There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 2 April 2012

Hue (2), A Self-immolating Monk, an Impotent Emperor and an Imperial Dinner: Part 10 of Vietnam North to South

Back to Part 9
On to Part 11: Da Nang
Lynne tells me it was pouring with rain at 5 am but by the time we surfaced it may not have been the finest morning Hue has ever seen, but it did at least give grounds for optimism.

We set off at 9 with Vinh for a full morning’s sightseeing.

Once the Imperial City was established, the rich and powerful queued up to build their own houses nearby. A line of these ‘Garden Houses’ stretches along the road beside the Perfume River upstream from Gia Long’s capital.

The roadside entrance to An Hien is discreet. A tree lined path leads through a garden up to the house. In design it is not dissimilar to the more modest dwelling in Ta Van where we stayed with Tuonz and his family, but the setting and materials used are very different.

A tree lined path leads up from the road
An Hien, Hue
Both are single storey dwellings where the front can be almost entirely opened. In Tuonz’s house the rough wooden doors opened onto a concrete yard, at An Hien mahogany panels slide back to give a view of a water lily covered pond.

An Hien and its lily covered pool
Mahogany pillars and intricately carved and gilded mahogany panels (Tuonz favoured hardboard) surrounded the ancestor’s altar. Ancestor worship, Vinh said, binds all Vietnamese together, whether Buddhist, Daoist or Animist. Even the houses of Catholics, he claimed, would have an ancestor altar.

Carved Panel
An Hien
On the altar were photographs of deceased family members, and candles, flowers and fruit were laid out as offerings. To the side, a statue of Buddha stood on its own small altar. On the wall was a family tree, the Chinese characters written in gold-leaf.

Ancestor's Altar with the family tree in Chinese characters to the left
An Hien
On the left is a room with a table and chairs to welcome visitors. The house is still owned and occupied by the descendants of the courtier who built it, so our visit was limited to the public areas.

To the side and back is a beautifully tended garden with trees bearing jackfruit, fig, persimmon, coconut, durian, papaya, pomelo, lemon, banana and mangosteen. It was clearly laid out by a fruit lover, but there was no sign of yesterday’s mystery non-apple [Hue (1) at end of post].
Among the fruit trees, An Hien
A kilometre or so further up the road we came to the Thien Mu Pagoda, built in 1601 by the Nguyen lords when they were merely local governors, not emperors. In Vietnam ‘pagoda’ refers to the whole temple and monastery complex, not to a particular tower-like building. The Phuoc Duyen Tower, which corresponds more to our idea of a pagoda, was added in 1844 and has become the unofficial symbol of Hue.

Phuoc Duyen Tower
Thien Mu Pagoda

The complex is popular with western tourists and locals, but once we got away from the busloads of teenagers on school outings, we found it a quiet and peaceful place.

Novice Monk
Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue

One of the stranger exhibits is an aged Austin Westminster car. The monastery had a tradition of political activity dating back to colonial times. After the French left, South Vietnam was ruled by the autocratic Ngo Dinh Diem. President Ngo (family names come first in Vietnam), was a member of the Catholic minority (some 10% of the population), and set out to ensure that all positions of power were in Catholic hands. Angered by the persecution of Buddhists, Thích Quàng Đúc, the abbot of Thien Mu, drove to Saigon in this very Austin. On the 11th of June 1963, after notifying the foreign press that “something important” would happen, he drove to a major road intersection where he sat in the lotus position while another monk poured petrol over him. He then set himself alight.  Few journalists turned up – the “Buddhist crisis” was no longer news - but two who did were David Halberstam of the New York Times and photographer Malcolm Browne. Browne’s picture of the event was World Press Photo of the Year 1963. I will not reproduce it here, but it can be seen by clicking this link. Halberstam wrote “…as he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing of the people around him…”

Thich Quang Duc's Austin Westminster
Though I cannot applaud his action, no one can doubt Thích Quàng Đúc’s bravery and commitment. His protest was also effective as, under pressure from his American supporters, President Ngo quickly announced a series of reforms. He stalled on their introduction but was killed in November 1963 in the military coup which overthrew his government.

Over fifty Buddhist monks have burned themselves to death this year in protest at the Chinese treatment of Tibet. When the act becomes a commonplace - and there is no top class press photographer in attendance - the process becomes sadly and very painfully self-defeating.

Leaving the pagoda in a thoughtful mood, we crossed the road to the riverbank and embarked on a boat for a half hour trip upstream. The Perfume River is wide, slow moving and only 30 km long, being formed by the confluence of two streams flowing out of the Day Truong Son mountains. Orchids are swept downstream in autumn, and the waters smell of their perfume. Romantics may believe that, but the name more probably derives from the river being used to transport sandalwood from the interior to the markets of Hue. Today most of the river boats carry sand and gravel, dredged up from the river bed, for use in building. There is, as far as I know, no move to rename it the Concrete River.

Carrying gravel down the Perfume River
After a pleasant cruise, though the weather was still misty and fairly cool, we moored at a landing stage apparently in the middle of nowhere. Following a path through the forest for a few hundred metres brought us onto a road opposite the entrance to the mausoleum of Tu Duc.

Our boat leaves us in what appears to be the middle of nowhere
Tu Duc, the fourth of the Nguyen emperors, occupied the throne from 1847 to 1883. Although his was the dynasty’s longest reign, he was not a successful emperor and had the misfortune to rule at a time of irresistible pressure from the incoming French colonialists.

Like most of the Nguyen emperors, he built himself an impressive mausoleum between the river and the surrounding hills. Selecting an appropriate site was a task for the court astrologers, and once found it was adorned with artificial lakes, waterfalls and hills to create a garden setting. As well as being an eventual place of burial it served as rural retreat from the bustle of the imperial court.
The Vu Khiem Gate
Tu Duc's Mausoleum, Hue

Entering through the Vu Khiem gate gives an immediate view of the attractive Xung Khiem Pavilion beside the Luu Khiem Lake. Tu Duc preferred to sit here, drinking wine and writing poetry rather than wrestling with the affairs of state.  The word ‘Khiem’ which appears in the name of the gate, lake, pavilion, temple and royal residence means ‘modest’; its continuous use sounds like trying too hard. He lived in his mausoleum for the last sixteen years of his reign, but despite his preference for gentle pursuits there is evidence that he had a mean and vindictive streak.

Xung Khiem Pavilion
Mausoleum of Tu Duc, Hue

Tu Duc’s greatest problem was that despite having 104 wives and a small village of concubines he had no issue. It would seem a teenage bout of mumps (or smallpox - sources differ) was the root cause rather than lack of attention to his horizontal duties.

The grave of Tu Duc
One of the most important functions of an emperor is to produce an heir and his failure made him increasingly embittered. Every mausoleum contains a stele on which the king’s biography is recorded. It is traditionally written by his eldest son, but poor Tu Duc had to write his own. Perhaps significantly, his stele bears the longest obituary of all the Nguyen monarchs.

Tu Duc's stele-house

We drove back to Hue for lunch at the Mandarin Café, ‘a leading light in Hue’s backpacker business’, according to the Rough Guide. Mr Cu, the proprietor, fancies himself as a photographer and his pictures cover the walls. While waiting for your meal you are invited to look through his catalogue and purchases can be made. There are some striking images, but he is an enthusiastic amateur rather than a professional photographer. His food, though, was excellent. We had banh khoai pancakes again – it is compulsory in Hue – pork and beansprouts, spring rolls, sweet and sour crispy pork, gently steamed squid with a memorable ginger dipping sauce, cabbage and morning glory.

The Mandarin Café, Hue

Left to our own devices in the afternoon we walked back to the central part of the ‘European City’, passing Quoc Hoc High School on the way. Founded in 1896 to teach royal princes and future administrators how to be French, its most famous former students are Ho Chi Minh, who was expelled for political agitation, and Ngo Dinh Diem, the future president who so upset Thích Quàng Đúc.

Outside the school a young man on a scooter knocked a girl off her bicycle; fortunately most of the damage was to her dignity.

In the centre we watched a man using an electric sander to carve a Buddha from a tree stump. Despite his unwieldy instrument, the delicacy of the carving was remarkable.

Carving a Buddha with an elctric sander

The sun was now shining and the day had warmed up considerably, so it seemed reasonable to pause for a beer at the Octopussy Restaurant – not a good name, I thought, and almost certainly a copyright infringement.

A beer (and a coffee)
Octopussy Restaurant, Hue
Then I went in search of a T-shirt, but the largest size I could find was XXXXL, which I could not quite get over my head. Clothing in Vietnam is cheap and travellers are often advised to take very little and buy as they go, though sufficiently large sizes of shoes, women’s swimwear and brassieres are unlikely to be available. In my case this also applies, I discovered, to shirts and trousers, so I am glad we did not take that advice. My feet are a modest size 9½ (US 10, European 44) but my sandals certainly looked vast by local standards. Ironically, although they were bought in Stafford, they were made in Vietnam.

In the evening we were driven to another section of garden houses on the eastern edge of the citadel. Alighting in a narrow road lined with such houses we discovered that one is now a karaoke bar and we were treated to the sound of possibly the world’s worst karaoke singer – and yes, I know how stiff the competition is. Opposite is the Placid Garden Manor Restaurant (perhaps the name loses something in translation) which specialises in reproducing the cuisine of the imperial palace. Here we settled down for an evening of courtly elegance at one of the half dozen tables set out on the terrace of the old house. Fortunately, garden houses have long drives, so the cacophonous karaoke had faded mercifully into the distance.

The Placid Garden Manor Restaurant

The 8 course menu is worth recording

1)      Dance of the Phoenix. The food element was paté, the French influence even affected the imperial court.
Dance of the Phoenix
Placid Garden Manor Restaurant, Hue

2)      Pineapple Lantern. Assorted appetizers

3)      Surprise soup of Hue. A glutinous chicken soup.

4)      Spring roll in the form of a Peacock
Spring rolls in the form of a peacock
Placid Garden Manor Restaurant, Hue

5)      Steamed Prawns.
Steamed Prawns
Placid Garden Manor Restaurant, Hue

6)      Sweet and sour papaya in the form of a dragon
Sweet and Sour Papaya in the form of a Dragon
Placid Garden Manor Restaurant, Hue

7)      Fried rice in the form of a turtle
Fried Rice in the form of a Turtle
Placid Garden Manor Restaurant, Hue

8)      Fruit made from bean paste.

Fruits made from Bean Paste
Placid Garden Manor Restaurant, Hue

After many years as a French colony Vietnam, inevitably, produces some wine. The main vineyard area surrounds Dalat in the southern highlands and our bottle of Dalat red was pleasant if a little thin, the grapes being helped out with the addition of mulberries. I would not go out of my way to drink it again, but it provided a welcome change from beer.

It was a memorable evening, though the presentation of the dishes was perhaps more exciting than the food itself.
Back to Part 9
On to Part 11: Da Nang

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