Friday, February 29, 2008

Hue, the Nguyen dynasty capital

Hue was the capital of the Nguyen dynasty that ruled Vietnam from 1802 until 1945. The complex of monuments in Hue from the Nguyen dynasty and before are now a UNESCO world heritage site. Built in 1687, Phu Xuan, a citadel city, highlights the Hue sites. The outer walls of the citadel are 2.5 kilometers each and a moat surrounds the walls.

Ngo Mon gate is the primary entrance in the imperial enclosure, which is a citadel within a citadel. The gate faces a plaza where the tallest flagpole in Vietnam flew the country's communist colors.

The emperor was the only person allowed to enter Ngo Mon gate and from its second level, he would present himself during important public occasions.

The architecture of the imperial enclosure was unlike any we have seen previously. The yellow tiled roofs with decorative circular endcaps were gorgeous.

Ceramic-tiled dragons adorned the center or edges of roofs (perhaps the source of inspiration for Spain's Antoni Gaudi).

Well manicured gardens could be found throughout the grounds.

Building interiors contained pillars and were decorated using red and gold, colors I associate more with Chinese decor.

The most stunning artifacts on the grounds were massive ironcast urns with detailed engravings.

The site is currently undergoing a major restoration project that is about 50 percent complete. The main gate, palace, and one temple complex are completely restored while other temples and residences are undergoing restoration or are in ruins. The site will be incredible at the project's completion.

Hue was the location of the bloodiest Tet Offensive battles. The Viet Cong fooled American command into concentrating its forces in Khe Sanh, another town in central Vietnam, and the VC captured Hue. They held the city for nearly a month and carried out a deathly plan to destroy uncooperative citizens. Over 2,500 government officials, monks, priests, and intellectuals were killed during this time. Eventually, American military command retook the city and massive bombing and fighting battered the citadel. Americans were successful but only after more than 10,000 people died, most of them civilians.

One of the things we can thank the Nguyen dynasty for is the culinary adventure in Hue. There are many delicacies specific to the city thanks to the fussy eater, Emperor Tu Duc. Laura and I went the whole nine yards and splurged for a late lunch at Y Thao Garden. The restaurant serves an eight course Imperial cuisine meal with all of the elaborate decoration included. Spring roll decorated on formed peacock,

vegetable soup,

steamed shrimp,

Hue pancake (YUMMY!),

mixed fig salad,

fried fish with tomato sauce (ECCKK!), mixed steamed lotus rice,

and green bean cake formed fruit.

Those Nguyen emperors knew how to do it right!

Being further North than our previous stops, Hue is in its rainy season in contrast to Dalat and Ho Chi Minh City, which are in their dry season. It rained all day for nearly all three days we were there. After being stuck in the bottom of our backpacks for months, our raincoats finally had a use, not that we were particularly thrilled about it. One day, we rented bicycles to visit the Royal Tomb of Minh Mang about 12 kilometers from the city. We rode through drizzling rain and deep puddles when a woman on a motorbike pulled up alongside Laura. She started an innocent conversation asking about us and eventually inviting us to her home for tea. We were a bit hesitant, but we felt compelled to accept the friendly invitation. At her home, she shared some Vietnamese tea and told us her story. She was a local farmer and mother of two teenage children. She had learned English from the tourists on the riverboat tours to the royal tombs around her town. After the tea, she offered to take Laura on her motorbike to the tomb while I followed them. She mentioned she just wanted to practice English with us. This was great since we weren't sure how to find the tomb in the first place. We accepted the offer and she led us to the tomb one kilometer away. At the tomb entrance, she wasn't allowed in. This was odd. She obviously knew she wouldn't be able to get in. Why would she wait one hour for us to visit the tomb just to practice English? Something was up. The tomb had beautiful architecture similar to that of Hue's imperial enclosure,

but our minds were completely lost on what this woman was up to. After much discussion, we felt it best to cut ties with her ASAP, or we'd get ourselves deep into something bad. She had offered to lead us to another royal tomb, but once we rejoined her outside of the tomb, we asked her to take us back to her home where Laura's bike was left. The bike was still there and we thanked her for her generosity. Then, just before we left on our bikes, she asked for a book for her children. A book? This didn't seem so bad. We searched our backpacks but neither of us were carrying our reading books.

"Sorry, we don't have our books."

"Well, I just want English-Vietnamese dictionary for my children."

"Oh, we don't have one of those."

"Maybe you give me money for book... for my children."

So, her ploy was revealed. At her home, we had never seen any indication of children or a husband. There were two rooms and only one room that had one double bed. Was everybody sleeping in that one bed? We've seen worse in Southeast Asia but not from people cruising around on nice Honda motorbikes. After she asked us for 200,000 dong for the dictionary, we had told her we had had enough and that she obviously was not a friend of ours. We've been duped occasionally on these sob stories and this was just another attempt at our wallets. It is frustrating to be seen as a walking dollar bill and unfortunately, once one person has treated you this way, you are guarded with everybody. This feeling has surely made us miss out on some truly unique experiences with honest locals. That's why getting off the beaten tourist trail is refreshing. You can let down your guard because there aren't enough tourists for touts to survive. Some may judge us to be too harsh in a situation like this but from these months of traveling, we've developed a strong contempt for behavior like that of this woman. They often ruin what would be a wonderful, adventurous day.

We are off to the once-great seaport of Hoi An for Vietnamese tailoring at its finest.

Now, a break from the travel blog to discuss market bargaining. From every small town to every large city, there is a market. It is typically a conglomeration of stalls under a solid roof that sell everything from motorbike parts to fruits and vegetables. It is like one-stop shopping at Super Target except not a single item in the entire market has a labeled price. To get the price, you must ask the stall operator. Once you've shown interest in a product, it is bagged and ready for the taking before one even knows the price. Then, if he or she can indentify you as foreign (I don't disguise well as Asian), you can expect a price at least double, usually triple or quadruple, the actual local price. From one kilo of mangos to a marble chess set, you must get your bargaining shoes on. This can get terribly tiring and you're at a tremendous disadvantage not knowing the average price of anything. Sometimes, you walk away proud to have gotten something at half the originally offered price only to find out later from another traveler that they got the same thing for half of your payed price. We've found the best approach is to come up with the fair price in your head, offer much lower, and slowly come up but don't exceed your price. Often, the vendor will refuse you, but once you take steps to leave the stall, they chase after you to accept your offer. Then, the question you must ignore in your head is, "How much did I overpay?" This question will torture you. At the end of a tiring day of haggling for souvenirs, I stopped at a roadside vendor for a 1.5L bottle of the provider of life on Earth, water. The standard price in Vietnam for this bottle is 5,000 dong; it is one of the few items where price is posted outside shops, probably to get customers in the door. The vendor I visited insisted on 10,000 dong for the water; I couldn't believe I was having to bargain for water! Not until I walked away from her stand did she finally accept my maximum offer of 5,000 dong. So, if you end up with a souvenir from me, realize there's a lot of headache, mental torture, and dickering behind that object.


Greg said...

I have read three of your blog entries and commented on each in one evening. My head is spinning from the joy of the adventure. Thank for the massive effort you put into telling a great story - and enlargeable pictures.

You said "They often ruin what would be a wonderful, adventurous day."
We so agree with this. The Buggers - they are everywhere in all countries we visited or lived in. But hey so are the genuine people. Continue to focus on the good guys.

" dickering " = Your market experiences and opinions so match mine. But I got pretty good in my head at "this is what I believe a fair value is" and to heck with the deals others "SAY" they paid.

From Balmy NEK [ about 25 F and clear ]

Anonymous said...

A good thing that your 6th sense was working in regards to that woman--I wonder what she would have said if you had had a book of some sort in your backpack--maybe she knew she could sell it easily around her neighborhood. great descriptions of the places you are seeing and as Greg says the pictures add a lot to our ability to understand your stories. DAD

Anonymous said...

no, it doesn't matter how much money she is asking for it's the prinipal she was decietful, lying and trying to scam. so don't let people make you feel bad. Money is the root of all evil and Love is the most important and she was using love as a root to you guys were right in how you handeled the sitch.