Im­pe­rial im­pos­tors hold sway in Hue

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - LEWIS COR­NER

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: travel@theaus­tralian.com.au.

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