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  • Writer's pictureKoustuv Chatterjee

Huế and Cry

Time visited: January 2023

Time spent: Two nights

I came to know about Vietnam pretty early on as a child. It was from my parents, who, as university students, were part of the anti-war protests in the mid-sixties. My elder brother and I listened wide-eyed to stories of the heroics of peasants taking on a much superior military power in the face of all kinds of odds and making all kinds of sacrifices.


So, when Kajari and I decided to travel to Vietnam for the January holidays of 2023, I was excited.


After some research, we fixed our itinerary for two weeks (since Mom agreed to cat-sit our three bratty furballs), which included the usual tourist hotspots: Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Sapa, and Hoi An.

Huế, the capital of the Nguyen dynasty emperors till 1945, was a slightly less-frequented destination for tourists. We decided to give Huế a shot but kept only one full day to explore it.


Huế

We arrived in Huế from Sapa via Hanoi airport. It was a bit later in the evening, and the small airport emptied pretty fast. After collecting the luggage, we realised that we were the only ones left at the airport.


We hailed a cab from Grab (the local Uber) and, after some effort, located the driver. But as soon as we got in the car, we were stopped by two security people, and the driver got into a long debate with them in Vietnamese. We understood absolutely nothing about what the issue was or why we were stopped. So the only thing left for us to do was to look as helpless as possible, which is how we felt anyway, and plead to the cops to let us leave. Fortunately, they let us go after a while, and we arrived at the hotel.


This was the time of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. It’s the biggest festival, which the whole country celebrates for nine days, and one gets to see a unique side of the culture.

We dropped our luggage and headed out to a particularly busy nightspot just down the lane from our hotel. This place, Lan Quế Phường, was buzzing like a beehive with pulsating music, and smelt conspicuously of delicious foods.

The crowd was predominantly young and local, out to celebrate with friends as a part of the Tet tradition.


The food was fabulous, and this is also where I discovered the pleasures of adding ice to my beer for the first time in my short life (- previously I considered it almost blasphemous). I would urge everyone of the drinking age to try Huda Ice Blast, a brew born in Huế, with a big lump of ice, while visiting these parts.


After stuffing ourselves with all kinds of lip-smacking food and pints of beer to match, we got back to the hotel to recharge for a big day ahead.


The next day was cloudy and it soon started drizzling. There was a nip in the air and we started early, wrapped in our windcheaters, for Đại Nội, the walled citadel from where the Nguyen Emperors ruled Vietnam. A UNESCO world heritage site, Dai Noi is a Chinese-styled forbidden city, surrounded by 11 kilometres of stone wall.

Walking through the rain-soaked stone streets, squares, halls and corridors of this enormous citadel, one could almost picture the royalty, noblemen and soldiers in its glory days. Though it was damaged during the wars, Dai Noi has been meticulously restored which gives the visitors an illusion of time travel.

Being a rainy day and because of the holidays, there were not many visitors on that day, and it added to the impression of the vastness of the place. The rain made it extra atmospheric and Dai Noi seemed like a set from the martial arts epic, Hero.

Now, it’s too huge a place with too many details to put in a travel piece. But let me mention a few things that I found particularly intriguing and delightful while wandering through the sprawling structures.


Firstly, the architects used broken pieces of porcelain, probably pots and cups, to create mosaics throughout the complex. It lent a different dimension to the designs and created a contrast of shine and smoothness amid the rough, dull, stones. Later, I saw the same treatment elsewhere in Huế, but that first impression was fascinating.

Secondly, I noticed the use of indigo to colour motifs and walls and wondered if it came from the indigo farms of Bengal of that time, where the colonial rulers forced peasants to abandon rice and paddy farming to grow the ‘blue gold’, leading to hunger and oppression. For some reason, standing there on that rainy morning, I thought of those indigo farmers.

And now I want to talk about something that felt surreal at the time. While we were walking around the complex, going through temples, living quarters and royal shrines, we came upon a hall, sparsely furnished, and on a chair, with his back towards the door, an old man was playing the guitar. We stood there listening and left when he stopped. He was oblivious to this world as though he had been playing this tune for centuries sitting there as many like us came and went.


We left Dai Noi in the afternoon, having spent nearly five hours. Our next stop was the Mausoleum of Emperor Khai Dinh, which was about half an hour away by cab.


The mausoleum turned out to be a small but exquisite structure on top of a hillock. It’s an explosion of artistic design, with almost every inch decorated ornately. Khai Dinh was one of the most loved rulers of the Nguyen dynasty and this mausoleum is a reflection of that love. The complex is made up of several layers that one can reach by climbing stairs that have dragons for railings.

Interestingly, in one of the courtyards, two groups of statues of soldiers; noblemen, horses and elephants stand facing each other, like chess pieces. As if guarding the emperor and waiting for his orders.


The interior of the mausoleum beats the already ornate exterior by miles. It’s a burst of the most intricate designs, porcelain mosaics, predominantly blue and gold, from wall to ceiling. In the middle of it all, sits a golden statue of Khai Dinh on his throne. It’s prohibited to click pictures inside the tomb.

It was late afternoon, so we rushed to our next spot, the Thien Mu Temple, a seventeenth-century complex on the Northern banks of the Perfume River. By the time we reached the Thien Mu Temple, it was nearly time for sundown with only forty minutes left for the temple to close. The main attraction of the temple was a seven-story pagoda, which also is a de facto symbol of Hue. Personally, I found the pagoda a bit underwhelming. It was shorter than I expected, one couldn’t climb to the top, and overall, with all due respect to its historical significance, it was nothing more than just another interesting-looking building.




The temple complex, however, was beautiful and serene. And it looked even prettier in the dying sunlight filtering through the clouds. The gardens, decorated with bonsais, were lush. The ponds, with their clear water and colourful fishes, reflected the sky. The hymns being recited by monks as part of the evening rituals were calming. And the breeze from the perfume river was soothing beyond words.


After the temple closed its gates to the visitors for the night, we went and sat on the banks of the river quietly for some time.

Our last stop for the day was the century-old Dong Ba Market. Dong Ba was destroyed several times since it was set up in 1899 at its current location, but it always bounced back.

It was evening and the market was brightly lit up. Though quite a few shops were closed due to Tet, it was a lively scene and buyers thronged its floors. The shopkeepers, mostly ladies of all ages, were loud in hawking their wares, which ranged from fresh produce to handicrafts to counterfeit designer bags and clothes. Everything was up for a bargain. But for us, blessed with genes from the skilled bargainers from the fish markets of Kolkata, it was no big deal. So we triumphantly walked out of the market with some knick-knacks and souvenirs.


From Dong Ba, we started on foot and crossed the river to the southern promenade, decked up for the Year of the Cat.


But it had been a long day. So after a stroll, we had dinner at the trusted Lan Que Phuong and got back to the hotel. A lot was left unseen at Huế, but we knew we would come back to this lovely city someday.

The next morning, we reached the old railway station, with its distinct French architecture, and caught a train to Danang, on our way to Hoi An.

If any of you travel to or from Danang to Huế, I would plead that you take the train or drive down. Because this is probably one of the most scenic routes in the country. You will have the sea on one side and the green hills on the other, and it will thrill and delight you at every bend.


Cry

Nearly a week later, we were at the War Remnants Museum, in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a place where you can’t help but feel emotional and realise that there are no winners in a war. There is a hall that exhibits pictures and posters of protests held in different parts of the world against the war atrocities in Vietnam.


In the middle of it all were photographs of protests held in Calcutta, the ones my parents were part of. I tried searching for my Father in the crowd of faces that I saw there.

Suddenly, there was a lump in my throat. Suddenly, I missed my Father.



About the Author

Koustuv loves travelling for himself and cooking for others. He lives in India with three cats and one wife and works as an independent advertising creative.

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