Hue first appeared in my mind through my dad’s out-of-tune singing songs about this city. After having bought a cassette player, Dad brought home a lot of tapes, mostly cheesy bolero, and songs about Hue. My sister and I grew up listening to those songs sung in the calm tilt of Hue accent, reading stories about Hue and the last dynasty of Vietnam’s kingdom, about kings and queens and princes and princesses who did not have forever-happy-endings like in fairy tales but ended up being exile and dying in places that are not their homeland. The event of Tet Offensive Massacre 1968 has laid another layer of mystery and melancholy on the city which has already been associated with sadness.
I call Hue “the forgotten gems” as given what Hue has to offer, this ancient capital of Vietnam seems to be slowly disappearing from the tourism map of Vietnam. Once the capital of the whole country, the centre of attraction, Hue now is much more quiet, especially compared to its neighbouring area, Hoi An. The taxi driver who took me around Hue in the last day of my trip said that about 10 years or so ago, Hue people simply spent their holidays and weekends in the city but now they travel to Danang and Hoi An instead. “Hue is no longer attractive enough for its dwellers let alone tourists, the outsiders,” said the driver. Hue is now just a 2 day stop before Hoi An, a trendy destination in recent years. It’s not difficult, at least for me, to see why that has happened. Unlike Hoi An, which poses an easy to like, Instagramable images with sanitised roads with rows of pretty petite cafes, Hue demands from its tourists, read its history, listen to its language, and find what used to be there.
“Nha vuon”, are literally translated into “garden houses”, and there are among the gems Hue is embracing within itself and asking the outsiders to learn about them in order to love them. Why? Like many other things in Hue, garden houses do not have the fancy look or magnificent façade that you expect from a typical must-go place listed in any travel guide book even though all of them were once homes to the Nguyen Dynasty’s mandarins.
Garden houses in Hue were constructed in accordance with the principles of “Feng Shui” and “I Ching”. They are various in sizes, and all houses share the same structure: cổng – a brick gate, ngõ – a path with two lines of carefully kept green tea trees, bình phong – a brick screen, Hòn Non Bộ – Vietnamese style of bonsai, a lake, a big yard and the main house, usually timber, constructed from sophisticatedly carved wood pillars linked together by mortise and tenon joints instead of nails like in modern architecture. Surrounding the houses are trees and flowers blooming all year around. There, where human and nature are well set next to each other, the owners could enjoy peaceful moments with their families and friends, away from stressful and tiring games of throne.
My reunion with Hue this time took place in such a house. The home-stay is an old garden house that belongs to a mandarin who taught to princes and princess of the Nguyen, the grandpa of Ms. Dao, my wonderful host. She later on my last day in Hue showed me a relative’s photo who turns out to be first wife of king Khai Dinh (What a family!).
Ms. Dao told me that she decided not to make the house a tourist attraction as suggested by the local government because she was afraid that flocks of strangers coming in, taking pictures of the house to check in, without learning about its story would stir up the tranquil ambiance of her family’s life. Ms. Dao is not the only one to have such worries. Reality has shown. Hue used to have so much but then lost so much. Poor management and short-term vision has given ways to mass tourism and destruction of old values. Still, listening to Ms. Dao or the taxi driver, one can sense the subtle but strong pride in their voices when talking about the city, their homeland. And such pride should be the best foundation to bring back the glory that Hue deserves. That is why I just have to keep coming back to this place.
By Thu Ngo