A Travellerspoint blog


The Nguyễn tombs at Huế

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I saw the Top Gear Vietnam special this morning, and it reminded me that I need to add a couple of entries to this blog before finally closing it down. In the eight months since the last entry, the cumulative number of page visits has passed 100,000.

So how about some photos of Huế?


Some explanation first. The last royal dynasty of Vietnam ended in 1945, when emperor Bảo Đại abdicated from the balcony of the Ngo Mon gate, the grandest entrance to his palace in Huế. He had been invited to abdicate by Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh. Ho Chi Minh had himself been educated in Huế.

The monarchs of Vietnam lived in imperial splendour consciously modelled on that in Beijing. Within the city was a royal citadel. Within the citadel was a royal city. Within the royal city was the Forbidden City.

Each emperor was buried in his own mausoleum in the countryside around Huế. With the citadel, the mausoleums are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I rented a bike and pedalled around. The first place I reached was the tomb of Emperor Minh Mạng. This is the grandest of the lot. Minh Mạng was emperor from 1820 to 1841 (the tomb was built between 1840 and 1843). He was the son of Gia Long, who founded the Nguyễn dynasty and the Huế citadel. He was profoundly opposed to French engagement in Vietnam, and, as a conservative Confucian, he also discouraged and then banned Christian proselytisation. Following the Le Van Khoi revolt in the south, in which Catholics participated, seven missionaries were sentenced to death between 1833 and 1838. The executions generated strong anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Europe. Minh Mạng also restricted trade with the west, which was not to Vietnam’s advantage, since country missed the opportunity of acquiring western technology. The Siamese monarchs had a smarter strategy.

Before you get to the temple itself you reach the salutation court, with mandarins, horses and elephants, representing those who accompany and protect the emperor in the afterlife.


Then there is a temple, and behind that a bridge over a lake, which reaches the stele house. Thiệu Tri constructed a 10-foot high stele in praise of his father. The stele pavilion is on a rise, and surrounded by a lake – a lovely spot.


Behind the pavilion is another bridge and a man-made hill, which houses the burial area proper.

Here is Nine the Marseillaise on the last bridge.


Minh Mạng died in 1841 and left the throne to his son, Thiệu Tri, who continued his father’s isolationist policies. He was succeeded by his younger son Tự Ðức, who reigned as the fourth Nguyễn emperor from 1847 to 1883. Thiệu Tri chose Tự Ðức over his oldest son precisely for his keen Confucianism. Tự Ðức duly continued the dynasty’s anti-western policies and persecuted Catholics. The latter policy provoked France to attack from southern Vietnam in 1848. China was dragged in. Thus began the Sino-French War. Inevitably, France won the tie (China had lost the first Opium War against Britain in 1842, and these humiliations contributed to the Taiping Rebellion and still rankle in modern China) and China recognised French overlordship of the entire region of Vietnam. Tự Ðức continued to attack Catholics, ordering them to convert or be branded on the face. He thus managed the miraculous feat of uniting the countries of Europe against him.

Tự Ðức eventually gave away the southern part of the kingdom, Cochinchina, as a French colony, and accepted the overlordship of France over the rest, so he was the last emperor to rule independently.

His tomb was built between 1864 and 1867. While still alive, Tự Ðức used it as a rural retreat. He liked to go there to listen to the wind, enjoy the view and write poetry.


The tomb contains fifty buildings and is divided into two parts: ritual and burial. The ritual area contains many aspects of the emperor’s daily existence. There are the usual mandarins in a courtyard. The eternal houses of the wife and son stand opposite, on the other side of the stream.

The burial area is about the afterlife. Two other members of the royal family are also buried here. The tomb itself is a sarcophagus on four steps, surrounded by a wall. It isn’t constructed to any scale. The scale is in the entire ensemble.


So you start by the edge of a lake. A lovely pavilion with a terrace is across the water.


The third tomb was that of Khải Dịnh, who reigned from 1916 to 1925. He was the father of Bảo Đại, the last emperor. In principle he ruled over Annam; in practice he followed French instructions closely. Ho Chi Minh, quite reasonably, lampooned him as a puppet. He may also have been a drug addict.



The tomb shows a lot of western influence. It attempts to mix Vietnamese and western forms. There is a courtyard of mandarins, horses and elephants. The tomb itself is covered in brightly-coloured glass decorations, creating an almost baroque effect.


Posted by Wardsan 10:35 Archived in Vietnam Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Pics of Nha Trang

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I still have not started work (it will happen one day), so this week I went for three walks in the southeast. The Met Office predicted a deluge on Wednesday; it is now Friday and it is yet to arrive. False Noahs.

On Monday I walked from Manor Park to Epping via Chingford. The second part of the walk is more rural and more pleasant. The route goes through Epping Forest, which was used as royal hunting grounds from at least the twelfth century until the late Stuarts, who didn’t care for hunting much. Queen Victoria gave it to the nation in the last century, to provide a rural recreation area for the growing working population of East London. While walking I saw lots of crows, magpies, tits and robins, and a jay, a woodpecker and a skylark. Here is a peacock at Wanstead Flats.


On Tuesday, down the river from Kew to Hampton Court via Ham House. Ham House was built from 1610 and retains some interesting décor and paintings from Tudor times, and some interesting old-fashioned formal gardens.


There were snake’s head fritillaries, our only native fritillary. They grow wild at Magdalen College, Oxford, but are usually cultivated.


The first part of the path, between Kew and Teddington, is much prettier than the second. Almost all of it used to be attached to one royal palace or another, and much remains Crown land. I saw about twenty cormorants, including a group just roosting in a tree, which I have never seen before, as a fox strolled by beneath it annoying the crows.

And well over a dozen grey herons. This one was in Richmond.


All along the river from Ham House onwards you can see and hear rose-ringed parakeets in the trees. They – and the other wild parakeet species in the southeast - are descended from captive birds liberated forty or more years ago; there is a story that they escaped from Shepperton Studios during the filming of The African Queen, or were set free by Jimi Hendrix, or escaped from a container at Heathrow. All of these could be true, but there were certainly escaped parakeets in England from the nineteenth century. The ancient Greeks kept the Indian subspecies as pets, and the Romans likewise kept the African subspecies, and there are feral populations along the Rhine and in Barcelona, and in Japan and Florida. They now range, in their thousands, from Croydon to Esher; they have even been seen in Peckham. They are very pretty and very jolly, but it is likely that they displace local species such as woodpeckers, nuthatches and starlings. Like many invaders, they thrive partly because they have no natural predators.


The gardens in Hampton Court are covered in flowers right now.


Here is a deer in Bushy Park, which used to be the hunting grounds for Hampton Court Palace. The winter fur is just being moulted and the antlers are growing. There are so many deer in the park that the ground is carpeted with deer droppings.


Another heron, in Bushy Park.


On Wednesday I walked over the cliffs from Hastings to Cliff End and then along the Royal Military Canal to Winchelsea. Hasting and Winchelsea are two of the seven (yes) Cinque Ports. Hastings is kiss-me-quick hats, bingo, amusement arcades and mini golf, but also a good place for cockles, eels and whelks.


The cliffs above are covered in gorse, currently in flower.



The path goes through Fairlight, a windy place on top of the cliffs, where every cottage has a ceramic nameplate on the wall. Union and St George flags fly on poles. The natives are friendly, so long as you’re white I expect. It is part of the constituency of Hastings and Rye, which, surprisingly, has a Labour MP with a majority of 2,000. Until 1997 it was a thumping Conservative majority. The local district council has a large Conservative majority, and the local ward elected three Conservative councillors.

Winchelsea is an interesting place. You pass through a medieval gate and then have to walk half a mile to the village itself. The village used to be one of the most important ports in England, and was then much bigger. But the meadows upstream were reclaimed and farmed and the river consequently silted up.

It has an interesting church, which is merely the chancel of a much larger church. Mmm, lichen on gravestones, isn't it?


It is not clear whether the nave was ever built, as around that time the French kept on coming over to Winchelsea and sacking the place. Here, in the church of St Thomas, is Edward II, above the tomb of an admiral of the Cinque Ports.



  • ***

And here are some more pictures of Nha Trang, Vietnam. A purveyor of sunglasses.


A view towards the sea.



Outside Nha Trang is a well-preserved Cham temple, called Po Nagar. It sits on a hill.


The other tourists there when I visited were Vietnamese.



It is still used, although converted now to Buddhism.









Posted by Wardsan 08:11 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Ethnology Museum


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The Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, University College of London, is more or less on the site where Darwin lived after he married Emma. It is where his first two children were born. Later they moved to Down House near Bromley, where they had eight more children.

The collection was founded by Robert Grant in 1827. (Grant later taught Darwin when Darwin was studying medicine at Edinburgh.) At that time the university had no collection for teaching purposes, so Grant created one. By the time he died, in 1874, the collection had 10,000 specimens. More were added by later curators, and sadly the Museum also holds the collection of T H Huxley, which resided at Imperial College until Imperial closed its zoology department in the 1980s. The collection is now the only one in London still used for the teaching of comparative anatomy.

It is largely a collection of bones and specimens in spirit jars. You don’t go there to learn a lot about zoology. It is in some ways more interesting to the connoisseur of museums: as an exhibit in its own right. It is the epitome of the Victorian Museum. It is small, and packed with skeletons in glass cases. The exhibits are of probably limited didactic value for schoolchildren. Most specimens are anciently and illegibly labelled. Few extraneous facts are given. The cast of an Archaeopteryx specimen refers to the original specimen as being in the "British Museum". Yet it is many years since the large Victorian cathedral of science in South Kensington has been referred to as the British Museum (Natural History) rather than the Natural History Museum, although formally its name changed only in 1993.

Some of the labels in the Zoology Museum in Cambridge are equally old: one of the stuffed birds of paradise – Prince Rudolf’s bird of paradise - is labelled as coming from British Central New Guinea.

There are ten known specimens of Archaeopteryx, all from the Solnhofen limestones in Bavaria. The first, a single feather, is now in the Humboldt Museum, Berlin. It may not be from Archaeopteryx at all. The first skeleton was found in 1861 and sold to the Natural History Museum. Both the slab and the counterslab are in display, in different rooms. The counterslab has a jaw with teeth.

Most of the other specimens remain in Germany. One has gone missing. They may not all be the same species.

Some of the specimens are of extinct animals.

    There are a couple of central rock rats in a jar. These Australian rodents have not been seen alive for years and are probably extinct.

    There are some long bones and vertebrae from a dodo. The dodo, Raphus cucullatus, became extinct in the 1680s, well before the museum was founded, and there is no museum with a complete dodo skeleton.

    There are also a couple of examples of the quagga, Equus quagga quagga, an animal like a zebra. Darwin writes about them in The Origin of Species (1859) in the same way he discusses the zebra and the ass; they were still alive. They were hunted to extinction, the last quagga dying in captivity nine years after Grant was extinguished. The only quagga photographed was at London Zoo in 1870. One of the skeletons was part of Grant’s collection; the specimen in a few pieces in a spirit jar was dissected by T H Huxley.

    And there is a skull of a thylacine, also known as a Tasmanian tiger (but actually a marsupial predator closely resembling a dog) which became extinct in 1936.

And there are some other interesting exhibits:

Quite a few sea mice, with what looks like iridescent fur. They are actually marine polychaete bristleworms, Aphrodite aculeata.

An elephant heart, which weighs between 20 and 30 kilos.

A bell jar full of moles.

An egg of an elephant bird. These went extinct, in Madagascar, in the 1700s. I would estimate it to be eight times the size of an ostrich egg.

  • **

In Hanoi, a few miles from the city centre, is the Ethnology Museum. It is well worth a trip. It is popular with Vietnamese, some of whom to have wedding photos taken.


Vietnam has fifty-odd peoples within its borders – although one of these, the Kinh (or Việt), is top dog. The Kinh make up 86% of the population of the country, and are in the majority everywhere except in the highlands of the north, where there are more Tay, Hmong and Dao.

At the museum, people are defined linguistically and split into Austroasiatic; Austronesian; Thai-Kadai; Hmong-Yao; and Sino-Tibetan. I met plenty of all of these on my trip.

The Austroasiatics include speakers of Viet-Muon and Mon-Khmer languages, and there are about 80 million of them in all. There are two national languages in the group: Vietnamese and Khmer. Twenty-five ethnic groups speak these languages in Vietnam. There are nearly a million Khmer in Vietnam, largely in the Mekong delta (which is just downstream from Cambodia).

Austronesian languages are spoken in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Micronesia, New Guinea, Polynesia and Taiwan (the last being where they radiated from). There are about 200 million speakers, but only 9 million on the mainland of Asia. Most Austronesian speakers in Vietnam live in the central highlands. The language of Champa was Austronesian, as are the Ê Ðê and Gia Rai languages.

In all there are about 75 million speakers of Thai-Kadai languages, mainly in Vietnam, China, Laos, Burma, India and Thailand (look at a map and you can see that none of these countries is far from the others). Originally the language group came from China. The group includes Thai and Lao. They are said to be distantly related to Mon-Khmer and Vietnamese languages. In Vietnam its languages are spoken by eight ethnic groups, mainly in the northern hills.

Hmong-Yao languages are spoken by about 8 million people in Vietnam, China, Burma, Laos and Thailand. The Hmong, with 6.5 million people, are the largest group in the family. They are also largely in the north.
Finally, the Sino-Tibetan group is, not surprisingly, the world’s largest, with 1.2 bn native speakers. There is not much point trying to say where it is spoken; perhaps it is not widely spoken in Antarctica. Most within the group speak Han (Sinitic) languages. The Tibeto-Burmese branch has only 56 million speakers. In Vietnam the Chinese are known as Hoa; there are nearly a million of them, half of whom live in Saigon.

It is confusing enough – as my blog on Sapa showed – but without visiting the museum I would not have had a clue.

Within the grounds are quite a number of authentic buildings.

One highlight was a longhouse built by the Bahnar. (I saw several very similar on my trip down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.) Around the buildings swarmed schoolchildren: “hello!”.



Another was a huge communal longhouse built on site by Ê Ðê people. It is over forty metres long. It is modelled on a longhouse in the region of Buôn Ma Thuột. Some longhouses were 200 metres long in the past. Sadly, the longhouse tradition has disintegrated since the 1980s.


Like most tradition buildings in southeast Asia, the building is supported on stilts. You enter by climbing up a tree trunk with notches in it. There is a verandah at each end, and the main entrance faces north.


When people sleep in it, they have to keep their feet pointing west. The main utensils and stores of value seem to be the large pottery jars, in which wicked rice wine is kept – and gongs.


Another interesting building was the Giaray funeral house, built by five Giarai Arap villagers in 1968. Around the sides are wildly pornographic sculptures carved from tree trunks with adzes and cutlasses. They symbolise fertility and birth, of course. It is built for just one funeral, and abandoned afterwards. I like the expression on this guy’s face.


The Cotu tomb was built in 2005. It is built for the second funeral of a high-ranking dead person. The coffin is exhumed and placed on a carved tree trunk. On the top of the tomb and elsewhere are handsome carvings of buffalo heads, blackened with dye made from charcoal, brown tubers and sugarcane juice.


Posted by Wardsan 10:52 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hội An: further pics

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Boats on the river.


Cyclos at rest


Fujian assembly hall.


Incense spirals at the Fujian assembly hall.


Old town shophouses.








Tourist group from Bangkok.


On the river.




No FT, no comment.


Posted by Wardsan 13:16 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hội An: more pics

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The last posts consisted of thousands of tedious words with no pictures, so I should redress the balance. Here, a mere eight months after the first, is a second batch of photos from the beautiful town of Hội An, aka Haisfo, Haiso, Cotam, Faifo…

Rower seeks punters.


Japanese covered bridge.


Roof tile, Japanese covered bridge.


Dog guardian, Japanese covered bridge.


Roof decoration at a Chinese temple.


Waterfront of the old town.


Painted turtles at the Quan Cong temple.


Carp gargoyle at the Quan Cong temple. The carp is a symbol of longevity.


Quan Cong temple. There are a lot of temples to Quan Cong in Vietnam. He was, apparently, a Wu general of the Three Kingdoms Period, who died in 249, a talented and virtuous general, celebrated for loyalty, courage, piety and moderation. He is also – and here I am quite lost – the embodiment of Thanh Long (Blue Dragon) and Bach Ho (White Tiger).


Chinese checkers outside the Chaozhou assembly hall. As in many places in southeast Asia, each Chinese congregation in Hội An has its own assembly hall, a combined temple and social club.


Many of the assembly halls are decked with gaudy, indeed kitsch, ceramic roof decorations. They are also pretty lively in Saigon and in Bangkok. Here is the Chaozhou assembly hall.


A street in the old town.


Posted by Wardsan 03:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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