We are in the lovely Le Residence hotel in Hue (pronounced “hway”). The hotel was built in 1930 by the French, and it exudes understated colonial charm. The city is also very charming. Now this is, mind you, not the charm of a Provencal or Tuscan village, but of a Southeast Asian country. The banks of the Perfume River that runs through the city are not reinforced with granite or concrete, and gently slope towards freely flowing water. But along the river, a walking promenade dotted with flower beds, benches and sculptures extends for several miles, many other parks are tacked between buildings, and trees line lively streets.
After a sumptuous breakfast, we went on a tour of the city. This city was once once the seat of Vietnamese kings, the Nguyen dynasty, and the decaying remnants of its former glorious architectural ensembles are scattered throughout the city. They are not ancient, but humidity and humanity (or lack thereof) took their toll on the royal structures. Hue was smack in the middle of the dividing line between North and South Vietnam and had been in the midst of some heavy fighting during the Vietnam War (or as it is logically called here, “The American War”). Some walls still retain bullet holes, and many buildings were partially or completely destroyed in the bombings. Decay by humidity, however, yielded artsy results – it turned many a wall into a tapestry of succulent colors.
This tapestry is topped with tiled roofs of yellow (for the emperor) and green (for his subordinates) colors. Every compound, for the living or the dead, contains inner courtyards and gardens, and every garden comprises three elements: the greenery, the water, and the rocks. Whether you are in the Citadel (the royal palace), in one of the royal tomb compounds, or in a monastery, the sense of serenity and beauty prevails. It’s less the buildings than the settings that make them pleasing to the eye.
Restorers are working hard on bringing the structures back to their original state. The only completely restored buildings is that of the royal theater, resplendent in its gold and red glory.
The antithesis of the royal structures, was the local indoor market – a warren of stalls filled to the rim with loads and piles of merchandise, people scurrying in the narrow isles like ants, and sellers hawking their wares.
Back outside, we attempted to cross the street, but with no pedestrian crossing anywhere in sight, a horde of motorbikes coming through in a continuos flow, we were afraid to step off the sidewalk. Our guide took charge and led us between the bikes that didn’t stop or slow down, just swerved to avoid us while we followed our mother goose as a flock of terrified goslings, in a tight group, clinging to our mama.