Places I Have Been (Imperial City, Hue, Vietnam)












Peter and I took a two week trip to Vietnam during China's Spring Festival, on a break from teaching in Beijing. The visual contrasts between Beijing and North/Central Vietnam were incredibly striking. At one point during our time in China's capital, we had a stretch of almost 100 days with no precipitation. In Vietnam, especially south of Hanoi, it rained almost every day. It was lush and green. But also, Beijing is a very managed place. Its apartment blocks are large, symmetrical and similar; its colors in the main are predictably neutral to brick red. And Beijing's highlighted historical places and tourist sights (the Great Wall points outside of town, the Forbidden City, the Lama Temple) are organized and crowded, with explanatory plaques in multiple languages, and evidence of huge restoration projects.

Coming off of that, Vietnam felt chaotic and unpredictable, colorful and lush.  No one would deny that both Vietnam and China have undergone massive economic and cultural changes in the last few decades. What was fascinating to me is how differently those changes manifest themselves.

Hue's Imperial City is one of the most fascinating tourist attractions I've ever stumbled upon. It's beautiful, and much decayed (though being restored). Construction was begun on it in 1804. What I didn't know, due to my usual medium-low advance research, was that the decay and destruction in evidence there was not natural or gradual--it was bombed very nearly to the ground, by Americans, in 1968.

You may have heard about, or experienced, Vietnam's tourist boom of the last ten or fifteen years. It's an easy and welcoming place to travel as a Westerner. No one ever made me feel that I should not be there; in fact, quite the opposite.  Finding out this truth later, these pictures and that day, wondering around a destroyed Imperial Capital, take on a different, more complicated cast.

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