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The ornate mausoleums where the Ngyen Lords are buried are almost as elegant as the palaces where they lived, and because most of them are far from the city they escaped the ravages of war. We began our tour of the Royal Tombs aboard one of the garish two-headed dragon boats that ply the Perfume River with hoards of other sightseeing tourists. At Thien Mu Pagoda, an hour’s cruise south of Hue, we switched to motorbikes and spent the rest of the day on a wild ride through the countryside. After visiting the Pagoda and several tombs we also rode along narrow country laneways through tiny villages where kids waved as we passed, and followed canals where fishermen with huge dip-nets were bringing in fresh-water shrimp.
The seven-story Thien Mu Pagoda, where we left the Perfume River tour, is featured on almost every tourist brochure of Hue. It has also been a flashpoint for religious and political protest, including at least one self-immolation. In fact the Austin car that Quang Doc drove to Saigon before setting himself alight in 1963 is still parked behind the tower.
We went on to the tombs of Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, and Tu Doc and at each stop I strained to understand what Long, our very knowledgeable guide was saying. Many of the opulent mausoleums and their elegant gardens were built by forced labour and in order to keep the exact site of burials a secret those who prepared it were silenced by beheading. The Ngyen Lords were a rough bunch but, according to Long, they also had a
gentle side. While Long struggled with the language I struggled to comprehend the numbers. The many wives of Minh Mang gave him 140 kids while poor Tu Doc, despite his best efforts and the cooperation of several hundred wives and concubines, died (probably from exhaustion) without leaving an heir. “Could the leftover wives remarry?” I asked Long. “Many of them could,” he replied, “with more than five hundred of them many were still virgins when the Emperor died.” Seems even the most powerful Emperors have their limitations.
With a population of less than half a million Hue is little more than a town by Asian standards but it has played a disproportionately large role in the history of Vietnam. And history has not been kind to Hue. It was looted and burned by the French in 1885 and bombed into oblivion by the U.S. in1968. But Hue continues to bounce back and today, as one of the countries fastest growing centers of culture and art, it should not be missed by anyone visiting Vietnam.