A hundred years ago, court musicians entertained the emperors of Vietnam and their consorts in the magnificent royal theater in the Imperial City at Hue.
Today, the descendents of those musicians are playing the same music for guests during a novel dinner theater series recently inaugurated by La Residence Hotel & Spa in Hue.
“Though the imperial era in Vietnam ended with the abdication of Bao Dai in 1945, so many legacies of that time still sparkle as crown jewels in Vietnam’s heritage,” said Carmen Marienberg, general manager of La Residence Hotel & Spa. “This court music, or nha nhac as the Vietnamese know it, and the artful dance inspired by this music is among the brightest of those legacies.”
In 2003, UNESCO called out Vietnamese court music as a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Now, La Residence is recreating the atmosphere in which Vietnam’s emperors enjoyed this ‘elegant music’, as it is literally translated. Last month in the biggest event yet, more than two hundred guests took part in an evening of Vietnamese traditions that go back for centuries.
The night began at La Residence, where the guests donned traditional Vietnamese robes and hats - yellow for men, red for women. Then, something unusual even in Vietnam hove into view: a fleet of 200 cyclos, each peddled by a single driver. Once seated, guests were wheeled down the long hotel driveway, through the streets of Hue and into the gates of the Imperial City, where a 16-person royal band welcomed visitors with music.
The royal theatre itself is a large room, with an elevated stage at one end. A balcony runs around the top, the wood carved with traditional images. The ceiling is high and the room dark, and the overall effect is an imposing one. It’s easy to imagine royalty sitting here with their courts, regally awaiting entertainment.
Once inside and seated, the performance begins, each act accompanied by a classic Vietnamese dish. The elegant Hue cup dance starts the show, dancers clacking cups together in time with their movements. Two enormous dragons carry out the ritual dance usually performed at the lunar New Year and other auspicious occasions, which this time results in the unusual addition of a baby dragon who appears onstage unexpectedly. The dances are interspersed with musical performances, most notably some folk songs which have their origin in the most rural areas of Vietnam.
The sumptuous dinner sticks as closely as possible to traditional Vietnamese meals, right down to the chopsticks (nary a fork in sight). Appetizers of bo la lot (grilled beef wrapped in leaves) and banana flower salad are followed by hollowed pineapples stuck with spring rolls. Local seafood comes next, then chicken, beef or fish with rice. Dessert of che, a Vietnamese tapioca pudding, brings the meal to a satisfying and delicious end. On stage, a graceful lamp dance simultaneously ends the show; the dancers hold lanterns aloft, creating a pattern of light, and form a human pyramid for the grand finale.
“The Imperial City has always been a must-do for visitors to Hue,” said Marienberg. “But there’s no comparison between seeing it from behind a camera lens and actually sitting in the theater watching a performance in exactly the same way the Nguyen emperors did. What we’re doing sounds like a cliché, but it’s really true - making history come alive.”