We hopped back on the open bus ticket circuit this morning to make our way to Hue. The journey, despite being just 100 kilometres, took four hours. In many countries that time-distance ratio is the norm due to poor roads or weather. Here in Vietnam, it’s because the trip included a 20-minute stop at the Marble Mountains, and a break for lunch – at 10:30am.
Our quick glimpse of the Marble Mountains was intriguing, once we got through the clutter of souvenir stalls around the entrance. The five marble and limestone mounds once provided the materials to build Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Quarrying is apparently no longer allowed but the mountains still hide sacred caves dedicated to gods in a range of faiths. In the largest of the antechambers we saw, a giant Buddha statue sat sheltered from a hole in the cave’s roof by an umbrella ringed with red lights. In front of the statue lay an altar stacked with incense and offerings, and statues representing other faiths nestled in alcoves to each side.
As our journey toward Hue continued, we watched the countryside crawl by. Pleasant bays into which fishermen cast their nets from small round boats alternated with massive construction sites. For a while we shadowed the path of the Reunification Express train line through rice paddies and small towns.
About 30 kilometres north of Da Nang we approached Hai Van (“Pass of the Ocean Clouds”), which our guidebook tantalisingly bills as having “superb views over the sweeping curve of Da Nang Bay”. I can only imagine what that would have looked like – all we saw was the inside of a brand new, massive tunnel straight through the mountains.
Arriving in Hue we got straight down to business. Anthony procured a motorbike to save us walking in the heat, and about an hour, a couple of one-way streets and a little tension on my part later, we had the hang of Hue traffic.
We went straight to the citadel – a massive complex of temples and palaces that was built in 1805 by Emperor Gia Long with the help of the French. Although much of the complex was destroyed during the war, UNESCO listing has ensured that those that do remain have been restored to their original glory.
Once inside the outer stone wall of the citadel, we passed between massive ponds of pink and white lotus blossoms and through the Ngo Mon gate. The gate, which has separate entrances for the emperor, his mandarins, and foot soldiers and elephants, is topped by a pagoda known as the ‘Five Phoenix Watchtower’. Its nine roofs are said to resemble birds in flight when viewed from above. Although we can’t vouch for that, the gate is impressive.
We were also impressed by the next building we visited, the Thai Hoa Palace. Outside, dragons crawl across the roof, while inside 80 red-lacquered columns are covered with gold dragons chasing clouds. In the middle of the room, a wood and gold throne sits atop a raised dais and is covered by a gold and fabric canopy. The red and gold theme continues over the rest of the ceiling, with hundreds of Chinese inscriptions laid out between gold etchings.
Beyond the palace, two buildings that were once used by the mandarins to freshen up before meetings with the emperor now offer tourists the chance to dress like a monarch and be photographed on a replica throne. Although amusing to watch it was very gaudy, and we quickly hurried off.
Following a trail of open gates across the foundations of ruined buildings, we came across the mustard and terracotta buildings that made up the queen mum’s quarters. Each of the buildings, including temples and reception halls, were decorated with flower and bird motifs – most ladylike!
Adjacent to that complex was a group of temples built to honour old emperors and their parents. Bells hung off the edges of the gates, their tinkling blending with the songs of birds flitting around the courtyards. Inside, the temples were decorated in the gold and red lacquer style of the palace.
We are sure there was more to see but time was against us, and we went off to test our new traffic skills during peak hour.