Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"Holy Hell! It's an Elephant!"

The husband has Mondays off, so we decided to visit the biggest tourist attraction in Hue, the Citadel and the Imperial City. One of the advantages of actually living in a place rather than visiting is not having to rush out and do everything in a very short period of time. On the way to the Citadel, we stopped at the Vietnam Airlines office and started to work out our exit from Hue and the time in transition between here and Europe. Here’s what that looks like so far. The husband gives his final exam on the morning of Saturday, April 4. Since it will be multiple choice and there are fewer than 25 students in the class, he and his teaching assistant can get the exams graded and the grades assigned early in the afternoon. We have a flight to Hanoi booked, leaving Hue at 7:00 something in the evening. The next morning, we hope to leave Hanoi for a three-day, two-night sail through Halong Bay, to include some ocean kayaking around Cat Ba island. (Cat Ba Island is one of the few remaining homes of the golden-headed langur monkey; it is believed there are only about 60 left.) We’ll get back from that on Tuesday evening and have Wednesday to spend in Hanoi. The sons have requested that the main activity being visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum to see his embalmed body. Then it will be off to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to visit Angkor Wat. We managed score two rooms at the Golden Banana Bed & Breakfast that will set us back a whopping $53 per night (that’s per night for two rooms, not for each room separately). After three full days at Angkor, we’ll fly back to Ho Chi Minh City the day before our April 14 flight to Europe. Speaking of Europe, we’ve managed to score tickets to what might be the musical adventure of a lifetime, a concert by the Mothers of Invention (minus Frank Zappa, obviously) and the Trondheim, Norway symphony orchestra.

Future aside and heading back to Hue in the present, the Citadel and Imperial City are on the northern side of the Perfume River, while the university and our hotel are on the southern side. The distinction is that back in the days of the Emperor, the north side was reserved as the Imperial side, while the colonial expansion was reserved for the southern side. Even today, the southern side of the river seems a bit more European than does the northern side. Walking across the bridge can be an adventure in itself. Here, for example, is a bug that older son spotted. Its tongue is truly a wonder. Here’s a man changing a light bulb or otherwise fixing a light on one side of the bridge in the morning, and on the other side in the afternoon. Finally, here are two of the touristy dragon boats, shot from the rear so they look more like simple houseboats, heading upriver. It’s so hazy some days or at some times of days that you can’t really see the mountains in the distance, but they were quite visible that morning. The Imperial City is actually only a small part of the larger Citadel. The rest is residential with a few museums and shops thrown in. There’s a moat around the Citadel’s walls, which makes for some very nice reflections. One of the most visible landmarks of Hue is the flag tower, or Cot Co (also known as Ky Dai, “the King’s Knight”) on the southern edge. This was first put up in 1807, and is where the Viet Cong flag flew during the 1968 Tet Offensive. There are stairs leading up to the base of the tower itself, but they were blocked off. Here’s the flag tower from outside the Citadel walls, and from inside. Inside the Citadel but outside the Imperial City, there’s a display of cannon and another interestingly translated sign. As we were nearing the gate at which we would pay admission to enter the Imperial City, one of the sons looked up and realized that there was a very amazing ring around the sun. With the lens I had on my camera, I wasn’t able to get a shot of the whole ring, but older son got some pretty incredible shots that I’ll try to snag and post separately.

Ngo Mon, the main gate into the Imperial City, is basically a large building several stories high. On the top is a pavilion called the Five Phoenix Watchtower, so named because its nine roofs supposedly resemble five birds in flight when viewed from the air. Obviously, I’ll have to take their word for that.

The first building in the Imperial City, and actually the only fully restored one, is Thai Hoa Palace. The palace was constructed in 1805 and renovated in 1833. No photography is allowed inside, a rule we followed unlike many of the other tourists in there at the same time. The throne room has eighty ironwood pillars, decorated with swirling dragons and clouds. Each column was removed, repaired, and then replaced in a major restoration effort that started in 1991. The palace has its own semi-moat in front, that is populated by the largest goldfish I have ever seen. The fact that tourists can purchase a bag of food with which to feed them contributes to their size and the frenzy with which they can feed. The back of the palace opens onto a large courtyard. Golden dragons are a popular theme here. The detail in the last shot is from one of the columns shown in the photo of the back of the palace. To one side of the courtyard is a display, three parts of which are shown below. A couple of people with quilts I’ve made will know why these appealed to me. Speaking of my quilts, there were more than a few things I photographed for possible use as quilt-inspiration. There were also flowers throughout the Imperial City. There was also a lizard. There was a small gift shop behind the palace. We refreshed with some ice cream, but I didn’t see any souvenirs I couldn’t get elsewhere. There was also a small art gallery that had some interesting work. In the garden behind the gift shop and art gallery there was another small altar. The library of the Imperial City is being restored now. Some of the Imperial City grounds are basically garden now. My first thought was what were these figures—a dragon and a chicken—doing there. It made a bit more sense later, when I learned that what I thought was a chicken was actually a phoenix. I still don't know why the area in this next shot was in the Imperial City, but Dad, this one's for you. On my college summer abroad, I happened across a tennis court on the grounds of the Tower of London. Seeing this one here gave me much the same feeling of “Huh?!?” that I had then.

Here’s a view looking back at the palace from almost to the far side of the Imperial City. The garden shots were taken on what is the left side of this view; the tennis court is on the right side of this view. The Imperial City took its share of damage in the Tet Offensive. I’m not sure if that’s how this building in one of the gardens got into its current state. Nor am I sure if that’s how this building got into the state it’s in today. Perhaps this appealed to me so much because I’ve been re-reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy on this trip; it seems very much a place in which a hobbit might live. And right outside is the first thorn tree that I remember seeing, as well as a tree related to the one I showed earlier that had an electrical outlet on it. We saw the thorn tree and hobbit home as we were trying to find a side exit out of the Imperial City. We never did find one; we ended up going all the way back to Ngo Mon. But as we turned one corner, I was lagging a bit behind the men and, with my one good ear, heard older son exclaim, “Holy hell! It’s an elephant.” I looked up, a bit confused, and said, “What?” followed by my own holy variation as I saw just how close we were to, yes, an elephant. It did have a chain around one leg, but if it had wanted to break the chain, it probably could have very easily. There was also another elephant, though it was a bit further away. And so we have the title of this post as well as one of the moments we will all carry with us for the rest of our lives. We were hotter than I think we’d been at that moment (it turns out that the day of this walk was the highest temperature in Hue so far this year, a whopping 94 degrees F), and perhaps thirstier, but our brief pachyderm interaction got us revitalized for the rest of the walk. It’s also given us a catch-phrase to utter when nothing else will do. “Holy hell! It’s an elephant!”


A. said...

I'm reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time right now! Passing some of this extra time ... the university library has some old-school books in English here, so I decided to give Tolkien one more chance. Suffice it to say I'm so happy that I did :)

VA said...

OK - several comments: Loved the reflections photos! Gil looks forward to translating the Chinese you catch on "film" when you return.
Our observations about the imperial city and citadel architecture and the chicken and dragon figures: The earlier Chinese invasions obviously left their mark in Vietnam! So reminiscent of China and what they replicated in Taiwan in the 50s++! We can talk about chickens and dragons when you get back too!

Debi said...

Cannot wait to see the quilts to come...those are some beautiful inspiration shots you took!

And of course, the rest of the photos...wow. Sorry for repeating myself, but I am just enjoying these posts so much. In fact, I refuse to read them when I have to rush. Thus, I seem to be perpetually behind. But I'd much rather save them for when I can really soak them in.