Wheel Adventures: Vietnam
Part Four — Hue and Hoi An: In which the author visits poorly-named places on the coast, watches sad apes swing, and has bespoke shirts made, like a jerk
The story of Southeast Asia is the story of empire. Which is like saying the story of my pants is the story of too many cheeseburgers and too few brisk walks. It’s true, but hurts my feelings. Especially the feeling of wearing a belt.
But enough about my pants. Let’s get back to the story of empire, and the endless cycle of war and chaos that defines human history in all its glory! Today we cycle through Hue (pronounced “hway”), and into the vast Imperial Citadel and the Forbidden Purple City, one of many, many former imperial capitals in Southeast Asia.
We’re halfway down the east coast of Vietnam, on the banks of the Perfume River, possibly the worst-named waterbody in the world. Hue is a city of about half a million people, almost none of whom are visiting the Imperial Citadel and the many ruins that lie scattered across the surrounding farmland and jungle. That means we have pretty good access to the 147 structures in various states of repair left by the last empire here, the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945).
The Forbidden Purple City
Southeast Asia is a relatively small place at the crossroads of a lot of people and cultures that have been around since Adam was a lad. India to the left, China up top, and a bucketload of other nations with rich histories, philosophies and religions, by which I mean none of them like each other very much. I’ll let you Google the names and dates of the many kingdoms and rulers who once dominated this spot, while I give you the thumbnail sketch of what to expect in the Forbidden Purple City:
• It’s not forbidden, but you do have to pay the entrance fee (about $7).
• It’s not purple. It’s more the colour of rubble, which is mostly what was left over after the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War.
• Immodest Western dress is a no-no, meaning we again borrow long, hot skirts to protect the locals from our terrible Western knees and cycle pants.
• I apologize for bringing up pants again; please, no letters to the editor.
Scattered here and there along the Perfume River south of Hue are the extravagant mausoleums of the Nguyen dynasty. Most of them were planned during the lifetime of each successive emperor, which must have made for depressing dinnertime conversations.
Mrs. Nguyen: Did you take out the garbage like I asked?
Mr. Nguyen: Garbage? Who cares, we’re all going to die. Nothing means anything. Vote for Trump.
My favourite royal mausoleum is that of Emperor Tu Duc, possibly because it’s the most over-the-top of all the tombs, fitting for one of the biggest jackasses of the era (1847-1883).
The grounds of Tu Duc’s tomb include a massive koi pond – more of a lake, really – complete with an island where Tu Duc used to hunt game, such as deer, enemies, and also friends who thought it was funny to sing “Baby Shark Dance” just to mess with him. Past the lake is Hoa Khiem Temple where Tu Duc and his empress wife were worshipped, and Xung Khiem Pavillion, where he would sit with his 104 other wives and countless concubines, and “write poetry.” I swear I’m not making any of this up except for the part about Baby Shark Dance. It was actually the Abba tunes “Dancing Queen” and “Fernando.” Once those get in your head, you’re doomed.
I also really liked the rows of stone elephants and stone mandarins – powerful bureaucrats in the empire – both of which were carved to be smaller than Tu Duc, who was only 153 cm. You get an idea of his small stature and attitude in the throne room; the big chair is actually for the empress (when she sat around the kingdom, she really sat around the kingdom ha ha ha).
The actual tomb of Tu Duc is small and drab, and the emperor was never interred here. Wherever he and his vast wealth were buried is still a mystery. To keep it secret from grave robbers, all 200 servants who buried Tu Duc’s body were beheaded.
The whole place is pretty cool, particularly if you’re into emperor worship, but after a few hours wandering around in the heat, is it too much to ask for a cold beer? You know that Tu Duc would have cracked a frosty one or two.
Hai Van Pass
Once you get there, it’s obvious why Hai Van Pass is also known as Ocean Cloud Pass, a spectacular stretch of jungle-bordered road that winds its way up up up through the Truong Son mountain range. The ocean view along the way is indeed stunning, but a stunning that is maybe 50% “spectacular,” and 50% “I need to sit down for a bit.” That’s a consequence of the steep, 10% grade over ten kilometres. Remember, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity – that, and the stupid, relentless, 10% grade.
At the summit, just off the garbage-littered roadside, some of the trees thrash about wildly. Something – maybe lots of things — is on the move. The briefest flashes of white and gold hint at the passage of what I hope is a troupe of gibbons moving through the jungle. It’s impossible to tell, but exciting all the same. Exciting, and a little saddening, too. Vietnam is home to 24 species of primate, most of which are threatened with extinction. There are 96 million people in Vietnam, a country one-third the size of British Columbia. How long will there be any wild spaces – even ones clogged with human rubbish — for gibbons to swing in the trees?
Fortunately, what goes up, must come down. To cyclists at the top of Hai Van Pass, this means – and I’m quoting here – “Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!” The ten kilometres of downhill to Da Nang is a lot of fun, at least until you get to Da Nang, an overdeveloped port city that changed direction in the last decade to become an overdeveloped, garbage-strewn resort city once it became known for its sandy beaches, which are also strewn with garbage.
Cycle touring has the advantage of covering a lot of ground, but the disadvantage of having to get used to a new bed in a new hotel in a new town every night. Eventually it causes a kind of geographical confusion. You find yourself wondering all the time, Where the hell am I now?
In my experience, there are two solutions to this problem. First, stay home. It’s harder to get confused in your own living room, and far less expensive if your travel vacation only involves binge-watching cooking shows on Netflix.
Alternatively, as soon as you arrive at a new town, look for a memorable landmark, something you can use to help find your way back to the minibar in your room. You know, something big that stands out from the mundane city background… Yes, like that giant swastika up there. Sure enough, our hotel in Hoi An is just around the corner from a cathedral of sorts, crowned by not one but two enormous swastikas.
I put my hand up, questions lighting my brain, but our guide is already explaining that this is a Cao Dai church, a new religious movement founded in Vietnam in the 1920s. For whatever reason Cao Dai makes heavy use of both the swastika and the all-seeing eye, and is noted for women adherents singing in an affected accent that is purposefully hard to understand. Okay, this is getting good; I put my hand up again, but our guide is now scowling furiously. As a good communist he has no time for any religion, especially one that combines Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam, despite at least a couple of these not being at all compatible — especially the true one.
Swastikas aside, Hoi An is a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port from the 15th to 19th centuries — with Cham, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Dutch, French and Indian influences. Here a Chinese temple is accessed by a Japanese bridge next to a French coffee shop, that sort of influence.
In 1999 Hoi An was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and since then more than 800 buildings have been preserved in the lantern-lit streets of the Old Town. It still looks and smells much like it did several centuries ago. What I’m saying is Don’t. Touch. Anything.
Hoi An is Ground Zero for bespoke tailoring. Some 500 tailors live and work in the city, supplying made-to-measure garments in less than a day. They are expert copiers, and can whip up anything you see in a magazine, or one of the hundreds of fashion books that lay piled in heaps around their shops. For about $200 I have four shirts designed and handmade to measure, which is no easy task given my odd dimensions, which might best be described as “gross.”
Anyway, I’m very happy about my bespoke clothing, which is how all clothing used to be made. In this ancient port city, it makes me feel both connected to the past, and to big shot businessmen and other jerks who regularly do this sort of thing. Not everybody feels this way. My wife, for example, is not at all happy about the dresses she had made to measure.
She does not want to hear how beautiful I know she looks in them. In fact, she sternly tells me in no uncertain terms that she does not want to discuss the Hoi An dresses. I am not to mention them, not ever. And I am definitely not to write about them in the newspaper.
That would be like mentioning the story of my pants.