The Perfume River (Sông Hương or Hương Giang; 香江) crosses the city of Huế, in the central Vietnamese province of Thừa Thiên-Huế Province. The Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, a seven-story temple constructed by the Nguyễn Dynasty, is situated on the northern bank of the river. Hue is my destination; the former imperial capital of central Vietnam.
Flying from Hanoi to Hue is normally an easy transaction and a relatively short one. My arrival in Hue in 2018 got roughed up though because of persistent turbulence and lightening interruptions over the city as the plane circled patiently… circled, circled, and circled some more…. 1 hour and 20 minutes. Then, the plane’s captain made a decision I had made in my own anxious mind over an hour earlier — he would divert the flight south to Da Nang (i.e., fuel was running low). Right call. A layover in Da Nang and return to Hue airport later that night outlasted nature’s inability to make up its own mind. Hue was wet but the passengers reached the ground safely.
On the Perfume River
Da Nang’s Seashore
I did get a brief look at Da Nang on my previous visit to Vietnam in 2008. The city and region was a major operational hub for the US army during the war. Then and today, the city (and nearby UNESCO site Hoi An) itself is heavily industrialized and commercial. However, the beaches collecting sand washed from the East Sea are sparkling strips of real estate, and playground for Vietnam’s residents and tourists alike. The well-known My Khe Beach and Lang Co Beach are classic seaside pleasures, with palm trees and all. My Khe was popular for American soldiers seeking R&R during the war. Da Nang’s coastline stretches 30 kilometers.
Life along the coast begins with wellness rituals and meditations as the morning’s shadows and rays skip inland and ends each day with raucous, good-natured volleyball or picnic parties.
Da Nang to Hue - Overland
Ghosts of the Emperors - Hue
In the autumn, flowers from orchards upriver from Huế fall into the water that passes through the Imperial dominion, giving the river a perfume-like aroma. The Perfume River passes the resting place of the Nguyễn emperors and remarkable palaces, tombs and gardens of a dynasty that lasted about 140 years (1802-1945).
In 1945 Emperor Bảo Đại abdicated the throne and transferred power to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The end of the dynasty was marked by the increasing influence of French colonialism, and the nation was divided into three parts: Cochinchina became a French colony, and Annam and Tonkin became protectorates.
During the 1968 Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War, former royal buildings, museums, libraries, and Buddhist shrines, including the Temple of Heaven, were damaged.
After the war's conclusion, many of the historic features of Huế were neglected because they were seen as "relics from the feudal regime.” That view softened though and most of the key features of the “feudal” footprint have been resurrected in tasteful ways. Hue’s complex of historic monuments, with the imperial citadel in the center, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.
Hue Citadel and Thai Hoa Palace
Hue Citadel is an imposing palace with three gates - the king, mandarins and military. Walking is the best way to explore this sprawling complex, although motor-bikers zooming around the periphery like mosquitos looking to mate are a threat to life or limb of visitors. Inside the halls and walls though, peace prevails where bombs and artillery once shattered fragile historic intrigues.
Gardens, structures, and artifacts in the central city confer a sense of fragile truce with heaven. China's minions operating far to the north sent emissaries from time to time to seal trade arrangements and coordinate social/military maneuvers throughout the 19th Century, but in the 20th other foreign enticements encourage corruption and contests that have more insidious and immediate implications leading to the 21rst Century.
Ngo Mon Gate
The Nine Dynastic Urns, cast in the 1830s, represent the reigns of successive Nguyen Emperors.
The To Mieu (emperors honored)
Royal Reading Room (preserved original)/
French forces smothered a Vietnamese rebellion in 1885 by storming the Citadel, burning the imperial library and removing every object of value. The emperors continued to reside in Hue, but were excluded from any substantial political event or conference.
The royal signatures of the Vietnamese imperial rulers -- including caricatures of peacocks, turtles, lions, dragons, fish, and Confucian officialdom -- compel me to pause again and again. What do all these entanglements mean? Symmetry amongst chaos? Is this a sense of order or unease and tension? In many ways, the impulse of Vietnam's artists and poets mimic all of the global religions and mysticisms - suggesting the human desire and need to at least record the charm and color of living while preserving the dignity of death.
(to be continued)