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“Cyclos in the rain” at Hue

We woke to another wet and drizzly day but at least we were not up at the crack of dawn for a tour. As with yesterday, the morning rush hour started at five o’clock and even though the hotel is set back from the road it sounded like the scooters were just below our window. Strangely all seemed to go quiet for a while before it started up again around seven.

Most of the day we spent in the old Citadel of Hue, much to the annoyance of a whole tribe of cyclo drivers who were all competing for our business. We opted to walk to the Citadel as I wanted to get a close up view of the flower market which lined the road. The colour of the flowers and trees was marred by the gloomy weather and I did feel for the people who had obviously been sat out in the damp for hours and would continue to be so until late into the night.

The Citadel site was pretty large site with a walk around the perimeter being about ten kilometres long. A moat thirty metres wide separates the citadel from the roads around it and ten gates provide access into the walled city. Built in 1804 for Emperor Gia Long, a large proportion of the site was occupied by the Royal Family. Today most of it is in ruins as it was heavily bombed during the war and agriculture now occupies much of the space.

Dominating the view of the Citadel is a large flag raised up flag tower which has been extended and enlarged each time it fell victim to a typhoon. Nine canons line the two main entrances, five at one entrance, four at another, symbolising the four seasons and the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth).  We slithered our way across the square behind the flag pole which had become like a skating rink in the drizzle and entered through the main Ngo Mon Gate buying our ticket for “foreign visitors”. The small Trung Dao Bridge led us to the start of the main compound.

As with Quang Tri, most of the citadel has been destroyed by bomb raids as Hue was a key city targeted in the Tet offensive. A few buildings are still standing but most are just ruins. The first building you visit is the Thai Hoa Palace, a large wooden building whose roof is supported by eighty decorated wooden pillars. Unfortunately no photography is allowed inside to capture the beauty of the building which is ornately designed in red and gold motifs, very reminiscent of Chinese buildings. A large courtyard in front of the building was where the mandarins paid homage to the Emperor, their position on the courtyard being determined by status and rank.

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Inside the Citadel of Hue
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"Yes, we do have bananas today!" Cyclos aren't just for tourists!

Behind this palace is another large courtyard, home to a couple of large urns full of water. This courtyard is flanked on either side by the Halls of the Mandarins, used by them to prepare for court ceremonies. We went round the buildings on the right which now house a small museum with exhibits on pottery and textiles. I had not realised how much symbolism was included in the clothes worn by the Royal family both in terms of the animals/plants depicted and the number included in a costume. Dragons were on the Emperor’s gown, unicorns for the prince and flowers and phoenixes for the Queen and Princesses. Different costumes were worn for different occasions resulting in an extensive wardrobe. In many villages where the high quality cloths were made, taxes were often paid in cloth rather than in cash.

Behind this courtyard were the ruins of the Forbidden Purple City where the Emperor kept his harem. There is now little to see here except the shape of the walls of this building, the Queen’s apartments and the Emperor’s own house at the back of the compound. Off to the right is a beautiful Chinese style building which was the Emperor’s reading room. The roof is covered in fabulous tiles as is the surrounding wall behind the building. It is now unsafe for visitors to enter so we had to content ourselves with a look around the outside. A little further on is the Royal Theatre building, which I think is a reconstruction. Inside a red decorated stage dominates the room and on the gallery above there is an exhibition about the orchestra that plays here.

The western side of the compound is the one with the most restored buildings. The Dien Tho Residence was the home of the Queen Mothers of the Nguyen Dynasty. The QM’s apartments are quite extensive and include a small pavilion overlooking a pond which was a pleasure pavilion. Temples galore also adorn this section, the most spectacular being the To Mieu Temple which is dedicated to the Nguyen Empowers. Really this is nine separate temples, one for each of the Emperors, all housed within one building. It is a spectacular building which has recently been restored. Inside elderly locals had come to pay their respects for Tet and fresh offerings of flowers and fruit were on display.

In front of the temple was a large open courtyard, presumably used for prayer. The southern side of this courtyard is home to Nine Dynastic Urns. Each urn is decorated in a different style in terms of ornamentation and the handles at the top and each is dedicated to a different Emperor. They are enormous, reaching over two metres high.

I would love to be able to turn back the clock and see the Citadel before the war. Many of the walls that remain have splashes of decoration and colour that give a tantalising glimpse of how fabulous the citadel must have been in its heyday. Started in 1804, new buildings have been added over the years and the damage from the war revealed that concrete has been used to build many of the enclosure walls, particularly on the western side. Nevertheless it made for an interesting couple of hours, despite the persistent rain and drizzle.

We opted for a cyclo to take us back to the hotel and spent the usual five minutes or so bargaining on the price. Even though we clearly agreed how much we were going to pay that still did not stop them trying to bump up the price by the time they dropped us off. You have to admire them for trying but they did not wait and hassle too long as we stuck to our guns.

The afternoon was devoted to diary writing for me, a snooze for Stef, and in the evening we went to the Orchid restaurant attached to our hotel. It was a very Chinese sort of place with bright lights and Spartan furniture. The only other people in there was a group of six western tourists who looked like three couples who had met up along the way. One Australian woman was very quiet at the end of the table, picking at food in front of her with a curled up mouth which clearly showed that she did not trust the food. More fool her because they turned out a very tasty meal for us.