Monday, July 11, 2011

Back in 'Nam

      We spent two nights at the Saigon Morin Hotel in Hue, which was once the ancient capital of Vietnam.  The hotel is a wonderful old colonial-style residence, built in 1901, where Somerset Maugham, Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, and a bunch of political dignitaries have stayed over the years.  It reminded me of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore – all open corridors, teak wood floors, French doors, and curved marble balustrades.  We had breakfast each morning in the lush garden and I dined there one night with lovely traditional Vietnamese music played by a quintet in the background.   My room was huge and had a balcony overlooking the road and the Perfume River on the other side.  My favorite hotel so far.
My beautiful hotel room in Hue, Vietnam.  Those glass doors lead to my private balcony from which I can see the Perfume River.

Somerset Maugham, Charlie Chaplin, and Sarah Altier slept here

My balcony

The garden restaurant... which somehow always seemed cool even though it was 100 degrees in Hue

      While in Hue we visited the Complex of Monuments, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which was the palace of the last emperors of  Vietnam, the Nguyen.  It was horribly hot and humid, but I didn’t mind the weather so much since we were in wide open spaces where I could breathe and walk at my own pace, unlike the crowded and stifling streets of Hanoi.  The royal complex was evidently modeled after Beijing’s Forbidden City.  It is a huge walled series of temples, throne rooms, a theater, the emperor’s pool, several courtyards, concubine and eunuch quarters, and so on.  It was also heavily damaged in the “American and French Wars” – but that is something that neither our hosts nor we feel comfortable discussing much.  Actually, I’d really like to talk about the feelings the Vietnamese have toward us, but I don’t know if it would be polite to ask and I’m not sure I’d get an honest answer if I asked.  When we were at the Foreign Ministry office meeting with the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs (similar to our Assistant Secretary of State) he mentioned that when Madeleine Albright came to Vietnam the first thing that she’d said to him was “I’m surprised you’re so nice to me!” and he assured us that the ill feelings were in the past.  Having said that, however, he did mention the Agent Orange repercussions with which Vietnam is still experiencing.  I will write in another entry about my visit to the Hanoi Hilton but suffice it to say for now that it’s obvious that – even though our two countries are obviously eager to be friends (especially with China’s power looming) – there are still wounds which are sensitive and have yet to heal. 

      Anyway, we saw the parts of the complex that have been restored and, toward the back, the parts that still needed restoration from the bombing.  The site was packed full of Vietnamese tourists, I guess because the school holidays have just begun.  They were even more eager to see the ancient heritage of Vietnam than we were, and particularly enjoyed the part of the palace where you could pay a fee to don some royal robes and have your photo made on a facsimile of the emperor’s throne.
The ancient capital of Hue was walled and had a moat

The emperor's theater

That's Alex, a Fulbrighter from NYC via Georgia

For some reason I love taking photos through doorways.  This one is taken in what is close to the innermost courtyard of the royal court. 

Fulbrighters at the emperor's pool

Some Vietnamese tourists having fun dressing up like their ancestors

I have a feeling this elephant is not as well-treated as the ones at the Elephant Conservation Center in Thailand

      Speaking of dressing up, we were able to do some dressing up ourselves when we went to lunch at a lovely restaurant that was in the traditional Asian architectural style and offered us robes to wear during our meal.  Unfortunately, it was too hot to keep the robes on for more than a few minutes, but it was a good photo op and made lunch especially festive.

More food photos!  This rooster is carved from a carrot.  There is salad underneath the rooster.

Peacock from radishes.  Everything tasted great, too!

A dragon carved out of a pineapple and filled with satay... Yum!

It all tastes as good as it looks

Our restaurant garden

Lunch was followed by a visit to one of the tombs of the Vietnamese emperors.  Even though this tomb looked ancient, it’s actually little more than 100 years old.  In the 100 degree heat we lumbered up the many, many steps to each level of the tomb, but it was worth it to see the carved guardians (reminiscent of the terra cotta soldiers), the painted ceilings of the tomb itself, the statue of the emperor, and examples of the royal porcelain. 

The emperor's tomb - looks old but it's 20th century
One of the highlights of this tomb was the video they showed us which described the "beautiful carvings of crap" in the tomb.  They meant to say "carp", as the carp fish plays an important role in Vietnamese legends, etc.  I think carp in Vietnamese is what we call "koi" fish.  But definitely not crap.

Emperor Khai Dinh
Tomb guards

This is the emperor's likeness on top of his crypt

      The rest of the day was free time and I took advantage of it by walking up and down the Perfume River (Huong River in Vietnamese).  There’s a promenade that stretches along the river, punctuated by pretty bridges which are lit up at night.  Dragon boats for tourists line the riverside and there’s a pretty park with interesting modern sculpture.   Plenty of pedicab drivers are there, too, asking, “Madam, you want a ride back to your hotel?” but they are good-natured as I shake my head and smile “no.”  After relaxing in my hotel room for a bit I retraced my steps in the cool of the evening up and down the river.  Things are a lot livelier at nighttime and I was searching for a quiet French restaurant for my dinner – unsuccessfully.  I had expected the French influence to be stronger here than it is.  Great baguettes, and definitely a European flair on some of the Asian food, but I’ve yet to see a restaurant that I would describe as “French”.  Anyway, a hamburger in the garden of our historic hotel was almost as good and I made it an early night so I’d be fresh and ready to take the long bus ride to Denang and Hoi An in the morning.  
Sculpture in the park

Dragon boats waiting for tourists

The Perfume River

The Perfume River by night