On this trip I’ve travelled by planes, buses, trains, boats, bicycle and foot. The only mode of transportation I hadn’t tried was a motorcycle. In a country of 90 million people and 40 million motorbikes, it seemed like something I should do. But given the traffic situation and the lack of good road maps, I though I’d make a better passenger than driver, so I hired a local English-speaking Vietnamese guide to drive me to some of the sites outside the city of Hue on his “very good” motorbike. Turns out his English was not so good and his motorbike only so-so, but his driving skills were very good.
At 9am, I climbed on the back of Lu’s (my driver’s) motorcycle and headed out of the city. We left the town behind and began climbing the hills. I looked around and realized, “Holy (blank), I’m on the back of a motorcycle in Vietnam with a complete stranger and I have no idea where I’m going.” I had a brief moment of panic and then decided, Lu had done this before, he was recommended by my hotel and sometimes that has to be enough. I took a deep breath and a long look around at the scenery flying by. It was pretty amazing. I’m not sure there was a better way to see it.
I wanted to visit some of the imperial tombs that were located along the river around the city. These were no ordinary burial sites. The emperors began building their tombs almost as soon as they ascended to the throne. In some cases, they would take regular visits to these sites to check on progress. In other cases, they became second cities, and they would govern from the site of their tomb, building residences, and theaters and later the ritual burial site. Some even built residences for their eunuchs and concubines to live in after their death to watch over them and their tomb.
The burial sites are guarded by stone statues representing the emperor’s military and civilian leaders. Several temple buildings lead up to the burial site, and finally, usually at the top of a mountain, a huge circular enclosure with a stone building to house the remains. One emperor had an underground channel built to ferry his remains to the mountain. After his death the channel was destroyed and has remained sealed ever since.
What struck me was that most of these sites were relatively new. The last one was finished in 1924…less than one hundred years ago. I was trying to imagine something as elaborate as these places being built in the U.S. with the sole purpose of honoring and paying on-going tribute to a leader. Maybe the closest we come is a presidential library, but they pale in comparison to these complexes.
Lu and I drove from one tomb to the next, only got stuck in the mud once and had no near misses with on coming cars (even when he was driving on the what I would guess was the wrong side of the road). After five hours and despite my earlier trepidation, he dropped me at my hotel. I guess today (against the advice of my mother) trusting a complete a stranger was the right thing to do.