Good Things Do Come In Small Packages: Hue: Monuments of an Ancient Capital

by Steven K. Bailey, Dec 1, 1996 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hue

We all know that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but if you'll be carrying that book through the steamy summer streets of Hue, Vietnam, you should most definitely judge it by the size of its cover. Walking beneath the tropical sun you'll soon loathe a thick, heavy guidebook; you'll love a thin, featherweight guide. Fortunately, Hue: Monuments of an Ancient Capital from The Gioi Publishers of Hanoi (1993) is the latter sort of book. Not only is it light but so thin that it works well as an impromptu fan or sun visor. Despite its size, however, the exactly 100-page book manages to provide encyclopedic information about the historic monuments of Hue.

A detailed guidebook remains indispensable in Hue, a former imperial capital jam-packed with historic buildings. According to the authors Mai Ung and Dao Hung, Hue first became important in the seventeenth century, when Lord Nguyen Phuc Lan declared it his capital city. War subsequently devastated Hue in the late 1700s and little remains from this era. In fact, most historic buildings in Hue date from the nineteenth century, when Nguyen Anh established control over all of Vietnam and selected Hue as the site of his imperial city. Construction lasted from 1805 to 1832 and Hue then served as the seat of royalty until the demise of the Nguyen Dynasty in 1945. Today Hue's political influence is limited to its role as the provincial capital of Thua Thien Hue Province. Hue has always been considered Vietnam's most elegant and royal city and this book includes all the historic sites that give Hue its unique character.

The guidebook covers the Imperial Capital with its three citadels and Dai Noi ("The Great Interior"), a palace complex reminiscent of China's Forbidden City. Numerous pagodas, temples, and burial tombs are also reviewed. You've little hope of seeing them all, but this guidebook can help you decide which places you want to see most. It also discusses museums, such as the famous Museum of Antiquities--badly damaged, like so much of Hue, during the 1968 Tet offensive--and the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Nguyen Tat Thanh--later known as Ho Chi Minh--spent nine years of his youth studying in Hue and the city has claimed him as a son along with an astonishing number of famous scholars, artists, generals and kings.

Hue: Monuments of an Ancient Capital even describes the Royal Amphitheater, site of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century elephant-tiger fights staged by the Nguyen Lords. In this Southeast Asian version of the Roman Coliseum, as many as 18 king cats and 40 pachyderms faced off in colossal battles in which the elephants generally "flailed to death" their feline opponents. Occasionally a particularly feisty cat "jumped up on an elephant and clawed the mahout to death or scampered away through the crowd of people. Once a tiger jumped into the river and swam towards the royal boat, causing panic among the people." These days a visit to the amphitheater is not nearly as exciting--the last elephant-tiger combat occurred in 1904 during the reign of King Thanh Thai.

Aside from descriptions of historic sites, this compact treasure also contains maps, excellent architectural drawings, black-and-white/color photos and the usual statistical detail found in all books from The Gioi Publishers. A weather summary warns against travel from October to December when protracted rainfall often causes flooding. There is even a phone directory at the end of the book listing hotel, museum and emergency numbers, as well as numbers for the "electrical appliance repairing workshop" and a restaurant called the Inn of Hades that serves, presumably, spicy dishes as hot as hell.

On the subject of food, the guide ends with a short section detailing the city's cuisine. Here we learn that royal cooking often derived from simple, if bizarre, ingredients. One court favorite was worms specially nurtured in sugar cane because both chef and king believed that "much sweetness and freshness accumulated in the worms." Other simple ingredients were literally prepared with a new twist: royal gardeners trained bindweed, a basic staple food, to grow inside a hollow snail shell, thus giving the king a uniquely succulent and curling dish. It is exactly this kind of quirky detail that makes Hue: Monuments of an Ancient Capital such a good read. You will not only learn about Hue, but also have a chuckle or two in the process. This little book really does prove the old adage that good things come in small packages.