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Tombs and Tragedy in Hue

Hue was a city that wasn’t on my radar until I opened my Lonely Planet: “Hue is the intellectual, cultural and spiritual heart of Vietnam.” I like all of those things, so we decided to spend a day exploring Hue.

Hue is located on the Perfume River in central Vietnam (click here for a map). The air was clean, the pace was slow, so I immediately liked the city. Since we only had one day, I decided to book a tour so we could have a driver take us to the royal tombs that were further afield. Our guide Anna (her English name), met us at our hotel and then we drove to the Perfume River and boarded a dragon boat.

After 15 minutes in the dragon boat, where a mother and her daughter live and work, we arrived at the Thien Mu Pagoda.

The pagoda and complex were impressive. Monks live and worship here and the car that Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon before self-immolating is also on the grounds. His self-immolation was caught by a photographer and the photo spread around the world and later won a Pulitzer, see it here.

The past is always present, but in Hue I felt it even more. At one point my father asked Anna how her family had been affected by the Vietnam War and how they viewed Americans.

Anna was in her late 20s and had recently married. She was very sweet and I felt like I was chatting with a girlfriend during our tour, especially when she told me how her husband’s family hadn’t approved of her at first. She told me I was very thin, unlike many Americans and Australians she had guided in the past. When she answered my father’s question she told us about her aunt who had lost an arm during the war. She said her aunt didn’t hate Americans and understood that many were following orders and didn’t want to be fighting the war. I find this kind of understanding and forgiveness to be extraordinary. Anna told us that life in Hue wasn’t easy and that many young people leave for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to find work. Anna also tutors students in English and does other things when it is not high tourist season.

Our next stop was the citadel and Imperial City where in the inner buildings the emperor and his family and concubines once lived. The Battle of Hue damaged the Imperial City and it is still evident today with more restoration work needed.

Of the two royal tombs we visited outside of the city, I liked the Minh Mang Tomb the best. Tomb construction began in 1840 and Anna told us that the exact location of the emperor’s body in the tomb was never divulged because of the fear of thieves.

Anna also told us that once the emperor died, all of his concubines came to live at his tomb and care for the complex.

The tomb was set in a naturally beautiful area and while we were there, some cows had escaped from the farm.

The final stop on our tour was Khai Dinh’s Tomb. Construction began in 1920 and Khai Dinh’s tomb reflected his interest in France, there are plenty of photographs of him in France in the tomb, with a blend of architectural styles. Anna told us there was great suspicion surrounding Khai Dinh’s sexual orientation. Perhaps this came about because people viewed him as a French collaborator.

The tile work within in the tomb was extensive and very detailed:

After taking several photos with Anna that she immediately posted to Facebook, we said our goodbyes. We spent our remaining hours in Hue strolling around, doing some shopping and watching it all from one of streetside cafes. I’d love to return to Hue someday, and if you’re traveling in Vietnam, I recommend making your way here.

Getting There: Vietnam Airlines flies to Hue daily from Hanoi.

Staying Here: We stayed at the Orchid Hotel. It is centrally-located with modern, clean rooms and the staff is very nice. Plus, it had the best spread of fresh fruit at breakfast of any hotel we stayed at in Vietnam (and you know I’m a sucker for tropical fruits).

Tour Guide: I booked our tour with Stop & Go Travel and was very happy with our guide and driver. I would book a tour with them again. The tour we booked was C2, “Hue’s Heritage Tour.”

Shopping: The S.P.I.R.A.L. Foundation (69 D Ba Trieu) has a cute little shop with handicrafts and proceeds benefit medical programs in the area.

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