friday, april 06, 2018


'A day of travelling will bring a basketful of learning.'

-Old Vietnamese proverb - 

The Vietnamese people are early-risers, and even at 8am, the roads are clogged with cyclists, cars, trucks, and motorcycles as we make our way out of Hoi An, past paddy fields, cities, towns, and fishing villages towards the Imperial city of Hue. I watch the world from the comfort of the back seat of the car, but secretly would love to stop often to take photos. I take mental images of the sites from the window; the derelict mansions, the food stalls, the buffalo working in the paddy fields, the galvanised-iron humpies, and the smiling children.


We leave the coast road and start climbing up the mountains that border Vietnam and Cambodia. As we climb through the jungle, which is slowly being strangled by morning glory, we can see the coastline below. According to the driver, only fuel tankers, cars, buses, and motor bikes are permitted to use this road. At the top of the mountain, we are faced with chaotically parked buses and cars, food stalls, and shops. People are scurrying in all directions between vehicles and decaying buildings on a small hill opposite. We join the chaos as our driver stops briefly to let us out of the car.  We have arrived at the scenic viewpoint of Hai Van Pass. Hai Van's name refers to the mists that rise from the sea, reducing visibility. Today, however, we have a clear 360 degree view of the sea below and the mountains around us. 


The abandoned buildings at the pinnacle of the pass were once a border post between the Cham territory and the rest of the country. The gateway dates back to the First French Indochinese War when the lookouts were built to provide early warning of invasion, thus keeping the French-held city of Da Nang safe. When the French left, the buildings were left to decay.


Today, as I climb the remnants of a brick staircase, through the arch of the main gate, I admire the architectural engineering, which had been obviously built to withstand the ravages of climate and war. I walk along flat concrete roof of a bunker, and enter the second floor of the lookout. Emerging, I can see a newly married couple standing on the circular roof of a deserted water tower. Looking like a cake topper, they stand and pose for the the barrage of photographers, including dozens of amateurs with their iPhones. Without warning, mist swirls in from the mountains, obliterating everything but the couple standing on the tower. I am in awe of the lengths that people go to to get the 'perfect' wedding photo, and I applaud the tenacity of this couple, who have had to climb a ladder to reach this impossible perch, in full bridal attire.


Our next stop is a fishing village. A sandbar, only visible at low tide, extends out into the water. We walk along the sand and watch as a boat comes in, piled with crusted circles. A lady jumps out, collects armfuls of the large rings, drops them at a tent and makes several trips to and fro, gradually emptying the boat. On closer inspection, we realise that they are old bicycle or thin motorcycle tyres encrusted with oysters. A group of people squat under the shade of a large umbrella, expertly cleaning the tyres. The oysters are pushed into a pile, awaiting shucking, whilst the cleaned tyres are piled to one side. A little further up the road, as our car runs over small piles of tyres strategically placed in the middle of the road, I realise we are inadvertently assisting in the cleaning of remaining debris, readying them to be reused in the oyster farms. I can only admire the Vietnamese for their ingenuity as they work to improve their lives.

A high staircase looms in front of us as I pay the meagre admission cost. Climbing the steep staircase doesn't provide any indication of what is beyond. The Khai Dinh tomb is the resting place of the twelfth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. Built between 1920 and 1931, it is a blend of Eastern and Western architecture and the  multiple levels are built into the side of the mountain, joined by a series of staircases, adorned with dragons. A courtyard onto which a number of concrete warriors stand 'guard' on either side of an elaborate concrete stele and pagoda is a mere prelude to the main attraction. At the highest level is a large building, the last resting place of Emperor Khai Dinh.


Khai Dinh was the 12th emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1916 until his death in 1925. He had closely collaborated with the French and was unpopular with the Vietnamese people, as they accused him of being a puppet of the French government. The tomb, completed six years after his death is ornate, millions of glass and porcelain chips make up the intricate designs that adorn the walls and columns, whilst the painted ceiling depicts nine dragons within clouds. The ceiling was painted by the feet of artist Phan Van Tanh. The gold leaf statue of Dinh's likeness, which sits atop of the grave was made in Marseilles, France.


We pull up outside the moated citadel of Hue. Built in 1801, the ravages of climate and war make the buildings within the huge Imperial City of Hue appear much older.

In 1789, Nguyen Anh had taken control of Vietnam and proclaimed himself emperor Gia Long. He had been recognised as emperor by China in 1804, when building of the Imperial City began.


The citadel measures two kilometres by two kilometres and is surrounded by a moat. The water in the moat is directed from the Perfume River through a series of sluices. We enter the complex through the main gate and find a number of traditional buildings within; including the Purple Forbidden City. Many palaces, gates, courtyards, and gardens make up the huge area.


During the Vietnam War, Hue had been a strategic location, sittin on the Northern side of the border between the Communist North and the Republic of South Vietnam. On January 31, 1968, as part of the Tet Offensive, a coordinated attack on Hue seized most of the city. The damage was huge and bullet holes can still be seen in the walls. Out of 160 buildings, only ten remain today, most of which are systematically being restored. The city was made a UNESCO site in 1993. After two hours wandering within the walls of the Imperial City, we reluctantly leave, as we have a long distance to travel back to Hoi An.


Although we take the faster road, through three tunnels, the longest of which is 6.3 kilometres, it takes just under three hours to return to our hotel. Our day trip provides us with new knowledge and a better understanding of the long and complex history of this central part of Vietnam.