What catapulted this ancient city into world consciousness was not its great palaces, but the image of a monk immolating himself
FOR ALL the eternal and monumental qualities they project, cities are malleable like clay. Their edifices and districts are easily molded in accordance with the desires of their builders.

Spanish Manila reflected the conquistadores? fear of insurrection and contagion. The massive city walls were supposed to preserve Hispanic security as well as an illusory purity of blood. In contrast, America?s draconian military might established broad boulevards and Neo-classical government palaces outside the original Spanish enclave.

Intramuros as fortress was made obsolete and unglamorous by developments in the technology of warfare and of hygiene. Much later, vast swaths of lands would rise from the sea to accommodate the visions of the New Society.

So it is with Hue, the former royal capital of Vietnam. I could sense that though much of the city was destroyed during the war with the Americans, there was a certain dignity that one did not immediately detect in Saigon and Hanoi. Were the residents of Hue just more aware that theirs was a place carefully fashioned as the stage for the official pageantry needed to rule a nation?

When the Nguyen dynasty consolidated the country at the dawn of the 19th century, the city was re-engineered to reflect the concerns and whims of its rulers. Foremost was the need to create an illusion of power. In the early 1800s, it appears that, for the Vietnamese, being powerful meant being in harmony with and therefore able to harness nature. One also had to have the support of China, or was at least capable of emulating the Celestial Empire.

According to an essay by Nguyen Van Vinh, Hue was laid out in accordance with the principles of geomancy as practiced all over East Asia. The capital?s site was chosen because it was protected by mountains known as the Emperor?s Shield. The Hen and Va Dien Islets were seen as a Blue Dragon and a White Tiger guarding the metropolis? flanks.

In another display of dynastic strength, the Pearl River was rerouted to flow in front of the Imperial compound, forming an umbilical cord that brought vitality and sustenance. This, together with the mountain backdrop, mirrored the arrangements of China?s Forbidden City as dictated by the requirements of feng shui. In fact, the edifice that marks the entrance to the palace complex in Hue is practically a replica of the Meridian Gate in Beijing.

More changes

Under the French colonial regime, the capital underwent more changes as dictated by the predilections of its new masters. The spires of Roman Catholic cathedrals would puncture the skies. Administrative structures were erected in novel styles representing global movements such as Art Deco.

When the Communists liberated their country, they, too, would place their mark on the city. A huge post from which unfurled an enormous flag of the reunited Vietnam was placed on the Citadel. Its bright colors signaled to all that the People?s Revolution had triumphed at long last.

There were more subtle changes. Working out in a neighborhood gym, I was fascinated by the curving modernist lines of the structure in which it was housed. Outside, there was a strange tower with even stranger round holes in the center of the ceiling. It suddenly hit me that this was actually a belfry. The holes would have been for ropes attached to bells, now long gone, rung in the past to call the congregation. Yes, my gym had once been a church.

In a space now dominated by home-made weight machines and large posters of Ho Chi Minh, masses had been said. Clearly, the current regime believed that arms pumping iron superseded knees bent in prayer!

Aside from the more obvious meanings, Hue harbored other narratives. I was taken to see the Temple of the Mandarins, a compound which celebrated those who passed the examinations for civil servants. Hurdling these tests meant the assurance of a life of financial rewards and eminence. The carved stone tablets extolling the virtues of the bureaucrats surrounded us. These were monuments to the patriarchy, celebrating male dominance of the establishment.

Fascinating counterpoint

Providing a fascinating counterpoint to all this smug and strident masculinity was a different temple which housed the burial places of the palace eunuchs. Entering the grounds, one is greeted by a large pond in the shape of a half moon. Its limpid waters signalled that this was an enclave of shifting, negotiated meanings. In contrast to the straight lines and vertical shapes of the Mandarins? shrine, the gravemarkers here were rounded, with contours softened by moss.

Among the city?s top attractions are the Royal Tombs nestled in the surrounding hills. Evidently, the Nguyen rulers wanted to show that their power continued even in death. Their burial complexes were grand affairs, proclaiming that the cult of memory and ancestor worship was really a way for the deceased to maintain power over those they had left behind.

Of course, all this was actually maintained by living kings whose main reward was the promise that when it was their turn to expire, they, too, would continue to be glorified by their heirs.

The oldest tomb I visited was that of Minh Mang, who ruled for only three years in the middle of the 19th century. His reign marked the last period when Nguyen power was pretty much unchallenged. After his death, the colonial encroachments of the French would eventually render future kings prisoners in their own realm.

What I found so interesting was the fact that once more the projection of power did not necessitate that the landscape would be transformed into a monolith of cement. As illustrated by the configuration of the rest of the city, power arose from one?s unity with nature. So it was that the Vietnamese kings? final resting places were lush gardens, tropical sanctuaries filled with forest and lakes. Minh Mang himself reposed for eternity in the heart of a hill that was perfectly round, verdant with trees.

Most beautiful tomb

Tu Doc?s tomb is perhaps the most beautiful of all. Every corner is resplendent with the vitality of life. There was even a ceremonial pavilion which housed a theater. It turns out Tu Doc spent a lot of time here. This was his pleasure palace, his retreat from the pressures of the capital. Ironically, one can read into the sylvan surroundings the need to escape from the reality that the forces of France were now beginning to dominate Vietnam.

Finally, I toured the tomb of Kai Dinh. This is the most ostentatiously decorated. Every surface bustled with porcelain mosaics of twisting branches and agitated blossoms that obscured the gold statue of the king. By Kai Dinh?s reign, the French campaign to annex the country had succeeded. The Nguyens were now mere puppets, and all the splendor of their courts and mausoleums merely masked their impotence.

Beyond the great boulevards and buildings that testify to the presence of a great metropolis, cities are also marked by absences. To this day it is the remembrance of the destruction of Intramuros which defines the personality of Manila, as a community that had lost a part of its soul.

Decades ago, what catapulted Hue into the consciousness of the world was not the grandeur of its great palaces and shrines. It was the image of one its citizens, a quiet monk. He had traveled to Saigon to set himself on fire?a magnificent act of protest against the oppressive government that the Americans had helped foist upon his country.

Sadly, his martyrdom would not stop the forces that led to the senseless war which would ravage his beloved Vietnam, resulting in the destruction of many parts of Hue itself.

Yet the monk?s selfless offering was not in vain. The image of him sitting so serenely as his body is engulfed by flames would be burned into the memory of the planet. It was a picture of his self-immolation which captured my attention as a boy, assuring that I would always remember the city of Hue.