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35 years ago, the only way for an American to see Hue was in a Humvee or hiking boots. Now that the war is long over, the best way to get around this central coast city is with a guided day tour on a motorbike. While Hue town itself is a dense little collection of shops and markets, many of the hidden and not so hidden attractions that add to its history and charm lie on the outskirts of this war-ravaged town.
Located nearly halfway down the Vietnamese coastline, Hue is an obvious change from the militant demeanor of North Vietnam, but still a far cry from the kickback simplicity of its neighboring cities to the south. It was also home to some of the fiercest fighting of the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is referred to over here). It is still possible to visit old war bunkers and gun placements on hills overlooking the river that lie just minutes out of downtown. Some weeds and overgrowth crowd the now defunct machine gun holes, but the relative youth of these war remnants is still glaringly apparent. Interestingly, our Vietnamese drivers harbor no ill-will towards taking young Americans to a place that their parents once so dutifully crouched in. While these aren’t exactly the killing fields of the DMZ, visiting any war remnant of your own countries involvement in a foreign land is a sobering experience.
Aside from war history, Hue has some legitimate sights dating to both before and after the war. One of the busiest spots in town is the Thien Mu pagoda, a sprawling complex of manicured lawns, serene temples, and silent monks. Perhaps the most curious sight in the pagoda complex is the rusted car that the monk Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon in 1963, where he proceeded to burn himself alive in the street as a protest against suppression of Buddhist rights. While it’s a beauiful compound, it is crawling with tourists and souvenir stalls.
A more authentic experience is having a motorbike driver take you to one of the many tranquil monasteries around town, where you can witness monks chanting, burning incense, and making the daily rounds associated with their devout lifestyle. While monks in neighboring countries such as Thailand and Cambodia spend only a couple of years in a monastery, those in Vietnam have devoted their entire life to the spiritual serach. Respectfully watching these devotees in their natural surroundings devoid of any other tourists is about as an authentic experience as one can hope to achieve on a simple trip around town. Other interesting roadside sights around town include visiting stalls to watch colorful incense being made by hand, and traditionally woven Vietnamese hats manifesting themselves from leaves and rods into a conical accessory before your very eyes.
While may of the sights in Hue date back a number of centuries to the days of old Vietnam, there are still temples and m0numents that have sprung up in the last couple of years, one of which is the massive Princess temple. Constructed only two years ago for Princess Huyan Tran, who lived over 900 years ago, she is to this day regarded as one of the most important players in Vietnam’s storied history. The youngest daughter of Emperor Tran Nhan Tong, she was given as a bride to a Cham prince in exhange for 2 Cham provinces, thereby adding more land to the southern section of Vietnam. It to this day is considered to be perhaps one of the largest wedding gifts ever given. It also marks the first and last time in Vietnamense history that land was acquired by peacable means. As the story goes, however, the Princess’ husband died after only a year of marriage, and according to traditional Cham customs of the day, any widow was required to be immediately burned alive (!). Fearing for the safety of the young Princess, and considering the fact she was seven months pregnant, secret operatives of Northern Vietnam infiltrated the Cham kingdom and rescued the Princess before she could succumb to her fate. To quell the outrage of the Cham people of the inability to carry out their custom, the Emperor decided that the only way to mollify the situation would be if the Princess became a nun after giving birth, thereby ensuring her life-long “devotion” to her now dead husband. And thus Vietnam retained its land and 900 years later a massive temple with a 300 meter long dragon is constructed in her honor. It’s a little ways out of town but well worth a visit given the history.
Situated just above and behind the Temple is perhaps one of the more noble sites one can visit in all of Vietnam: A massive bell on the top of a hill that is rung only by those praying for unity and world peace. The funny part was tht we all thought it was supposed to be a gentle riging of the bell to paralell the traquil moment, but with the monks laughing at our gong-ringing ineptidue they got up there and showed us that you have to put your entire body weight behind it and ram the gong as hard as humanly possible. I have never felt so stupid in the presence of monks. All in all, standing atop a forest covered promontory, ringing a massive gong with tradtitional monks whilst praying for world peace in a land that has seen too much war is a moment that will forver stand out amongst all the others whilst living life in a foreign land.