Hue, Day Two: On the Muddy Banks...

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Today was a story of the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless. The rich and powerful were the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. The poor and powerless were the boat people and moat people of Hue.

Early in the morning, I walked across the Trang Tien Bridge and around the northeastern fortifications of the Citadel: a moat and a six-mile walled perimeter built in 1807, with French assistance, during the early years of the Nguyen Dynasty. Heading north on Phan Dong Luu Street, I ate a bowl of pho under a large tree overlooking the Dong Ba Canal, lined with houseboats.

On the muddy banks of the Dong Ba Canal, children played games, cyclo drivers cleaned their bicycle carriages, clothes dried on strung lines, people cooked breakfast, and dogs guarded their boats. Many of the children waved and yelled "hello" as I walked.

One block to the west, I reached the fortified wall of the Citadel, flanked by a now-marshy moat. Locals fished in the moat, casting their lines into shallow waters: no luck...yet.

The concrete walkway between the fortified wall and the moat was narrow. On each side was a small shack made of tin or tarpaulin or sometimes concrete or wood. The homes on the moat side were built on stilts, hanging over the muddy wetlands.

Along the way, most people said "hello" and looked out of their shacks to see what was going on. I had the feeling this path wasn't frequented by tourists. I joined a couple of groups, one, a group of young men, for a shot of rice wine and another, a family, to adopt their baby. The mother gave the baby to me and tried to shoo me away: "Take her: I already have five mouths to feed," she was probably saying.

I climbed over some barbed wire to enter the Citadel: the fortifications were easy to penetrate here. Soon I was in the Forbidden Purple City, the home of the Nyugen Emperors (1802-1945), their concubines, their wives, their attendants, and probably a couple of French officials to keep them in line (some rebel Emperors were exiled to French-controlled Reunion or Algeria).

The Forbidden Purple City is essentially a copy of the Forbidden City in Beijing, only smaller and mostly destroyed by fire and war. Several of the principal buildings, however, have been lovingly restored, complete with rows of perylene maroon lacquered columns lining the throne room of the Thai Hoa Palace, bonsai trees, detailed altars for the Nyugen at The Mieu, and nine bronze dynastic urns. Elephants roam the grounds, mowing the lawn as they feed.

I met Phan again after a quick nap. He took me to the train station where I was to catch the night sleeper to Hanoi. We went to the local cafe for a bit before we parted ways; I gave him a little extra money--it was a late night yesterday and he deserved it.

Night fell as I boarded the train for Hanoi. Just as the sun sets, empires fall and moats fill with marsh grasses. Filling the colonial void was the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam: will they improve the lives of the moat people, the poorest of the poor (yet still the most friendly and smiling)?
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