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Hue, Vietnam-City Of Emperors, Tiger/Elephant Fights, And Historic Bridges

By John Saboe | Travel Ideas

Jan 08


One of the most interesting sites I’ve ever come across in Southeast Asia let alone Vietnam is Ho Quyen, or the Tiger/Elephant fight arena in the former Imperial capital of Hue.

It’s not on the same grand scale as Rome’s Coliseum but it’s an unusual and rare peak into a time in Southeast Asia when fights staged between tigers and elephants took place.

Only 3 kilometers outside of Hue it was built in 1830 by the emperor at the time, Minh Manh,

Research of this site revealed it was crumbling and falling apart but I was surprised that it was in better shape than I thought considering there has been little to no upkeep of the arena since the last fight took place here in 1904.

There’s still enough structure including stairs to reach the top of the arena that you can imagine what it must have been like for the royal emperor and his entourage to be present during these brutal fights.

Tigers were the symbol of rebellion, beasts that killed helpless villagers. Elephants were noble and represented monarchy, so it’s no wonder through the drugging, declawing and defanging of the tigers before the start of a fight who won everytime.

It’s somewhat of a haunting feeling being inside the arena, on the very ground where tigers most of the time were trampled to death by elephants. If it looked like an elephant was losing a fight another would be sent in to help finish the job. All in the preservation of the pride of the monarchy.

I crawled into some of the old holding areas for the tigers, some of which had claw marks scratched right into the plastered walls.

A few kilometers in the other direction outside of the main town of Hue is a traditional Vietnamese countryside location complete with rice paddies, quiet roads, and a beautiful Japanese style covered bridge with a wonderful history.

Thanh Toan Bridge is a cultural relic with unique architectural features but the story behind the bridge is far more interesting than the structure itself.

Tran Thi Dao the childless wife of a high ranking mandarin or official in Le Hien Tong’s court in the 1700’s had the bridge constructed to help the local people communicate and travel outside of the village.

When the Emperor heard of her kind deed he freed the village of taxes as a reminder of her generosity.

In 1925 Emperor Kai Dinh ordered the village to build an altar in Tran Thi Dao’s memory inside the bridge. The Emperor knowing that Tran Thi Dao never had children ensured that she would always be remembered in a culture that puts a high importance on ancestor worship.

This is one of two ancient bridges of Vietnam that appear in guide books world-wide. The other famous bridge of Vietnam is Hoi an’s Japanese covered bridge. That bridge was in fact built by Japanese immigrants in Hoi an but the Thanh Toan bridge is a Vietnamese bridge with similar features to the Japanese covered bridges of the time with a decorative tile roof and platforms inside to lean against.

This is a lovely setting and the bridge is a great reason to leave the busier surroundings of Hue, making it a great afternoon getaway from the town.

Back in Hue another bridge to admire is the Truong Tien Bridge created by the famous French architect and designer Gustav Eiffel. Completed in 1899 it’s setting over the Perfume River is atmospheric, even rising to romantic in stature. It’s had many ups and downs weathering historic storms and two wars.

It’s latest renovation took 5 years from 1991-95 and in 2002 a lighting system was added. Today the bridge is mostly used for motorbikes and pedestrians and admired by all, especially in the evening with it’s colorful light display.

It’s wonderful to cross the bridge North of the river where the Citadel and ancient Imperial complex is located and also to visit Hue’s largest outdoor market, Dong Ba.

This is a great market to visit and buy some of the local snacks and fresh fruit and admire all of the wonderful ingredients that go into the amazing cuisine of Vietnam.

These are all interesting and highly recommended places and sites to experience but the real reason most people visit Hue is to see the Imperial City where the Nguyen emperors ruled from 1802-1945.

The complex is protected by the Citadel. Fortified ramparts that stretch 2 kilometers by 2 kilometers with an outer moat filled with water routed from the Perfume River. Within the Citadel is the Imperial City, inside an even more exclusive area, the Forbidden Purple City, access of which was only permitted to the Nguyen Imperial family.

Much of the Forbidden Purple City had been destroyed during the Vietnam War when in 1968 one of the bloodiest battles of the conflict took place here during the Tet offensive.

At first because of the cultural significance of the site, U.S. troops were ordered not to bomb the Imperial City but as fighting grew more intense those restrictions were lifted. Out of 160 original buildings only 10 remain as a result of the battle.

The Mieu Temple has managed to survive the conflicts but did suffer fire damage in 1947 and was subsequently restored. The Mieu means temple of generations and it’s here where the altars of Nguyen emperors are worshipped.

Directly across from the temple in front of the Hien Lam Pavilion sits the 9 Dynastic urns, dedicated to the Nguyen emperors. The urns are works of art with depictions of stars, oceans, rivers, mountains and other images. Important to the cultural history of Vietnam but even more valued by the Vietnamese claiming the artwork proves their right to the hotly contested Spratly Islands of the South China Sea.

This is one of the most beautiful spaces in the whole Imperial Palace complex. Sadly it reminds us of the terrible destruction war can have not only on people but the significant sites that are the foundation of a country’s history and culture.

As Hue’s important cultural sites are spread out over a large area leave a few days on your itinerary to visit the former Imperial Capital. Unlike Hoi an, it’s neighbor 3 hours by car south, Hue is not as compact so it’s charm must be appreciated on a much larger canvas.
It’s truly worth the time as you’ll experience tradition, food, culture and history like no other destination in Vietnam.

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About the Author

I am a broadcaster, photographer, writer and videographer with a passion for travel throughout Asia. I love making connections and engaging with people. I am spiritual and seek adventure wherever I go.

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