My short visit to Hue was a glimpse through different windows in time – from impacts of the Vietnam/American war, remnants of Imperial history in ornate tombs and palaces, seeing young orphans in search of a future and an enterprising old racketeer spinning fortunes for hopeful female Western tourists.
On the way to Hue I stopped at the Vinh Moc tunnels, where a community that had been decimated by American bombs moved underground – they dug a network three levels deep of small narrow tunnels, with little closet spaces for families to live, including an alcove that functioned as a maternity ward where 17 babies were born. That they could carve out and live in such a confined space was a testament to sheer desperation. After crouching through the dark tunnels it was disorienting to emerge into blinding sunlight on the empty and picturesque white sand beach of the South China Sea.
On the banks of the Perfume River, the ruins of the Citadel take up a great chunk of the centre of Hue, though the former Imperial Palace grounds are bare in many places and littered with pieces of rubble and craters from bomb blasts that wiped out centuries of history. The parts that remain give a sense of some of the former glory of the Nguyen empires, grandeur unrivalled in the country. It was one part of Vietnam that has come close for me to echoing some of the beauty and tranquility of the temples of Japan.
Emperors lived in Hue and died there as well – the surrounding countryside is home to many elaborate tombs that pay tribute to their reigns. In addition to being burial grounds (though most Emperors were actually buried elsewhere in more secret locations) many of the tombs were enjoyed pre-demise as countryside resorts. Tu Duc Tomb, one of the most famous and the first I visited, has a small lake with a tiny man-made island in the middle, where the Emperor somehow managed to hunt small game. It also has a gazebo where he read poetry to his concubines and possibly some of his 104 wives.
Most conveniently, the vast and beautiful grounds contain public toilets fit for a King, and declared by me as Winner of the Best Public Toilets of my 2+ month visit to Vietnam. They were clean Western models, one had paper, there was soap, and they were aesthetically pleasing, with no scary spiders like at the Vinh Moc tunnels. On top of that there was perhaps the first handicapped stall I've seen in the country – all of that, for no extra fee. Something to marvel at, along with the wonders of the extravagant tomb.
The Tomb of Khai Dinh was memorable for more traditional reasons – built part-way up a hillside, it's a dramatic dark and gothic set of temple-y buildings, a real departure from the red-tiled roofs and brightly painted exteriors of its counterparts. The interior was another surprise after the moody exterior – 3-dimensional dragon mosaics of colourful glass and ceramic shards winding over the walls and pillars, the second chamber coated with mosaics, offsetting a life-size gold-coloured statue of the Emperor, holding reign from the afterlife.
While the tombs and pagodas of Imperial Vietnam were characterised by their riches and decorative excess, Duc Son Pagoda was a stark contrast in its barren and institutional look. Jerre from Sapa had recommended a visit – 'Go there and give them all your money', or something along those lines I think was what he said. The Buddhist nuns of the pagoda operate an orphanage that is home to loads of disabled and healthy children of various ages. I wandered in behind a large group of Vietnamese adults donating food, and walked around largely unnoticed, passing rooms filled with shiny steel bed frames lacking mattresses and bedding, which looked empty and clinical. After a while I was directed to two of the nursery rooms where I was soon joined by two Australian girls, one of whom was a frequent visitor to the orphanage and who had brought specially made mosquito nets to cover the children's cribs, along with some toys. One of the boys quickly figured out the easiest way to make the plastic pig squeak, by stomping on it repeatedly in his crib. Kids came running in and out of the room while we played with them and Kira fed a brain-damaged and malnourished 8-month old girl.
I didn't get the full story on the pagoda – I wanted to know why the walls of the open play area were lined with cheesy dress-up professional photos of the kids, with young girls wearing filmy adult-looking dresses and boys in suits in front of a fake backdrop of cars. Was this meant to show they were having a good time? Advertising to prospective parents? Or just a decorative contribution from a well-meaning photographer? I wasn't sure what those at the orphanage made of my presence either, if I was considered a potential adoptive parent or just another onlooker, or to the children, another pair of arms to be passed to and from.
A different recommended stop outside Hue was a visit to the local fortune teller, Madam Dieu. I was almost more excited about this than the historical stuff, since I love the idea of psychic assistance, and also if you've read Eat, Pray, Love, which my year off of travels does not resemble, you will know that the fortune teller she visits on the magical island of Bali accurately predicts her rampant success in making money, and general happiness and well-being. Here was my genie in the rice paddies of Vietnam, who surely could assure me that at least if fortunes didn't await, then all would be right in my world. Madam Dieu, however, was not quite the medium I had in mind. If she'd had an idea of what was on my mind, she might have touched on some other areas of my life rather then talking extensively about past partners who were now married with children or with girlfriends. None of this was at all accurate or as far as I could tell, in any way relevant to my life or where I might be headed. Unlike the group of Australian tourists ahead of me who were gratefully hugging her for the camera, I came away feeling that Madam Dieu was disappointingly not even a convincing liar. I later found an article online that said she is a self-professed reader of 'love fortunes' who seems to only be able to read them for Western tourists, and whose prediction for the girl mentioned in the article was a happy romantic future strikingly similar to mine. Recycled small tales from a small old woman. In a city full of such rich history, I would have expected a little more drama, colour, or at least a decent story to take away with me.