Tuesday, April 3, 2012

If You Thought the Elephants Had It Bad ...

Right before we left, I was playing around with my best friend Google and happened across a new-to-me travel website. Looking at what it had listed for Hue, it mentioned something called Ho Quyen, the tiger fighting arena, as "probably the most interesting site in Hue, and it is too often overlooked by visitors." We obviously did not hear about this three years ago, or we would have so been there with the sons. We had plans to bike there each of the past two weekends but between my having a cold on the first of those and intermittent rain this past one, we never made it. Today, the husband rented a bike on his way back from the university and, after a lunch of fruit from Dong Ba Market, we set out. The arena is only a bit more than two miles from our hotel, but most of that is on a somewhat rural street with no shade to speak of meaning that it could make for a rather uncomfortable day. Biking was definitely the way to go.

A little background ... the Nguyen kings who ruled Vietnam had as a symbol of their monarchy, the elephant. Tigers symbolized rebellion. The kings initially staged annual battles between tigers and elephants on an island in the Perfume River. The emperor and his retinue watched from a boat. During one fight in the time of Emperor Minh Mang (who is perhaps more famous for his 142 children), the tiger bolted into the water and swam to the emperor's boat before being subdued. The emperor decided that a better fighting place was needed and ordered the construction of Ho Quyen in 1830. The last fight was held in 1904; the arena still stands today though you cannot get up to the tribune where the emperor and his party sat.

This may be the most interesting site in Hue, but all we had to go on were the directions on the travelfish site. Bike 2.5 kilometers down the street in front of the train station, Bui Thi Xuan, to Nguyen Tran Cong Chua on the left. Go past this street and look for an alley, Kiet 373, on the left. The arena is 200 meters down the alley. We actually found it with no problems other than dodging trucks and motorbikes on our pedal-your-own bikes. As we were parking and locking our bikes, a cute little boy about six ran up with a shoebox of bracelets and necklaces made of wooden beads. He showed me several and told me they were 30,000 VND (Vietnamese dong), which is a bit less than $1.50. Knowing what such bracelets are sold for back in the city center of Hue by people not nearly as polite and cute as this guy, I bought one, after which he disappeared and did not try to press his luck on a second sale, another thing setting him apart from many of the merchants here.

Another Western tourist type person had just left the arena with a motorbike driver, and he told us that the man in the uniform who had watched us lock our bikes and buy the bracelet would open the arena for us for 20,000 VND, or a bit less than $1.00. While the outside is impressive
the inside is even more so. This is what it looks like (my point-and-shoot digital has a neat panorama feature that stitches three shots together) from the gate through which the elephant would enter, beneath the royal viewing stand. This is looking from the gate directly across the arena, one of the five through which tigers would enter. The arena consists of two concentric brick walls; the inside diameter is 144 feet. The concentric walls made it easy to have "holding cells" for the tigers to be used in the fights. There are still what look like claw marks in the at least one of these cells. Whether these really are claw marks as suggested by travelfish is debatable since the truth of the fights is that they were rigged so that the imperial elephant would always win. The tigers were weakened through starvation or drugs and might have their claws and fangs removed or their mouths sewn shut. This is why the travelfish description ends by noting "gruesome, yes, but one of the most vivid object lessons in Vietnamese history available in Hue." As much as I felt sorry for the elephants currently housed in the Citadel in Hue, I felt even sorrier for the tigers in these fights.

After we exited the arena, the guard who opened it for us told us there was a temple down a side path. Since the bikes were locked up, we decided to take a look. The temple sits opposite a pond and has an entrance reminiscent of many of the other pagodas we've visited. Although it is basically deserted inside, someone maintains several small altars.
Someone also keeps the grounds looking neat. On the way back to our bicycles, we noted a rather colorful caterpillar and bought a small drum made from a large nut from a young man making them in his front yard. We biked back into town and treated ourselves to banana-coconut fruit shakes from our favorite cafe for such things, and pronounced it an afternoon well worth the effort and minor expense (about $12.00 total including bike rental, bracelet, drum, opening of the arena gate, fruit shakes, and spring rolls). The only down side is that biking makes it cumbersome to stop and take street photos. There was an old woman wearing the conical hat of Hue, crouched beside the road puffing away on a roll-your-own cigarette that would have made a priceless photo. Perhaps I should have borrowed the helmet camera younger son has for his motorcycle rides. Maybe next trip. I'm already thinking of an extended bike trip here in some future year. You can let me know if you want in on that action.

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