Walking towards the imperial palace of the Nuygen dynasty which ruled Vietnam from the start of the nineteenth century until 1945.
On one of the 17 massive bronze urns inside the Hue imperial palace compound are all kinds of images. Elephants were a form of transport all over south-east Asia for many centuries, and had important ceremonial functions.
Walking around the architectural splendours of the royal palace I reflected on the death of a monarch. When Queen Victoria died Henry James felt that an era has ended and he felt sad to see it finish. I feel the same today about our queen – an era has ended and it is hard to fathom how relentlessly time sweeps us all away, even those who have their heads on coins and stamps will be born away by time’s current.
The world in which mandarins kow-towed in the grounds of the Hue imperial palace passed away much longer ago.
The old faded audience pavilions and temples were serene with their total lack of tourist bustle, and so quiet we could hear delicate bird call from the trees around us. What a sanctuary of calm this old Vietnamese version of the Forbidden City is.
The next day we got hold of a 1967 US military jeep – we’re not far from the historical DMZ after all – and drove south to Hoi An.
The trip took us to a waterfall in a valley of a big green mountain range along the sea. We swam in the fresh cool waters and were brought delicious food to eat on the side of the pool.
Then we drove to the beach and the water was a temperature I’ve rarely encountered – entirely tropical and warm. So, so relaxing. One of the best swims of my life. We had the beach to ourselves. Then we drove over the Hai Van pass, and as our jeep wound up the sea side mountain range the temperature dropped as we gained altitude. The change of temperature was a balm to the spirits.
We gasped at the beauty of the view from curves of the road along Hai Van pass (Ocean Cloud Pass, as it is often fogged in), looking down at the mountain ridges covered in rainforest plunging into a still blue sea in row upon row.
When Paul Theroux was passing through Vietnam during his Great Railway Bazaar, in 1973, he wrote:
Of all the places the railway had taken me since London, this was the loveliest.
Beyond the leaping jade plates of the sea was an overhang of cliffs and the sight of a valley so large it contained sun, smoke, rain and cloud – all at once.
I had been unprepared for this beauty; it surprised and humbled me.
Who has mentioned the simple fact that the heights of Vietnam are places of unimaginable grandeur?
We were lucky and there was not a wisp of mist as we passed the same place visited by Theroux fifty years ago. As we descended the high pass I stood up in the back of the jeep and felt exhilarated by the movement, the height, the view, almost like when you’re sliding down the face of a wave. Health and safety rules don’t apply here and I’m sure the sense of freedom is partly a result.