The Beauty of Destruction

One the surface, I wasn’t very impressed with Huế. It’s a moderately sized city just south of the DMZ line. It’s oddly laid out, and we kept getting lost just trying to find a decent place to have breakfast. What makes Huế special though, is the city that it once was.

For a century and a half Huế was the imperial capital of Vietnam. The Emperors of Vietnam built their capital citadel here, as well as a series of elaborate temples and tombs. Their charmed world came to a crashing end in 1945 when the new communist government took control. Over the next few decades much of the emperor’s legacy was decimated by neglect and American bombs. The city was seriously clobbered by both the Viet Cong and American Forces.

What’s left now is a shattered, but hauntingly beautiful shell of an almost forgotten time.

The imperial citadel is very similar to the Forbidden City in Beijing. It’s a huge compound located near the center of town, with a big picture of Ho Chi Minh plastered to the front. But while the Forbidden City is pristinely maintained the Citadel was severely damaged by bombs (the Viet Cong use it as a stronghold). And while the Forbidden City is chock full of tour groups shuttling from one point to another, the Citadel was largely… empty.

Aside from one gorgeously restored palace- sponsored by Samsung, much of the place lies in overgrown ruin. It’s a funny way to find a national treasure and UNESCO World Heritage Site, but there’s either not enough money, or not enough interest in fully restoring the place. Of course it’s a real shame that the place was bombed ,it’s hard to imagine how elaborate it really was, just 50 years ago. However, as we wandered the ruins I was struck by how beautiful the place seemed.

There was barely anyone there, and almost nothing in the way of maps or routes. We wandered without game plan, from a fully restored hallway, to a big open field, to the very modern imperial tennis court. There were overgrown tile floors, bewitching half destroyed dragons and crumbling facades. One random right turn lead use into our very own secret garden.

The next day we hired a motorbike and headed to the outskirts of town to see one of the most famous tombs in the area. Tu Duc was the emperor from 1847-1883. He was the last independent emperor of Vietnam, in part because his shoddy foreign policy led the French to seize control of the country. It seems that he spent a large portion of that time writing poetry and planning his own burial monument. The end result was a huge memorial park, where the emperor apparently enjoyed hanging out with his 104 wives long before he died.

Time has not been kind to Tu Duc’s tomb. Maybe it was shoddy construction and maybe it was years and years of neglect, but in any case the place is falling to pieces.

Somehow though, I think it’s more beautiful in it’s melancholy decay then it was during it’s pristine heyday. The gray drizzle gave the eroding statues an ethereal quality. There’s just something so beautiful about the abandoned and the forgotten.

Of course Tu Duc’s tomb has not been forgotten, if the busload of tourists tromping through was any indication. I’m actually genuinely confused why the place looks so downtrodden. Perhaps they’ll restore it in the next few years. Yet, I’m glad I got to see it now, as nature intended.

In a way, all of imperial Huế stands as a metaphorical monument to the passage of time. Just over 50 years ago the Emperor of Vietnam was playing tennis on his fancy imperial tennis court. Now that position, that entire way of life, has been obliterated to make way for the modern, communist Vietnam. It was a terrible, violent transition and the casualties were many.

But these monuments survived, battered as they may be. They may be delicate but their tough too. Because if there’s one thing you can’t destroy, it’s history.

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