When I landed in Hue, the sun was blinding and the temperature was on the rise. It was almost like I had travelled to a different country, and yet I was still in Vietnam – I had moved from the North to the Center, and the difference was there. Whilst in Hanoi the smog had covered the sunlight and temperatures wouldn’t go higher than 22-23 degrees Celsius, in Hue I was about to experience a heat that was more suffocating than it looked – it was perhaps 26C, but it felt like over 30.
Hue was on my itinerary mostly due to its historical significance. Here, you can visit what once was the Imperial Capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty, a walled complex with palaces that once housed the imperial family, shrines, gardens and villas for the mandarins.
Unfortunately, what is left is only a fraction of what’s been – the enclosure was heavily bombed during the French and American Wars. Out of the 148 original buildings, only 20 have survived. The destruction and proceeding neglect is noticeable – a lot of the once colourful gates and walls are darkened, tiles are broken, and nature has taken over at some points. Fortunately, restoration works are ongoing and the fact that the City was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites helps.
I spent almost three hours exploring its grounds, and it’s typically recommended that you spare half a day for this. Since it was hot and I was in no hurry, I took my time, sitting to rest in a shadow from time to time. There is so much to see, so I can only imagine how magnificent this place must have been before being so cruelly destroyed. Besides meticulously restored complexes, you may come across a seemingly half-destroyed and abandoned building, which can be quite off-putting. Restoration is a work in progress, and that’s what I kept thinking.
Regardless of their clear state of disrepair, I was enthralled by the beauty of the different pavillions and the different gates inside the Citadel. The bright yellow and red colouring have been toned down by the elements of Nature and the destruction caused by men, but these are certainly evocative of a time full of meaning, a time when every single detail was thought through – yellow and red are known in the Vietnamese culture to mean prosperity, fortune, happiness, the colours of royalty. And the magical creatures so often sculpted and meticulously decorated with colourful tiles – the dragon and the phoenix -represent the Emperor and the Empress. The Dragon is a symbol of power, nobility and immortality. The Phoenix stands for grace, nobility, virtue and pride.
I found any gardens in Vietnam to be kept in pristine condition, but what distinguished them from other gardens I have been to in other parts of the world is a very distinct atmosphere of orderly peacefulness, which I know sounds quite odd. What is orderly peace you might ask? For me was the sense that everything was planned to the detail to provide the visitors with a sense of calm and tranquillity, as if they knew exactly which plants to grow, to what sizes, which tones of green, and how many are too many colours. Every detail from the position of vases to the arrangements of different species of plants and trees on the grounds was following a prescription for peace.
I took some proper rest at a little cafe, surrounded by dark wood walls, whilst observing the fish and the turtles in the pond in what was once the Empress’s Garden. What I would do to have such a beautiful place just for my own pleasure. Yet, when I thought about the Empress, carrying her heavy garments on a hot and humid day, finding refuge in these balconies, looking for the feeling of any breeze coming from the water, I wondered what she was thinking – was she happy with this life of enclosure, or would she ever dare to wish for more?
Then I moved on to probably the most impressive attraction of all in the Citadel – the Red Wooden Corridors. I found myself alone here, with no tourists in sight, which was a very eerie experience. I tend to have a sensitive mind prone to the imagination with any trigger, and for a few moments, without the sounds of people talking, or steps around me, or even of cameras flashing, I imagined that groups of wealthy mandarins walking side by side carrying important documents, with a posture of entitlement, each one of them scheming for more power, but also talking or even whispering about the French threat and the end of their life as they have known it since. I wondered how much they really cared about the Royal Family, how much they even cared about their own. If they knew how privileged they were to walk these halls every day, the same sun that was there for me, was there for them too, and it also reflected luxuriously in the golden trimmed ornated red doors.
There are many things I find people have in common all over the world – but something that is there always, no matter how far apart cultures may seem, is the constant search for beauty, meaning and wealth. You crack the code and you gain access to the most important thing of all – power.
I am such a thinker, I know. And travelling is a stimulant and my brain wraps in itself looking for so much of what I just described. I do wonder though – do I crave power? Perhaps in a way, I do. It is hard to admit because I do truly believe that there can’t be power without oppression. Possibly, the only way of properly carrying power is by relinquishing it, which is a paradox in itself. But life is full of those, isn’t it?
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