Steeped in THE PAST

A trip to Hue gives visitors a sense of Vietnam’s history not found elsewhere.

By KEVIN RAISON on June 07,2019 10:51 AM

Steeped in THE PAST

PHOTOS KARCHER & NGUYEN VAN SUM

If you have the urge to travel but are not sure how to spend your time, then Hue should definitely be on your list of places to go. Besides its close proximity to numerous other attractions and destinations like Bach Ma National Park, Da Nang, and Hoi An, the former imperial capital itself provides a different type of holiday experience, one steeped in history, with remnants of architecture from empires of old and, of course, some unique examples of Vietnamese art.

The most iconic destination in Hue is the Imperial City - a massive compound that used to provide a home and protection for the Nguyen emperors. As with such important sites, the first point of concern in constructing the iconic palace was to consult experts in the field of geomancy. An art often associated with China in Western cultures, geomancy, and indeed many principles of “feng shui” specifically, have long been considered vital in Vietnam, even to this very day, with many homeowners consulting experts as to exactly where to place the family alter and other such matters. One can further see remnants of this ancient art in Hanoi, where numerous artificial lakes have been built throughout the city, as such bodies of water are thought to attract wealth. These days, however, one could arguably assert that instead they simply attract large groups of middle-aged women intent on practicing group aerobics to blaring Vinahouse renditions of “Jingle Bells”, even in the middle of June.

Of all the imperial city, the point of perhaps greatest note and certainly providing the most iconic image of Hue, is Meridian Gate. Constructed almost 200 years ago, Ngo Mon (Meridian Gate) is a modern testament to the traditional architectural styles of the past. Built during the reign of Emperor Minh Mang, the grounds of the imperial city are protected by ramparts two meters thick. If that wasn’t enough, the fortified perimeter of the city further boasts a moat, making the grounds a veritable fortress. However, as with all things, time has begun to get the best of Meridian Gate. Dirt, mold, and numerous other ailments that plague historic builds have blackened the bright walls, tarnishing the impressive image it has presented throughout the ages.

That, however, has begun to change. Restoration efforts have helped transform the darkened edifice back to its historic magnificence. A team of 14 experts, both foreign and Vietnamese, have put considerable restorative effort into once again revealing the walls that have guarded the ancient capital for so long. Using restoration methods devoid of harsh abrasive chemicals, the team utilized pressured boiling water to clean deep into the stone walls, killing any kind of mold or fungus it comes in contact with. The pressure of the water is sufficient to scour the ramparts of centuries worth of dirt, resulting in a night and day difference.

This hasn’t been the only restoration project for the renowned gate. The American War, destructive as wars are, resulted in serious damage that was repaired in 1970. With the aim of preserving this iconic piece of Vietnam’s history, further restoration projects are set to be underway until 2020.

Hue, on the other hand, keeps one foot firmly rooted in the past, making the most of ancient traditions while at the same time taking the best of modern development.

Hue, on the other hand, keeps one foot firmly rooted in the past, making the most of ancient traditions while at the same time taking the best of modern development.

The old city itself takes an extensive period of time to visit, as the grounds span 4 sq km and are networked with numerous remarkable halls, rooms, sites, artifacts, and every other sort of relic imaginable of days gone past that will be sure to excite anyone who has even the faintest passing fancy for all things history. While the grounds are typically open during daytime hours, Thursdays find them open until 10pm. Not only is this convenient for the sake of visiting, but the change in lighting gives the grounds a very different feel. The city takes on a mystic, almost romantic air in the late hours. At such times one can almost be certain to see many Vietnamese women, young and old, wearing the national dress, “ao dai”, and taking photos, as if the city needed an additional element to allow visitors feel the rich history, tradition, and culture that lies within the grounds.

In fact, while entry to the imperial city is quite reasonable and affordable, it’s not uncommon for the citadel to waive entry fees for women wearing “ao dai” on special days, such as International Women’s Day. While the “ao dai” is indeed traditional Vietnamese garb, it holds a special significance in this city, as it’s considered a sort of symbol for the women of the historic capital and has long been viewed a vital aspect of Hue’s cultural splendor.

It would seem that the ancient capital’s association with elegantly-crafted fabric artistry isn’t only limited to the “ao dai”. After a visit to the imperial city, it’s certainly worth also visiting the XQ hand embroidery gallery. Growing up in New England, I’m accustomed to sights of quilting, embroidery, and various other kinds of needlework. Unfortunately, I’m still somewhat of a fabric-philistine, having little interest in needlepoint. But setting foot into the embroidery gallery, I was immediately engrossed in the works of art that surrounded me, and truly it was art; there is no hyperbole in that statement. I’d never seen such profound detail, such control of depth, and such awareness and attention to shading in fabric-based art as I saw there. Someone looking at the pieces from afar may reasonably presume they’re simply looking at a masterfully-crafted painting. Only upon closer inspection would they notice each individual thread, each minute line, is delicately selected and placed. What’s more, one can often see teams of women working in the back of the shop with two or more artisans, all clad in “ao dai” and working on each piece with an almost Zen-like focus. There were staff in the shop, likewise wearing “ao dai”, who were readily able to answer the endless questions I had.

Of course, there are countless other things to do in Hue, and the city is certainly known for traditional dishes galore - too many to go into detail here. However, it also drives home the inescapable impression one receives in Hue, of a city in the present steeped in the past and providing a splendid example of culture and traditions full preserved. With the restoration of the Meridian Gate completed, the city has an ever-greater sense of stepping back in time. I must confess I indulged in perhaps the most touristy thing possible on my last evening in Hue: I hailed a cyclo. With the glow of the sun fading and traditional lanterns lighting the streets, the city took on a calm that was only occasionally punctuated by a passing motorbike and the creaking of the cyclo’s wheels. Vietnam’s growth and development continue at record pace; surely a positive for the country as a whole. However, as change and progress occur one can, at times, lose sight of where they came from. Hue, on the other hand, keeps one foot firmly rooted in the past, making the most of ancient traditions while at the same time taking the best of modern development. The end result is that the city is perhaps the best single destination in all of Vietnam for those interested in the country’s history.

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