March 3rd 2017
The Perfume River splits Hue, that city of ghosts, in two. On the north bank slumbers the vast and crumbling citadel, once home to the whole slew of Nguyen dynasty emperors who labored mightily to reimagine and then reconstruct Vietnam as a society that could have a toehold in the 19th century, but then completely lost the plot barely 100 years later. On the south bank sits their many and varied tombs, and not far away from the well-worn route tourists beat between them, thousands and thousands of other anonymous graves nestled into the forests that line the river banks, a jungle tribute to ‘Midnight in the Garden’.
Vietnam, like Turkey, has a complicated relationship with its pre-revolution history. Certainly, when I show up at the citadel rising from the mist at the hardly bright and early hour of 11, there are a smattering of Western tourists and no Vietnamese except for the bouncy elderly gentleman who interrupts as I convene with Lonely Planet. ‘I’m from Finland’ he announces turning the inevitable conversational opening gambit on its head ‘don’t you believe me?’ he proffers his passport as proof. I allow that I am a bit surprised, but unusually he wants to talk history not origins. ‘I have to say those old emperors did a pretty good job, not like the current crowd who’ve turned a blind eye to the Chinese occupation of the north again’. Barely have I wrapped my head around all this tantalizing new information than he has bounced onward. But he’s right about the emperors: Later I find a gaggle of village folk and their animated guide processing down the cloister that lays out the imperial accomplishments in order. They nod approvingly to learn how the first handful (they only reigned for about 20 years each, who knows why) knocked Vietnam into shape with provinces, ministries, a civil service, standardized education and everything else a naturally industrious people needs to chug along efficiently. They have not yet got to the end where the surprisingly candid blurb labels the last emperor who squandered it all as a hedonist with a weak character. After 4 hours peeling the citadel apart like a set of Matryoshka dolls, onto the promising display of shot-up fighter planes front and center in the history museum courtyard. As for the museum itself, its padlock is rusty and it may have never, ever been open.
Meanwhile the population of Hue reconciles themselves to their history-free existence with ice-cream on the far bank of the Perfume River.
There comes a point in every bike ride at which a crisis of confidence necessitates asking directions. This is particularly true for those undertaken without maps. Although the Emperors’ tombs (my goal for today) are well visited, tourists go with guides, so the English map of Hue resolutely ends at the city limits, with only an unhelpful arrow indicating ‘to the tombs’ disappearing into the bottom margin. Sadly, at the same time the old man I rouse from his hammock doze is pointing me in the right direction (‘15 kilometer’ he says firmly and he’s spot on, unlike Burma where ‘15 kilometer’ can mean anything, but always more than 25) I am both realizing that besides gears the bike is also lacking functional brakes (Travelfish, a more practical guide to SE Asia than LP has already warned me that ‘there are no decent bikes in Hue’ so this is no great surprise) as well as recollecting that LP has described the tombs as having a spectacular setting in a forest in the mountains. The upshot is that by the time I arrive it is noon and 35°C and I am so dehydrated that the prospect of tackling the ride in reverse seems insurmountable.
But wait, shouldn’t I be able to minimize the pain if I can descend to the river and follow the one lane roads that surely hug it? More helpful directions later I am on the right track and descending gradually through the forest when I spot a path off to the left marked by the official Vietnamese sign for ‘Point of Interest’. It is closed by a chain, so I must walk to the top where a vast bend in the Perfume River opens out below me – and also the five or six bunkers with their gun slits perfectly positioned in each direction. They are noticeably undamaged. There is no-one at all around yet the echoes of the past are palpable. Unusually I feel the need to leave in a hurry. As I continue on my way I am overtaken from time to time by older men who dismount from their motorbikes ahead of me. As I in turn pass them I see they are paying respects to their ancestors (or siblings) lying in the thousands of tombs that crowd out the forest on either side of the road for miles and miles.