An Imperial Sojourn

They say it always rains in Hue…

It was the end of the rainy season in Quang Nam, and a weekend break was needed after seemingly months of cold, damp weather. We were suffering from cabin fever and wondering how on earth it can feel like 10 degrees celsius when it was actually 20? Coming from the UK, I am used to endless winters and dark, damp days but how can it feel like England in winter when I am so close to the equator? Answers on a postcard please…

We jumped on the train to Hue and began to trundle northward. The scenery was breathtaking. The single train track hugs the coastline along a shelf carved out of the mountain, which rises up to our left and spills down into the sea to our right.

Deep shaded ravines and sunny headlands of jungle meet the glistening blue east sea. Way down below, if you press your nose against the window, you can see coves with pearly white sand that have never known human footprint. So romantic.

We pass little hill stations where local trains take villagers and goods to the market. Some girls come aboard with dried squid for sale. It’s a favorite snack with cold beer. Men inspect the wares and spirited bargaining begins. When the guard comes down the train, the girls hide their squid and feign sleep until he passes by.

At last we arrive in Hue and step out into the main street. Instantly, there is a feeling of elegance, education and the kind of confidence that envelopes you in the streets of ancient cities. I like it very much. We walk the full length of the town to our hotel and view the haunting fortifications of the citadel on the other side of the mysterious Perfume River. It wasn’t raining.

We hired bicycles and toured the inside of the perimeter wall of the citadel. This was one of the most delightful days I have ever spent in Vietnam. These walls enclose a small town where all aspects of life take place. The fortifications are so thick that people build their homes on top and plant vegetable gardens too. Each dwelling has a brightly painted shrine outside (or three, or four, or five) and all the gateways have been newly painted for Tet. Showy gateways are de rigeur in this town but many of them, though fit for a mansion, adorn simple one room old houses!

Everyone says “hello” as we cycle by. We stop to let a couple of promenading cows pass. I find an excellent example of craft mosaic adorning the gates of a temple along the way. The broken porcelain and pottery is interspersed with different colors of glass that catch the sun. I stop to take too many photos and ask some lunching women about its history. It’s only five years old I’m told. I am astonished that this craft is alive and flourishing.

For the rest of our trip it rained. It rained and then rained some more. The light was subdued but the colors of paint on the old citadel gateways, the red lacquer and gold leaf of the restored halls and temples of the purple city were still electrifying and evocative of a bygone age of color and glory.

Whatever the weather, the history of Hue seems to seep out of the stones and the woodwork to linger in the mists of the Perfume River. As an artist, I found it to be a powerful and moving experience.

A professional artist and author of A Week in Hoi An, Bridget March specializes in urban landscapes and aims to reveal the hidden treasures of city life and small town cultures through her illustrations. Bridget is currently offering art classes and sketching tours in Hoi An until the summer. For more of Bridget’s work including news of her upcoming book visit brushwithasia.blogspot.com.

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