an old Nguyễn Dynasty, square-based pagoda, Westerners come to stay for some time, don monastic robes and take classes in Buddhism.
An Định Palace
       From Từ Hiếu the road continues west to a junction and turns south, passing the turn-off to the mausoleums of Tự Đức and Đồng Khánh, and runs above the Perfume River on Vong Canh Hill.  This road continues along this scenic route, then descends to the broad plain in front of the Thiệu Trị Mausoleum, though a turn-off goes to a ferry landing opposite Chùa Hòn Chén.  Sited below a rocky promontory beside the river, when the Chăm held sway in this part of the country the temple honored Pô Nagar, their principal goddess.  The Vietnamese subsequently drafted her into their own pantheon of Holy Mothers and renamed her Thiên Ý A Ná.  The interior features a unique altar of nine tiers and ritual dances for the Holy Mothers occasionally take place here.
rest house at Chùa Từ Hiếu 
       The rural area around Lăng Thiệu Trị is very typical, with scattered farmhouses, rice fields, arched bridges over the streams and fish traps mounted beside them.  Another attraction of Huế is the proximity of its captivating countryside.  One of the most rewarding excursions is to Thanh Toàn, about 7 km east of the city.  The road passes through a network of canals and rice fields.  Small boats ply the waters, temple compounds flank the rice fields and farmers use scoops mounted on bamboo tripods to move water from the canals to the fields. 
sidewalk ritual in downtown Huế
       Fish traps common to Central Vietnam stand at intervals alongside the canals.  This contraption consists of a wide square net suspended from a bamboo tripod connected to an operating lever.  When released, the net then drops into the water.  When the lever is pushed down (and it’s a little strenuous an effort), the net rises, hopefully containing a lot of trapped fish.
       Thanh Toàn village dates its foundation to the 16th century, when immigrants from Thanh Hóa followed Nguyễn Hoàng here when he became governor of the area.  In 1776 a descendant of one of the original 12 founding families sponsored the construction of a covered bridge spanning the canal that divided the village into two parts.  About 17 meters long and 4.5 meters wide, slightly arched, a tiled roof, ornately carved dragons ornamenting the apex and roof ends on each side, with compartments inside for overnight travelers (one of the original intentions), it is one of a handful of covered bridges in the country.  Nowadays no one sleeps there, but it is a popular hangout for the villagers.
countryside near Lăng Thiệ Teị
       The village also has a communal house (đình) and a museum housing traditional tools, baskets and other everyday rural devices and implements.  Many of these are still employed and because of its still largely traditional setting and way of life, plus its beautiful bridge, Thanh Toàn is an additional venue for the International Huế Festival, staging contests in pounding rice, making conical caps, cooking rice and holding boat races on the canal.
       Huế is also close to the sea and a short ride up Highway 49 north of the city to the mouth of the Perfume River leads to Thaận An beach, near the northern end of a long, thin peninsula between the Hà Trung lagoon and the sea. It’s not a particularly scenic beach with no small offshore islands to look at and Huế’s weather pattern allows for few days in the year for swimming and sunbathing.  But in any case there are plenty of restaurants offering fresh seafood in a quiet environment marked by the sounds of rolling waves.
hoisting a fish trap near Thanh Toàn
       On the northern side of the Perfume River a very different kind of rural attraction is Kim Long village, just west of the Citadel on the way to Thiên Mụ Pagoda.  Famous for its garden houses and a popular excursion for Vietnamese tourists, the village dates its origin to the years immediately after the fall of Huế to the French, founded by ex-generals and former Court mandarins who had little to do after the colonial takeover.
       So they built nice, comfortable houses for themselves in Kim Long, outfitted with traditional elements like domestic shrines, carved wooden furniture with lots of mother-of-pearl inlay, ornate porcelain jugs, vases and jars, and flowers, shrubs and bushes to decorate their yards.  By no means mansions, they are generally one-story buildings with an attic to where the residents, descendants of the original families, remove themselves and essential furniture during severe floods.  These can reach as high as half the height of the ground floor rooms.
garden house in Kim long village
       They have a definite turn-of –the-century look, with columned fronts, often adorned with vertical plaques of traditional ‘parallel sentences’ (câu doi), tiled roofs and multi-paneled folding doors.  A few of the bigger compounds include a pond and an artificial mound, placed according to geomantic principles to ward off evil influences.  Some of the villagers have added teahouses or restaurants to their compounds to cater to visitors.  These are usually open-sided, with sloping tiled roofs and fit in with the existing architectural style.  The biggest garden house compounds include fruit orchards as well and maybe a fishpond and a covered passageway to the family shrine.
Perfume RIcer west of the Citadel
       Continuing west past Kim Long the road reaches Thiên Mụ Pagoda, on a hill beside the river.  This is the oldest Vietnamese temple in the province, commissioned in 1601 by Nguyễn Hoàng on his first visit to the area.  Beyond this a few km is the former Temple of Literature, where aspiring mandarins trained for service in the Huế Court.  Only the entry gate and the row of steles honoring the laureates still remain.  Another few km and the Perfume River bends to the south.  Near this turn a village temple compound features a replica of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India.  It’s not listed in any tourist literature, yet it’s another example of the pleasant surprises in store for anyone ready to roam around the enchanting environs of Huế.

18th century covered bridge at Thanh Toàn 
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Huế is one of the stops on Delta Tours Vietnam’s cultural-historical journey through the country.  See   


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