Hue - the alternative tour - review by Rusty Compass
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Hue - the alternative tour

| 19 Sep 2012
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Our rating
19 Sep 2012

An alternative tour focusing on the ghosts of Hue - the city's turbulent past and lesser known landmarks.

Note: The information provided in this review was correct at time of publishing but may change. For final clarification please check with the relevant service

Hue is a city of ghosts. Ghosts of two fallen dynasties - the Nguyen Dynasty (1802 - 1945) and the Ngo family dynasty that dominated South Vietnamese politics in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

There are also the ghosts of a population scattered by war and ghosts of foreigners whose blood has been spilt here. The Battle of Hue during the Tet Offensive of 1968 was one of the deadliest of the Vietnam War.

And while the tourist narrative of the city reduces its history to disneyesque blandness, spend any time here and you'll get a sense that there's much more to this place than is served up to the average tour group.

This alternative tour takes those with an interest in history to some of the city's less visited and most interesting places. It explores some of the ghosts of Hue.

For more information on each place, click on the link in the title or visit our list of things to do in Hue.

1. Gia Long's Tomb

Gia Long was the man that created Vietnam's capital in Hue back in 1802. He built the citadel and established the tradition for his successors of building lavish tombs in the surrounding countryside. But most travellers will leave Hue without even hearing his name.

He's not favoured by contemporary Vietnamese history like other figures. School children learn of him as a traitor. And the rundown state of his tomb is a perfect testament to his lowly standing.

A King lieth here. Gia Long's Tomb
Photo: Mark BowyerA King lieth here. Gia Long's Tomb

But the grounds and setting are impressive. And his sarcophagus remains too.

The 18km journey from the centre of town that includes a boat trip across the river is a highlight.

2. Hue's Churches and Pagodas

Catholics might only be a small minority in Vietnam, but they've punched above their weight in the country's modern history - especially here in Hue. The two disgraced long serving presidents of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Van Thieu were both Catholics.

Hue's churches
Photo: Mark BowyerHue's churches

So where does Hue fit in?

Well Ngo Dinh Diem was born in Hue and his family dominated both political and church life from the city. His brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc was Archbishop of Hue and it was his hostility towards local Buddhists that provoked what became known as the Buddhist crisis that centred around Hue's pagodas before moving south to Saigon.

The Buddhist crisis led to a collapse in US support for the Diem regime and a bloody coup that wiped out the President two of his brothers. Only the Archbishop survived. He fled Vietnam and dies in the US in 1980. The coup also presaged a deeper US involvement in Vietnam.

3. An Dinh Palace and Tu Cung Residence

These two forlorn buildings perfectly mark the demise of the Nguyen Dynasty and the borderline contempt that the country's current fathers have for it.

An Dinh Palace, Hue
Photo: Mark BowyerAn Dinh Palace, Hue

Both were left for ruin after 1975.

An Dinh Palace was built by Emperor Khai Dinh and lived in by his wife Queen Tu Cung, the last King Bao Dai and his wife Nam Phuong. It's had some recent rehabilitation thanks to German Government assistance.

Just down the road, Tu Cung Residence can't have changed much since the the passing of Tu Cung in 1980. While most of the former royal brass fled Hue, the wife of Khai Dinh and mother Bao Dai refused to. She stayed on during the Tet Offensive's Battle of Hue in 1968 and the approach of Communist forces in 1975. She was the last Nguyen Dynasty holdout and her residence, with its altars, family photos and a few pieces of furniture,  perfectly captures the eery inglorious end of a dynasty.

Tu Cung Residence, Hue
Photo: Mark BowyerTu Cung Residence, Hue

4. Hue National School (Quoc Hoc).

Hue's French era National School proudly remembers some of its alumni list - Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap, Pham Van Dong, Le Duan among others. It's less voluble in remembering the school's founder, Ngo Dinh Kha, or his son, former South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem who also attended the school.

National School Hue
Photo: Mark BowyerNational School Hue

In addition to its remarkable list of past students, Quoc Hoc is a distinct crimson French colonial building in delightful green grounds.

5. Bach Dang St and Dieu De Pagoda

Take a walk from Dong Ba Market along the canal and Bach Dang St. There are some lovely old shophouses and Dieu De Pagoda - one of the country's National Pagodas in royal times. In 1963 Dieu De erupted in violence as the police of President Ngo Dinh Diem sought to crush Buddhists protesting the discriminatory policies advocated by his brother Archbishop of Hue, Ngo Dinh Thuc and implemented by his other brother, local leader, Ngo Dinh Can. Both Diem and Can were soon to pay the ultimate price for their brutality. And the US escalation in Vietnam began.

Bach Dang St, Hue
Photo: Mark BowyerBach Dang St, Hue

Cross the canal and take a walk along the outer walls of the citadel. Wander along to 112 Mac Thuc Loan St to the home where Ho Chi Minh lived as a child.

6. Thien Mu Pagoda

Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue
Photo: Mark BowyerThien Mu Pagoda, Hue

This one usually makes it onto the standard Hue tour itinerary. It's a beautiful pagoda with a lovely vista across the Perfume River. Thien Mu's also home to the car driven by Monk Thich Quang Duc to his self immolation in Saigon in June 1963. It was a decisive moment in the international disgracing of the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his ultimate downfall. Malcolm Browne's photo - including the car - is one of the most iconic images from the war.
Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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