A Vietnamese Gateway to Ancient Tombs, Unique Relics and Floating Dragons

After a full day at sea we tied up at the commercial port of Chan May in central Vietnam. Chan May is the gateway to two of Vietnam’s better known cities – Hue and Da Nang.
Hue is a World Heritage site owing to the Citadel, Imperial City and Royal Tombs. It was the center of culture in the country from 1802 until 1945 and also the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty. Unfortunately it is also known as the location of the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War in 1968.
Da Nang is the country’s 4th largest city and also a familiar name from the war. It is close to China Beach where many of the military spent their R&R.
We chose to begin our exploration in Hue, which took nearly two hours to travel to, although only 37 miles away.  The majority of our drive was on Highway 1 which used to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and is one of two roads that connect Hanoi in the north and Saigon in the south.

Our first stop in Hue was at the tomb of Tu Duc. He was the 4th Emperor and ruled from 1847-1883. Previous emperors had tried to keep the ancient kingdom shut off from the rest of the world and Tu Duc continued the policy. He was opposed by many and during his tenure the French came in and established a protectorate. At his death in 1883 he was considered the last emperor to rule independently although the dynasty continued until 1945.
These particular buildings were built in the mid-1800s but appear much older because of the humid climate that seems to accelerate deterioration. Moss was growing over decaying brick walls and stonework was marked with mildew. We walked around for a few minutes past the building where the concubines lived and then inside to see a throne room and others that the emperor used.

Below is a palanquin used to transport the emperor.

There were many spectacular gates and mosaic-tiled walls leading to the emperor’s tomb.


Having walked through all these ornate gates and walls, the tomb itself felt much less impressive.

After our visit to the tomb, we took a short ride to a handcraft village where we saw demonstrations of incense making as well as weaving the waterproof conical hats. From the road we could see brightly colored bundles that looked like small brooms, but were in fact incense sticks. There were also little art galleries everywhere and lots of young ladies selling fans.

Our next stop was to be a trip along the Perfume River. This 19-mile waterway crosses the city of Hue and is so named because in the autumn flowers from upriver orchards would fall into the river. Today it is a major tourist attraction for the so called “dragon boats” that chug up and down the river while peddling small souvenirs and Vietnamese robes.

We decided to take a 30-minute dragon boat ride to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda, a seven-tiered structure also known as “Heavenly Lady” Buddhist shrine. This was built in 1601 and today remains an active monastery with bonsai gardens and an octagonal tower guarded by warriors.

Further in the grounds is another shrine guarded by warriors at its entrance and featuring a golden Buddha.

The serenity of the bonsai garden is jarred a bit with the presence of a rather bizarre “relic” ensconced in an open sided building. A blue Austin from the 1950s is the car driven by the monk Thich Quang Duc to an intersection in Saigon in June 1963 where he then exited the car, assumed the lotus position in the street and set himself on fire to protest the anti-Buddhist dictatorial regime in South Vietnam.

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