The Colors of Hue

by Ino Manalo

There is something very intriguing about the phrase, “ former royal capital”. Certain images come to mind: once proud nobles fleeing before angry mobs, wondrous treasures hastily packed or buried, great palaces suddenly abandoned. Luang Prabang in Laos is one such place. Hue in Vietnam is another. Today, the people of Hue bustle up and down the streets like commuters in any other metropolis. I sometimes think: do they ever regard themselves differently from the rest of their countrymates? Do they have a sense that, not too long ago, their hometown was the center of an empire? For more than a hundred years, Hue was the seat of Vietnam’s imperial family. The marks of monarchs past are undeniable. There are two major features that distinguish this erstwhile capital. The first is the Perfume River, its green-gray waters like a satin ribbon wound around the city’s neck. The second is the Citadel, the sprawling compound that was the home of the country’s last ruling dynasty. Hue was heavily bombed during the war with the Americans and many of the buildings in the old imperial enclosure were destroyed. Wandering around the grounds, however, I could still sense the vibrations of another era. Everywhere, there are glimpses of endless lanes unscrolling beneath the brush strokes of frangipani trees laden with fuchsia blossoms. Everywhere, there are long corridors, processions of scarlet columns marching into shadows. Was that the edge of an embroidered robe, just disappearing behind a pillar?

The builders of the Citadel’s palaces were probably influenced by the same architectural conventions as those of the Forbidden City in China. There is that same concern for the presence of water as well as the

interplay of circular and square forms. Ceremonial spaces are similarly arranged in linear progression, the next one grander than the last. Beijing’s Meridian Gate even has its counterpart in Hue.

The Ming and Ching emperors of China built to impress. One is blown away by the size and splendor of their stately residences. Everything is gilt and gilding, mind-boggling, awe-inspiring. On the other hand, the scale in the Citadel is gentler, more human. Though the Vietnamese sovereigns must have also wanted to astound their subjects, their edifices are mellowed by more intimate nuances. How explain the fleeting beauty of gate finials from which hang delicate silver pendants, trembling in the breeze? Why are many surfaces embellished with exquisite mosaics made from broken porcelain plates? The azure mosaic fragments with their lace-like decorations form larger leaves and flowers so that the effect is that of patterns emerging from patterns, to be enjoyed only if one has time to linger. Lingering is easy to do in Hue. Her citizens dawdle over lunch, usually steaming bowls of noodles and tasty medallions of meat. Though in other countries, noodles in broth are fastfood, their consumption in Hue can never be swift. For one needs time to select from a range of garnishes: coriander, mint and other leafy accompaniments. One needs time to choose that final exclamation point: black pepper, fish sauce, fiery chili. No meal is complete without coffee which, again, is not instant, resurrected from powder. In Hue, as in all Vietnam, every drinker is given an individual brewer that fits over a cup. Coffee then emerges, drop by ebony drop, full-bodied and alive, waiting to be savored.

Being the home of emperors, the city’s cooking is quite complex. All over the world - Bangkok, Istanbul, France - the presence of royal courts signals a cuisine that is elaborate and showy. Hue is no exception. During the dinners of our UNESCO conference we were treated to plates filled with delicious morsels shaped like phoenixes and dragons. My favorite was a dish of shrimps encrusted with what seemed to be our very own pinipig (fresh rice flakes). Given the infusion of French techniques, dessert was something to look forward to. The chocolate pastries were especially memorable! What makes the imperial style banquets even more heady is the performance of classic palace music: the nha nac. Fortunately, despite the ravages of war and changing political regimes, Hue has been able to

preserve its impressive musical traditions. Nha Nac has been inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible World Heritage. The city has much more to offer the visitor beyond the Citadel. One astounding example is the Notre Dame Cathedral, an entertaining confection that has been described as “combining the functional aspects of a European cathedral with … Vietnamese elements, including a distinctly Oriental spire”. It really looks like the perfect setting for the Emperor Ming of Flash Gordon fame. Still another remarkable edifice is the Art Deco marvel: Le Residence Hotel. With its sleek ivory spaces and splendid riverfront position, this is probably the best luxury establishment in town.

Further afield is the Temple of the Eunuchs. Having been told that it was not to be missed, I tried to get directions to the site. This proved to be more complicated than expected. How do you say “eunuch” in Vietnamese? Things took a turn for the worse when I resorted to hand gestures. Quite likely, the locals viewed my attempts to communicate with alarm. The Temple had been selected by the palace eunuchs as their final resting place. Having no offspring of their own, I suppose they needed to be assured that their tombs would be cared for long after their deaths. Walking about the crumbling enclosures filled with strange towers, one cannot help but feel that the air itself was tinged with the muffled green of vines. I wondered about the kind of men who would forego their ability to procreate for a life in the imperial service. Were they all satisfied with their choices? Were they happy with the course that their lives had taken? In a way, I did find an answer to my musings on alternative options and the effects of critical decisions. In one of the pavilions, I happened upon some exhibits about the teachings of a famous Vietnamese monk. A sample of his most cherished sayings was embroidered on cloth and framed: I have arrived. I am home.

Elsewhere in town, the memory of another monk is honored. Sometime in 1963, Thich Quang Duc drove down from Hue and set fire to himself in a crowded Saigon street. He was protesting the regime of

President Diem who would be overthrown shortly after. The photograph of the monk, serenely sitting in meditation while his body was engulfed by flames, astounded the world. Having seen the picture myself many years ago, I have never forgotten it. The car he rode en route to his supreme act of self-sacrifice is still on view today. Perhaps Hue’s most interesting attractions are its imperial tombs. These are situated outside of town, on different sites which are oriented towards the course of the Perfume River. The most enjoyable way to get to the various burial places is on motorbike. Speeding down the winding country roads, coming upon vistas of pagodas rising from the forest like amber swirls of smoke, the experience is truly magical.

I was able to visit four of the tombs. They all have similar features: a pavilion for memorial inscriptions, a sepulcher, a temple. Yet the variety of configurations that one encounters is astounding. Some of the tombs were also homes for the emperors complete with pleasure gardens. One even had a theatre the ceiling of which was festooned with a star map. I recall the shock of crimson that was the curtain. I also recall pondering: wasn’t the audience distracted by such sanguine jolts and celestial charts? Another funerary compound boasted of an ornate pavilion overlooking a large lake edged with ancient pines. The pavilion sported a unique spout in the shape of a huge fish. Whenever it rained the water would come out of the fish’s jaws in a foamy cascade. Still another tomb boasted of a golden life size statue of the deceased monarch set in a resplendent room blazing with intricate mosaic flowers. The final tomb I explored was somewhat run-down. I came upon some children gathering twigs and branches. I wanted to ask them if they understood the regal import of the source of fuel for their household hearth. Knowing no Vietnamese, I had to content myself with motioning my request to take their pictures. They gamely agreed.

Walking back to my bike, I saw some women busily gathering what looked like weeds. Much later I would learn that the tiny shoots were the basic ingredients for a hearty vegetable dish. I still remember the emerald leaves as they lay cradled in the old lady’s ripened palm. Perhaps their taste would sparkle just as brightly. Heading back to town, I fell to thinking: the people had taken over the once proud tombs. What had, in the past, been the exclusive sanctuaries of haughty rulers were now being mined for salads and kindling - the components needed for the modest meals of ordinary citizens. Emperors come and go, but it is the people, the humble inhabitants of a place that continue, with their own two hands, the story of a community. It is the people who will chisel and weave, brew the coffee and gather the firewood, boil the water and add that last dash of pepper to the broth. It is the people who will unravel and reveal, every single day of their lives, the shades and sorrows of a city – even one that had once ruled a nation.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful