Didn’t sleep. It might have been just as well, because our wake-up call doesn’t happen. Down in the hotel lobby, the night porter is asleep behind the reception desk. It gives him the shock of his life to be woken, judging from the speed with which he springs to his feet and the look of panic on his face.
A twin-prop aircraft takes us away from Ho Chi Minh City exactly on time and we land at Hué just about one hour later. There is a bus from the airport that ostensibly will take passengers to the hotel of their choice in town free-of-charge. However, it appears that certain hotels are not on the list, and our conductor is clearly not happy about taking us to the one we have chosen from the Lonely Planet. We visit two others before finally getting to our chosen one. It is a disappointment; we return to the second hotel and our bus conductor gets her commission.
Quick to recognise a good opportunity, the hotel owner suggests that we might like to hire a car and driver for the day to see the sights of Hué. Since one of the major attractions of Hué is the Royal Mausoleums, situated some distance from the centre, we agree. Our first stop however is the Forbidden City inside the citadel that is the centre of Hué. Seriously damaged in the war, it is now undergoing extensive renovation. The Thai Hoa Palace, one of the buildings that is completed is resplendent in red and gold. Of some of the other buildings only the foundations remain. It is very hot, and we retire to the shade of some trees for a cool drink before returning to the car.
After lunch, we head out to the Thien Mu Pagoda, set on a hill overlooking the Perfume River. Tucked into one corner of the peaceful gardens is a garage containing a blue Austin car that belonged to Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who burned himself to death in protest at the excesses of President Dien’s regime in 1963.
It is the Royal Mausoleums though that are the clear highlight of our brief stay in Hué. They are impressive for the sheer scale of the landscaping, and the peacefulness of the surroundings—very much places of rest and harmony. We see first the Tu Duc mausoleum. It’s somewhat dilapidated, but now undergoing restoration. We don’t quite have the place to ourselves, but it is easily big enough to swallow up the handful of visitors here at this time of year. We wander through deserted courtyards and around a tranquil lake. Tu Duc’s tomb is at the end of a path that climbs flights of steps and passes underneath a squat tower. The tomb itself is less grand than might have been expected—an unadorned sarcophagus set in the centre of a walled courtyard. A short stone wall just in front of the single opening in the courtyard blocks all line of sight between the courtyard and outside.
We pass by Khai Dinh’s mausoelum and continue to Minh Mang’s, which is reached by ferry across the Perfume River. Just as we approach the ferry, a small fleet of local fishermen arrive and we see them all at one moment fire their nets, spring-loaded, across the water. We feel that the ferryman is possibly taking advantage of his captive audience in charging $2 each for the trip. Prices have been so low up to now, that with the $5 entrance fee to each mausoelum, I may well have spent more today than on all previous days put together (not counting the cost of the tours from Saigon and the plane ticket).
A young boy tags along as we walk through the grounds, eager to practise his English and carry John’s camera for him. The mausoleum is a masterpiece of landscaping, with sweeping lakes and stunning views. It’s late in the day, and we must be about the only visitors.