With all the architectural and design brilliance clearly on display all around us it continues to baffle me why old cultures made stairs so bloody steep. Surrounded by immense stone carvings, monoliths that reach to the sky and balustrades more akin to artwork in rock it seems that no one along the way thought to mention that the stairs are a nightmare to climb. It’s possible that the steepness is a test of perseverance but really it seems so much more likely that it’s just function over form, the search for height combined with conservation of space perhaps? Whatever the reason it’s these stairs we climb, stone carved dragons for handrails, too big to wrap our arms around flank the stairs to precede elaborate sweeping gabled roofs towering so high above us. In it’s day, this place would be a fearsome sight to a believer, a subject of those that live under those gabled roofs. For now this intimidating ascendance seems reason enough to overlook a design flaw even if nowadays the immensity and power of this place has faded along with jewels embedded in the eyes of the dragons. 

Charlie Winn

Statue of Khai Dinh on his throne, Khai Dinh tomb, Hué, Vietnam.

  Faded but not forgotten, the tomb of Khai Dinh is a place of subservient reverence no more, at least not to the extent it was intended to be. Now tourists domestic and foreign alike climb these intimidating steps with excitement in their hearts in place of solemn reverence to arrive at the first courtyard and the stone regiment standing guard. Life sized stone soldiers rank up alongside horses and elephants in perfect rows, any visitor arriving here must dare the no mans land of armed guards to ascend yet another steep incline to a place a little closer to the sky. What seemed as a design faux pas emerges from the fog with crystal clarity; I have no historical text to grant me certainty but my eyes confirm enough for me; these steps are penance for those who wish to also be a little closer to the sky in the tomb of a man that was a little closer to a god.

 Past a world of towering steps, soaring obelisks, sneering beasts and watchful guards snatched in an eternal moment we ascend. Leaving behind earthly stone for heavenly art a grand doorway into a suitably solid building shows us not so much a room or chambers but a tile mosaic blending European and Asiatic style greedily smothering every available space of wall and ceiling. In truth it’s a little like a royal wonderland, someone was stuck on the idea of making intimidating grandeur and didn’t know when to moderate the concept; so they didn’t. It’s gaudy and overdone but it achieves the desired result; design taste aside there’s no mistaking that we’re in a powerful place to revere a powerful man and we are anything but powerful, just lucky to be a little closer to the sky for a time.  

Charlie Winn

Steve waiting as I photograph Minh Mang’s burial grounds, near Hué, Vietnam.

  Today we’re seeing dead people, we’re off to another tomb which essentially means an intimidating arrangement of structures to inspire reverence and awe. On much larger grounds the tomb of Minh Mang is more show garden or expensive golf course than the single mindedly intimidation of Khai Dinh. Through pagodas all lined into a straight walk of grandeur we similarly pay our penance but this time it’s beauty and grace in place of stern foreboding. Where Khai Dinh has a life sized bronze statue cast in France atop his burial tomb Minh Mang’s promenade ends only in a wall three metres high and about 100m in a perfect circle atop a gentle rise. He’s buried in a small underground palace behind those walls entered only by a subterranean passageway that has now been sealed. I wonder if the representations of these respective tombs reflect the lives of the men inside?

 There’s only so many dead people we can see in one day, it’s back to Hue we go, or attempt to go. I’m not a violent man, I’m really not I promise. But every person has a breaking point and Greg is pretty close to guaranteeing me a successful defence of temporary insanity for the violence that’s about to happen. It’s back to the mechanic once again. Every second mechanic in Vietnam has had a go at this big sulking cow and no one has been able to make him moo, or has he just got that many issues to deal with? One problem gets solved, I’m not willing to say we’re in the clear anymore and with a whole lot less petrol channeling through the carburettor we’re purring again. But for how long? 

Charlie Winn

Boats heading south along the Perfume river, near Hué, Vietnam.

  After a day of dead people and a bike that’s intent on joining them in a sleep that doesn’t finish we’re at a cafe in Hue ready to venture officially into ‘the north’ tomorrow. Something’s not right here though, there’s proper chairs in place of the kids sized red plastic ones we’ve come to love as we get another Viet culture lesson. Right in front of us a shiny new car bumps a scooter parked a little too close to the kerb making it topple over, scraping a new scar in the otherwise pristine paintwork of the car. The scooters owner is on hand and the car driver gets out for the confrontation; the confrontation that isn’t. I’m blown away and awe struck, this accident that has damaged property and scratched a new car seems to be some sort of joke, it’s funny. Entirely unconcerned about any damage or costs they have a short friendly chat and leave on a laugh in place of my expected accusation and outrage. I’d love to say I have that arrangement of priorities but yet again on this trip I am left to imagine a state I’m unlikely to realise, in this lifetime anyway.