We stumbled off the train after a 12 hour trip down the Vietnam coast from Ninh Binh. The girls loved the sleeper car, although Sharleen found it not very restful.
We walked past the gaggle of taxi drivers to the Perfume River. Hue was the capital city of Vietnam under the Ngyuen dynasty from 1802-1945. More modern that Ninh Binh and less crowded than Hanoi, it provided an interesting change from the places we had been thus far.
A major attraction for this city was the Citadel a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Citadel, also know as the Purple City, was the home of the last dynasty of Vietnam. Unlike the Forbidden City in Beijing, it was far less crowded, open, and we were free to wander everywhere within the city. Clearly influenced by French Colonialism, many of structures within the city resembled 19th century French construction. The city was walled, surrounded with a moat, and fortified with cannons.
The pavilions, pathways, and buildings were marvelous, even in the heat. However some elements of this city really stood out. Documents. A huge amount of administrative documents were preserved. Minting, building, material, cultural requisitions and edicts by the Imperial Court were all documented, giving historians a unique view in the perspective of the court. Many of the documents, dated as late as 1920, were all in Han characters. Even though Vietnamese language was developing, they still used Chinese characters until recent history.
Another piece of history that stood out for our family was the disappearance of feudal times in Vietnam. We stopped and read about the last emperor of Vietnam Bao Dai. Coming to power in 1926, during French colonial rule, he was forced to abdicate his position in 1945. The placard said that he studied abroad in France and came back spending most of his time hunting and sporting. It was his responsibility to keep the empire together and he didn’t. The reality of geopolitical events had changed in the world. Walls and cannons were not enough, and with the close of the second world war in 1945 and the rise of communism in South East Asia, a new era loomed. Maybe Bao Dai was cognizant of this, may be not. But regardless, this Citidal provided a snapshot into a sea change era in world history.
Another interesting part of the Citadel was a craft center. They let people learn about Vietnamese tea, incense, and lantern making.
Chùa Thiên Mụ
We wanted to go to Phong Nga National Park or to Bach Ma National Park, but things happened and we didn’t. We were all a little disappointed, but we decided to make a day of it at the pagoda.
We contacted a dragon boat to take our crew up river to the Chua Thien Mu pagoda. It was five kilometers away, we could have walked it, but opted for the boat instead. The woman who sold us the trip had to hustle customers at a busy intersection by the bridge. We got on the boat and found this was a home for her husband and child. While her husband motored us up the river, the child played on the floor with some toy car. Five kilometers (3 miles) seems like nothing, but the boat ride lasted for quite some time allowing us to see life unfold on the riverbank. A man let his buffalo bath in the cool water, boys swam, people fished, other boats passed by. It was a pretty lazy waterway. Our engine conked out and our captain had put a hose in the bilge and suck on it to start the siphon to clear the bilge. Until he got the boat going again. Rugged.
We arrived at the pagoda and read some of the historical markers then came upon a surprise, an out-of-place blue Austin Weinmeister Sedan.
I couldn’t figure out why this was in a Buddhist temple until I read the caption: “In this car The Most Venerable Thich Quang Duc went from An Quang Pagoda to the intersection of Phn Dinh Phung street and Le Van Duyet street on June 11, 1963 in Saigon. As soon as he got out of the car, The Most Venerable sat down in the lotus position and burnt himself to death to protest against the Ngo Dinh Diem Regime’s policies of discriminating against Buddhists and violating religious freedom.” I knew the picture well, as I had it on a project I did once upon a time; however, I had always thought the monk was protesting the Vietnam war, and I was surprised to learn he was protesting the treatment of Buddhists in Vietnam.
Kylie and Alyssa couldn’t believe that he had burned himself: “What would that accomplish?” “People go to all sorts of lengths when they feel their voices are not heard and believe they are being mistreated. Look at the people who picked up a gun in our own revolution against England, or the Chinese that took up arms with Mao, or picked up a gun here in Vietnam. Look at all the people of color in the United States who have had their voices silenced, or women who are abused domestically and people don’t believe them. People are willing to go to all sorts of extremes to get their voices heard.” We walked around the pagoda a while more. The girls had some more questions about self immolation and we looked it up. They could not believe how many people did it in modern times: Over 2000 in India in 2000-2001, 148 in Tibet from 2009-2017, and many during the Arab Spring across the Middle East and Northern Africa. We read the monks last words penned in a letter:
“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerable, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism”.
The description from the AP reporter on the scene, David Halberstam:
“I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think… As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him”.
We learned through the internet that after burning, his remains were taken to be cremated. His heart did not burn even during the cremation process. His heart is held as a sacred relic (You can see an image of it on wikipedia click here)
Thich Quang Duc was a person of strong character with powerful convictions. It is rare to come across people such as him. I was grateful that that Alyssa and Kylie were able to learn about him through his actions.
Sharleen and girls were excited to be in Hue as it had a dish that they like: Bun Bo Hue. It is a meat noodle soup. They found several delicious eateries to feast at. They also had a delicious desert drink: hot tofu with gingered honey and ice. This was a dessert straight out of Sharleen’s childhood and she was happy as a clam to get some to share with us.