After a 5 a.m. wake-up that is rude in pretty much any country, we flew out of Saigon and landed in Hue, hoping for cooler weather and not altogether disappointed. Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam and was a hotly contested town close to the DMZ during the war – in other words, a city drenched in history and blood.
Our hotel along the Perfume River was a pleasant surprise, with a wide open entry overlooking the river. The rooms were clean and big and each had Internet access. It even had a pool, although the hotel warned anyone with open sores or injuries against swimming in it. Not that I want to swim with someone with open sores, much less with stuff that might infect those open sores.
The Citadel in Hue is 200 years old, a complex fortress modeled after the Forbidden City in China. It's basically where all the royal folks lived, the emperor and empress, concubines and children. It's on the northern bank of the Perfume River and is huge.
You enter the Citadel on foot, bike or motorbike because vehicles aren't allowed. We entered through one of the gates designated for lesser beings, not the main gate for the emperor. The greatest danger was walking across the bridge over the moat, which had a walkway the width of a briefcase, with motorbikes zipping by, horns tooting with your ever step.
The first wall protects a wide area of grass and pavement. Nearby, a school class race relay races, a few children crouching down at intervals and then leaping up to run as their partner nears. They played at the foot of the flag tower, a generic name for a 100-foot tower standing on three stone tiers. The tower was initially made of wood in 1809 but replaced with concrete in 1947 after war and natural disaster nearly destroyed it. It is the tallest flagpole in Vietnam.
The Citadel was a series of dragon-adorned structures fronted by carved stone animals or large vases serving and unknown need. Everyone seemed to have their own pavilion, with tile pathways bordered by well-tended flowers and bushes leading between each one.
Off to the side, in a wide field, we came upon three elephants. Shades of Michael Jackson, they stood staked in the field on short lines, each under a tree. We learned they were there for people to ride so four of our group decided to give it a try. Now me, with visions of climbing onto the trunk of an elephant and then balancing as it lifted me to its side and I crawled aboard, well, I decided to forgo the opportunity. And besides, you can do that at Marine World, right.
I later learned they had stairs up to a platform to climb on to the seats on the back of the elephant but by then my chance had passed. Oh, darn.
I ran after the elephants to take pictures and quickly learned the most important lesson when around elephants – watch where you walk.
After a quick trip to a nearby water puddle, we walked farther into the Citadel, back to the empress pavilion, gazing at lots of gilt and dark wood, plus pictures of the last emperor and his family before he essentially ceded power to the French in the 1940s. The detail on some of the gates and entry ways was amazing, the painted tile, the carving.
What was also amazing was that, for the most part, the Citadel remained intact after decades of war. First the French assaulted the city in the 1950s and then the Americans and South Vietnamese wrestled with the North Vietnamese over its control.
It became a hot point of conflict during the Tet Offensive in 1968 when the North Vietnamese gained control of the city. Essentially a southern city at the time, the north gained control during the offensive and purged many supporters and regular folks seen as southern sympathizers. The north held the city for more than three weeks and it became a sore point for the south and the Americans. They determined to retake the city at all costs – and did so, with high causalities on all sides.
But for all that, there's little evidence of the fighting in the Citadel but for a bombed out building and a few dozen bullet holes pockmarking the walls. Apparently they fought in the Citadel, but very carefully.
We also visited the Thien Mu Pagoda, considered one of the more beautiful architectural structures in Vietnam. What interested me, though, was a more current tale attached to the pagoda. Apparently the monk Thich Quang Duc lived at the shrine until one fateful day in 1963 when he drove an Austin car from Hue to Saigon to set himself on fire to protect the government. The car was rumored to be at the pagoda but we never saw it.