Communist Vietnam embraces royal past
By Grant McCool
HUE, Vietnam (Reuters) – Led by a pair of elephants, robed
men with red conical hats carry the king on a gilded,
silk-tasseled sedan chair.
The streets are lined by tens of thousands of excited
The procession is not in an Asian monarchy such as Thailand
or Japan, but at the Hue Festival of arts and culture in
Communist Party-ruled Vietnam, which less than a generation ago
shunned its feudal past.
This seemingly contradictory re-enactment of a royal ritual
in communist Vietnam is one highlight of the mid-June festival,
where officials are increasingly comfortable displaying the
country’s royal heritage to promote tourism and development.
“The Hue festival is unique in Vietnam because it is not a
political event, it is not a celebration of the state, of the
party or the revolution,” said Michael DiGregorio, arts and
culture expert with the U.S. philanthropic Ford Foundation that
has funded parts of the two-yearly event since it began in
The king, an actor from a traditional dance troupe, is
taken to a temple called Nam Giao or Temple of Heaven. There,
he pretends to perform sacrificial rights on a goat, a pig and
a buffalo and prays for good rains and his people’s prosperity.
His performance and those of other actors in the roles of
royal court officials are shown live on national television.
The central Vietnam city of Hue was the royal capital from 1802
during the Nguyen dynasty until 1945, when the royal family
abdicated to the communists.
The economy of the poor Southeast Asian country of 83
million is growing rapidly and tourism is booming as it enters
its third decade of market reforms. Vietnam has shed parts of
its centrally-planned economy and removed many barriers to
trade with the rest of the world.
“Most of the leadership understand that the real struggle
in Vietnam is not the political struggle but it is the struggle
to maintain one’s identity in globalization,” DiGregorio says.
“The cultural heritage of Vietnam is a way of reminding
people who they are while going through this social
About 150,000 people from 52 nations visited the June 3-11
festival and overall, 1.5 million attended, officials say. They
say the city has earned $23 million from tourism so far this
year, an increase of 31 percent from the same period last year.
Several countries sent dancers, musicians, painters and
sculptors and practitioners of installation art for
performances and exhibits in the city nestled alongside the
Organizers adapted the slogan “Cultural Heritage with
Integration and Development” to portray Vietnam as a place with
a contribution to make to the world, having survived isolation
and wars over much of the 20th century.
The city of 1.1 million people was declared a World
Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1993 to preserve its walled
Imperial City and other structures. Some were built by the
French, who colonized Vietnam for almost 100 years until 1954.
Part of the Imperial compound was bombed in 1968 during
fierce fighting for Hue by communist soldiers of North Vietnam
against troops of South Vietnam sided by the United States
Colin Long, a lecturer in Asian cultural history at Deakin
University in Melbourne, Australia, says the Hanoi government
has been careful not to destroy its biggest asset in the
“There is a belief in Hanoi that they are not just prepared
to live on the cultural heritage but also to push for other
forms of development,” says Long.
At this year’s festival, there are re-enactments of three
royal court ceremonies, including the seven-hour long Nam Giao
procession and ceremony in honor of the earth and heavens.
It starts at the Imperial City near the northern bank of
the Perfume River, crosses the Truong Tien bridge and winds
through city streets to the Temple of Heaven and back to the
Tens of thousands of people, including throngs of motorbike
riders, fill the streets in 35 degrees Celsius heat to see the
procession that is the tradition of the Nguyen royal family.
Several generations stand or sit by the roadside and
shaven-headed Buddhist monks emerge from their pagodas to
The procession of elephants, ponies and people is a moving
mass of yellows, reds and blues by the time it comes up the
hill leading to the temple.
For the old man who plays the role of a mandarin in the
ceremony, the occasion is thrilling.
“I feel very young now, it takes me back to my childhood,”
says 83-year-old Duong Thong, who is dressed in red and orange
mandarin’s robes for his part.
“This ceremony was stopped for a long time because of the
wars until 2004. Now, it’s really good for the people to
remember and to live with the old times that are our cultural
(Additional reporting by Nguyen Van Vinh)