Imperial impostors hold sway in Hue
THE old elephant is bored, tethered to a stake. He sways from side to side and dangles what a child might mistake for an atrophied supernumerary leg. Tourists are scarce today in the Citadel of Hue, Vietnam.
Luckier Asian pachyderms live near water and are given a daily scrub by their mahouts, which imparts a healthy pink glow to the upper parts of their trunks. This old stager is a dusty grey. One of its tusks is missing, giving it a forlorn, lop-sided appearance.
Hue’s Citadel, formerly the heart of the Vietnamese empire, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Intricate details remain, among them the elaborately carved ends of every bamboo rafter. Some buildings are restored but much of what must have been a stupendous spectacle in its heyday has disappeared or decayed.
What age is the elephant? Surely not old enough to remember the last emperor, ruling under French protection before the Japanese invasion of 1945. Now the animal lumbers along, carrying gaudily costumed tourists masquerading as extinct royals. The robing room is a small wooden shed. The pseudoimperial outfits are musty, clammy and uncomfortably tight for the fuller-figured visitor. Several hundred thousand dong, a huge number that converts to less than $10, purchases a brief and somewhat moth-eaten re-enactment of past glories.
We ascend the rickety steps to the boarding platform. The extra layer of clothing conspires with the heat and humidity to infuse new layers of sweat into the emperor’s old clothes. Our mount lumbers around its familiar circuit, pleased to be on the move, pausing only to tear off some leafy snacks from overhanging trees.
Was the elephant in Hue in 1968 when the city fell to the Vietcong? Does it remember the fighting, the bombing, the US retreat, and the thousands of citizens, including doctors, nurses and teachers, massacred by the new regime?
The moment to abdicate after our short reign has arrived. We descend, disrobe and hand over a few thousand more dong to give our trundling transport a sugarcane treat. Beyond the Citadel walls Hue swarms and buzzes with two and threewheeled cycles, some carrying impossible loads.
Inside, our thick-skinned friend is chained again until the next imperial impostors hire him. With no memories or dreams of the magnificence of bygone years enjoyed by his ancestors, he simply sways and waits. RANT OR RAVE Send your 400-word contribution to our Follow the Reader column. Published columnists will receive a Corban & Blair Duet travel journal in pink/red and Duet travel wallet in blue/red (pictured; total value $84). The Duet range is made from genuine split leather and features contrasting leather detail with a metal button enclosure. More: (02) 9560 0122; corbanblair.com.au. Send your contribution to: email@example.com.