After spending the better part of a week in Hanoi, we wanted to have more of a low-key experience. On our epic 35-hour train trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi in 2018, we had briefly glimpsed parts of central Vietnam. We saw enough to want to return, so we booked some days in Hué, Da Nang, and Hoi An.
In Hué, we were interested in visiting the Citadel/Imperial City/Forbidden City complex. Given that we were only in Hué for a day (other than the evening that we arrived), we decided to book a tour through Deluxe Group Tours Vietnam. We were delighted to find that not only would we have fellow passengers on this tour (most of our tours in SE Asia so far had been with just the two of us) but that our tour guide, Mr. Hoa, spoke excellent English and was extremely knowledgeable. He is one of the top tour guides that we have met on our extensive travels; I highly recommend him. Besides all of the historical knowledge that he passed along, he also helped us understand the culture of the people of Vietnam, and also provided doses of humor along the way. I will provide contact information for him at the end of my post.
After picking up the rest of the guests, we were driven a short distance to a boat dock on the Perfume River. Hoa told us a bit about the Nguyen Dynasty, the last dynasty in Vietnam. During this dynasty, which lasted from 1802 to 1945, the French occupied Vietnam (starting in 1858 and fully controlling the country in 1885). The last emperor left for France in 1947.
The dragon boat ride on the Perfume River was relaxing. Hoa spotted a water buffalo along the shore. My only complaint about this part of the tour was that there was a souvenir vendor on board; for the entire ride, she tried to sell us her wares.
Hoa talked to us along the way about various things we may or may not have noticed during our time in Vietnam – those little things that we are often curious about, but don’t always know who to ask about. For example, the base of the trees here are painted white using limestone paint. This is for a couple of reasons – it protects the trees against insects and also illuminates the tree at night (cheap lighting!). He also mentioned that the burning of incense is common here. People believe that incense connects people to their ancestors. In Vietnam, ancestor worship is a huge part of the culture. For those that did not already know, he also explained why people burn votive paper objects. People burn paper effigies of the objects that their ancestors loved, often in the location where the person died. The belief is that the deceased’s soul lives in there. This explains why a woman was burning paper in the middle of a busy intersection. The cars and motorcycles just drove around her. Speaking of traffic, Clayton asked about traffic laws here. Hoa told us that they are routinely ignored (as if we hadn’t noticed!) and that people bribe the police to get out of any consequences for their poor driving habits. The drivers here seem very calm despite the insane driving conditions. Hoa explained that if traffic made you angry, you would be angry your whole life. He also told us that in Vietnam, they vote, but just for fun 😊.
We disembarked at the entrance to the Heavenly Lady Pagoda. One difference between Vietnam and the other countries we have visited is that their Buddhist places of worships are called Pagodas. Other religions here call their places of worship temples. This pagoda has wonderful feng shui – it abuts a mountain and faces the water. Hoa told us about the legend of how this pagoda got its name. The pagoda has 7 levels; 7 is an important number in Buddhism. He explained the symbols found in pagodas here – the Phoenix, dragon, turtle, and unicorn. Be aware that the unicorn looks nothing like our version of a unicorn. No cute pony with a horn and flowing rainbow mane. This unicorn has a dog’s body (a skinny dog’s body) and a dragon’s head.
There is a legend about this particular place; kind of a Romeo and Juliet type tale about a young couple that was not allowed to be together. They came here to commit suicide together. He drowned, but she was rescued and was forced into an arranged marriage. It is considered extremely bad luck to enter the gate through the middle if you are not married. Young couples separate when they enter and go through separate gates. As a matter of fact, according to our guide, unmarried couples still don’t visit here because it is considered bad luck.
Traditionally, the center gate was for royalty, but now married couples go through there. There are 12 sentries here that guard the gate, more than any other pagoda in Vietnam.
Inside the pagoda are three Buddhas – one for the past, one for the present, and one for the future.
The rockery is artistic, but also provides natural air conditioning. Just past the rockery is a building that contains the car that was used by the famous monk that set himself on fire during the war with America to protest the American policy of not allowing Buddhism.
Something that surprised me greatly about Vietnam is that though it is a Communist country, free medical and free education are not provided. Families must pay to send their children to public school, and pay even more for private school. So, becoming a monk is a good option for many because education is provided. The daily schedule for the monks was posted on a wall. A monk’s day starts at 3:30 am with the ringing of the great bell, followed by activities such as kung fu, study, and meals.
Hoa also talked about his own religious beliefs. He is not a Buddhist; he believes in ancestor worship. He believes that all that die go to hell to be eventually be reborn. If, on the whole, a person did more good than bad in their life, then they are reborn as a person with positive attributes. If you are poor, disfigured, sick, it may be that an ancestor lived a bad life and you are being punished because of it. So, you should live a virtuous life so as not to punish future generations.
The final area was the stupa, which is where the ashes of monks are interred. It has 6 levels because the Buddha is level 7. As we left, we stopped by the touch the turtle’s head and make a wish.
We were driven from the pagoda to the Royal City, where 13 emperors lived. Along the way, we learned about the history of Vietnam, which became a country in 1802. The Citadel, Royal City, and Forbidden City which contain 99 monuments were built then. Hoa teased us that we would soon be seeing the “Eunuch making machine”. My question? Did the men need to leave a tip?
We entered the Citadel by the Noon Gate (there are 10 gates altogether) after stopping to look at 10 cannons that have never been used. The Emperor entered by the center gate, others entered by the side gates. Ever since 1945 when the emperor Bao Dai was removed from office. The yellow color in the buildings was reserved for the Emperor. Anyone else using that color was killed. The dragons on the roof are a common motif. Something to remember about the pictures that follow is that 85% of this area was destroyed by bombing in the war. Much of what you see has been reconstructed.
The emperor lived a life surrounded by concubines (up to 600) and eunuchs. The concubines had to be beautiful, talented virgins when they entered the Royal City. They would cook for the emperor who would be fed 18 dishes for breakfast, 36 for lunch, and 18 for dinner. The eunuchs would keep track of who cooked the dishes the emperor selected and the lucky cook got to sleep with the emperor. The concubine would bathe in floral water to prepare. She had to be naked so no weapons could be hidden on her body, then the eunuchs would drape her in white silk and take her to the emperor. If she refused, she and her entire family would be killed. From the 600 concubines, one emperor produced 142 children. One of the sons would be chosen to be the next emperor, but no one knew who until the current emperor died.
As for the eunuchs, they entered service at age 13. If a child was born a eunuch, their village did not have to pay taxes. What a deal! But, obviously, most eunuchs were made, not born, and were willing to make that sacrifice for their families. Only eunuchs were allowed to be near concubines. Some of those concubines died virgins because they were never selected to have sex with the emperor.
On to Thai Hoa Palace, through the Dragon Gate. Just outside the gate are two unicorn statues. Definitely not like the unicorns we are used to in the US!
Inside the gate are two pools filled with carp. Legend has it that when the carp jump over the dragon gate that they will become dragons. No photos were allowed inside the palace. Inside the palace is writing that resembles Chinese characters. No, it is not Chinese! There is no love lost between the Vietnamese and the Chinese. These characters are written in the Nom language, an ancient language from the 7th century. Nom has not been used since 1776 when Latin letters were introduced here.
It was now time to enter the Forbidden City. Back in the day, if you tried to enter without a pass, you were killed immediately. The emperor, his family, his concubines, and his eunuchs lived here. Notice the cisterns everywhere. These were used to put out fires.
Photos of the Forbidden City after the bombing are displayed.
Other photos from before the bombing were taken by French and American photographers; there were no cameras owned by Vietnamese. We passed down a long hallway; at the end was artwork by a famous Vietnamese artist.
The Royal Library, where the king wrote poetry, is currently being rebuilt. Notice the dragon ball in the mouth of the dragon? Hoa says, “no balls, no power!”. I will have to take his word for it since I cannot personally relate.
We passed through the royal gardens and royal theater and then passed out of the Royal City to the Royal Antiquities museum. No photos were allowed inside the museum.
Hoa then gave us a choice – we could go to the market, and then have lunch, or skip the market and go directly to lunch. Any guesses which we chose?
Lunch was a 7-course meal of local specialties. The food in central Vietnam is different from that in North Vietnam. Both cuisines are quite delicious!
In the afternoon, we were slated to visit two tombs, one of which Hoa promised to be a “Wow! Wow!” tomb or we would get our money back. The first was the tomb of Emperor Minh Mang, the second emperor of the Nguyen dynasty who died in 1841. He planned out the burial site himself and was started in 1820 and completed in 1841. He believed he would continue to be an emperor in the afterlife. Everything in the complex was specifically created for it. He was buried with all sorts of treasures for him to enjoy in eternity.
The monument is built symmetrically along an axis. To reach the tomb, you cross through a series of gates and across a series of bridges. The last bridge takes you across a semi-circular lake, but the tomb itself is inaccessible. The door to the tomb was opened to place the body of the emperor inside and then was sealed. No one actually knows exactly where the body is; it is a secret. It took 10,000 men to build the tomb; their bodies are buried somewhere on the site because they were killed after completing the work. Be prepared to do a little walking and stair climbing if you visit this site.
On to the Wow-Wow tomb, or as most people would call it, the tomb of Khai Dinh, the twelfth emperor of the Nguyen dynasty. This tomb has a completely different style than that of Minh Mang. It is composed of a conglomeration of architectural styles and requires a hike up multiple sets of stairs to reach (127 in all). Not to be outdone by his ancestor, Khai Dinh’s tomb took 20,000 workers to create. He died at age 40, in 1925. Perhaps he was worn out by his 112 concubines? No, he died of TB. He was none too popular with the local folks; he raised taxes by 30% in order to pay for his mausoleum.
The only ceiling painting in Vietnam is located here; it is one 9 intricately interwoven dragons. In each corner of the front room of the palace, there are 3-D mosaic murals depicting the 4 seasons.
The rear room of the palace is indeed pretty impressive. There is a bronze statue of the emperor that was cast in France. Nine meters below that is the coffin of the emperor along with lots of gold goodies.
We trekked back down the stairs – easier than walking up!
Our last stop on the tour was at an incense making village. Recall that Vietnamese people burn incense as a way to connect with their ancestors. We were given the opportunity to try our hand at making incense. And, you will be shocked to find out that we were also given the opportunity to buy some incense (as well as conical hats and other souvenirs)!
On the drive back to town, Hoa talked about life in Vietnam. Family is very important, as it is in other Asian cultures. Older people are not sent to nursing homes; they are cared for by their children. Often, they help care for the grandchildren while their parents work. Homes are passed along to one’s children rather than being sold.
All in all, this was a fascinating day. If you are planning a visit to Hué, please contact Hoa for a tour; you will not be disappointed!
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