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Why is “Mệ” a Huế character?

Huế culture and heritage is immense, mysterious and inviting for anyone to delve in. Getting to understand about Huế is not just sightseeing around the touristic monuments but should be an engaging immersion into the local life. Like the Parisian known for their romanticism, Huế people are famed for the distinctive character “Mệ”. “Mệ” is a personal pronoun to designate elderly women over 60 years old, or for the kids to address their grandmothers. Meanwhile, under Nguyễn Dynasty, Huế people also called descendants of Nguyễn Royal Family as “Mệ”, regardless of their gender. “Mệ” is a title, a privileged social class with royal source but also implicates a multi-faceted character: a mixture of generosity, elegance and discreetness, arrogance and conservatism. Let us tell you how Mệ was living and why “Mệ” has become Huế iconic character?

1931, Hue, Vietnam — A princess of Hue is fanned by her maids — Image by © W. Robert Moore/National Geographic Society/Corbis

Since the Forbidden Purple City was not large enough to house the expanding Nguyễn Royal Family, the Princes and Princesses over 18 years old were therefore granted a piece of land to build their private residences in the villages surrounding Huế. In 1846, Tùng Quốc Công Miên Thẩm, the 10th Prince of Emperor Minh Mang was the first to build a palace outside of the Citadel, nearby Lợi Nông (An Cựu River). He named his garden house Tiêu Viên (A garden for relaxation) to live with his mother. From then, many royal members, high ranking mandarins and aristocrats also built their palaces in the rural places, Thủy Biều, Kim Long, Dương Xuân… to indulge with the village landscape, absorbing in peace and relaxation. Not only the royal identities, the migration of this class were “exporting” the architecture, the habits and hobbies, the culture inside the Forbidden City to their new palaces. It was from these places that the royal and aristocratic lifestyle spread to commoners and then shaped Hue’s elegant way of life, known as “Mệ” character.

Behind the mossy closed gate and high wall, this class had a mysterious life. The Nguyễn was not a prosperous and powerful Dynasty hence in reality, these Princes and Princess (Mệ) were not granted for a sumptuous life. However, Mệ always wanted to showcase their high-class style over commoners, being generous but sometime arrogant. When going out of their premise, they wore elegant clothes, walked gently with the head held high or elegantly caught a rickshaw, and enjoyed a good meal. Occasionally, Mệ got a service for free, not because Mệ could not pay but he was so kind to give the commoner a honor to serve the Royalty good treats. Back to the house, Mệ closed the door gate to defend and keep the solemn of Royal but the aim is to avoid the eyes of folk that lower people can know their real life. A vegetable garden for cooking, some fruit trees for offering to the ancestor can help Mệ pass the difficult days without borrowing from their neighbors. When the Nguyễn Dynasty fell to decay, there was no allowance from the Court. Mệ had to sell some valuable properties in the palace to afford daily life or to support the children. Fortunately, todays some descendants have collected the items to recall the glory of the old days, many beautiful wooden architecture have been well maintained or renovated, the altar are well-kept, family traditions respected, the Garden still green with diverse plant…Those are Mệ’s legacy and the folk tales about Mệ are worthy to explore.

TCP Slow Travel Hue is the first to link some formerly palaces of Mệ, with interesting and diverse background, connect with their descendants to guide you through an inspiring journey BACK and journey WITHIN. Join us on our Slow Travel “Kim Long longevity secrets” in Kim Long village to learn more about Huế’s character. And don’t be surprised why these hosts seem modest but live in a privileged palace, garden-house, why they offer you such a generous meal with simply delicious dishes, why they are so proud to talk about their ancestors but a bit reserved to express how they earn their living… A day around the Garden-Houses of Huế is to unveil “Mệ” character and to understand and to love Huế more.

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