We left the Imperial Hotel this morning in a grey drizzle for Hoi An, about three hours south, and we hope, better weather. Yesterday we were very lucky to have the first sunny day in over two months, according to our guide, Thong.
We spent the first part of the day touring the Imperial Palace and the Forbidden City. We took a river boat to the site. Much of this complex was destroyed in the 1947 war with the French, and then again in the 1968 Tet offensive during the Vietnam War. Some of the buildings have been restored, and many more are under restoration. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. The last emperor abdicated under pressure from Ho Chi Minh in 1945. For such an important site, the grounds were surprisingly and pleasantly empty of tourists. The official government buildings occupy the central part of the complex, with the emperor’s private complex of buildings behind. Around this core are buildings for the emperor’s family and his concubines. One of the emperors had a stable of over 500 of these lovelies. I think he died of exhaustion. Thong says that when the emperor dies, his concubines and eunuchs were executed to guard the emperor’s privacy. As a measure of respect and gratitude, though, they were offered a choice of death by sword, by poison or by hanging. What a deal.
We spent the rest of the day touring a temple, arriving there by boat on the Perfume River, and then two royal tombs. The tombs are located in what to our eyes look like parks. The grounds are manicured, but not in any obviously fastidious way. They’re wooded with ponds and stone walkways. The tombs are like mausoleums, set up from the grounds on well-proportioned raised enclosures and guarded by stone statues that represent the emperor’s mandarins. The last of these tombs is located about 20 kilometers west of Hue along the Perfume River. On the long rutted dirt road out to the site we saw working elephants, which Thong assured us were very cranky creatures. We pulled alongside one of these beasts, which was as tall as our van was high and had a driver perched on its neck, and slowed to its pace so we could take photos. The elephant seemed unable to decide whether to bolt for the brush or charge the van. Mercifully, for the elephant and for us, we pulled ahead and left the elephant driver to deal with the grumpy beast.
As we wandered around the tomb, we came suddenly upon a middle-aged woman standing by her two bundles of firewood, a long stave resting across the tops. She was fanning herself with her hat and looked tired and generally wretched. She glanced at us but did not acknowledge us, and we certainly noticed her but likewise didn’t greet her. Thong spoke up and pointed her out to us. He told us that she was gathering firewood either for her family or to sell, and that she might earn $4 or $5 dollars for the load that she’d have to carry for six kilometers. By now we were all looking at her, and she at us. By gesturing, I asked her if I could try to lift the load and she nodded. Thong warned me that it was heavy, and told us that the woman had scars on her shoulder from the weight. On cue, she pulled her shirt collar down over her shoulder to show me, and there was an ugly scar there. I pulled the stave up and squatted under it so that it lay across my shoulders, and then tried to lift it. I could hardly budge it. It was like doing a squat lift with way too much weight. I stopped myself from a greater effort; a little voice in my head reminded me that I couldn’t afford to throw my back out. Then Ralph gave it a try and he was able to stand upright with great effort. At this we all started to feel sorry for this woman’s lot and dug into our pockets for some dong notes, maybe $2.50 each, to give her. She gratefully took the money, then hoisted this incredible load onto one shoulder, and started off into the woods.
Later, some of us admitted to being suspicious of this set piece, elaborate though it would have to be. The story seemed a little unlikely and a little too orchestrated. But for $2.50 each, we didn’t mind being played. I’d be very interested to go back today and see if she was there again.
Last night we went up to the rooftop bar of our hotel for a drink and to look at the city lights. It was fantastic, though the wine I ordered was underwhelming. I never learn – don’t order wine in Asia. We discovered a stairway up from the outside bar area to an even higher roof, where there was a spirit house and a statue of a female Buddha figure. Inside the spirit house were offerings of cigarettes, soda, noodles and other small things that the spirits might need in the afterlife.
We then strolled down towards the river, in what Thong referred to as the “backpacker area,” and had a drink at a corner bar, out on the sidewalk. There were a few street vendors selling watercolors or offering cyclo rides, but they were not aggressive or even all that persistent. We walked home past the French restaurant where we had eaten the night before. I almost went in again for one of their unbelievably good banana-chocolate crepes, but we headed back to the hotel, walking along the Perfume River, to get some sleep before our drive to Hoi An.