Category Archives: Southeast Asia

Silk – Thread of Empire

silk scarves from Laos © Marc d’Entremont
silk scarves from Laos © Marc d’Entremont

“With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.”  ancient Chinese proverb.

The allure of silk: its soft feel, its shimmer, its character to absorb vibrant colors, its legend of luxury, its power. No other fabric has caused the rise and fall of empires or led legions of adventurous merchants to risk life and fortune. For centuries the Silk Road linked the fabled kingdom’s of Asia with the Mediterranean and Western Europe. The expensive, arduous and dangerous journey fed into the mystique of an enigmatic Orient – a land of meditation and mass murder, tea and opium, the Buddha and Pol Pot.

Silk: (top left) Mulberry Trees, (bottom left) silk cacoons, (center) cacoons on bundles of sticks and (top right) circular basket, (bottom right) silk worms munching on Mulberry leaves
Silk: (top left) Mulberry Trees, (bottom left) silk cacoons, (center) cacoons on bundles of sticks and (top right) circular basket, (bottom right) silk worms munching on Mulberry leaves

Yet during 19th and 20th century domination by European empires over Asia’s economies, silk was overshadowed by more lucrative commodities – opium, tea, rubber. By the end of the Second World War, large scale manufacture of silk cloth in Southeast Asia had been reduced to a cottage industry, a victim of hard economic times, war and changing fashion – synthetics. It took an entrepreneurial visionary – a risk taker –  to revive Asian silk.

Jim Thompson

As an artist Jim Thompson was drawn to the rich colors and expressive designs of what was by the mid-1940’s a tiny cottage industry in the Muslim provinces of southern Thailand and northern Malaysian jungle villages.  These villagers were using centuries old silk worm farming techniques, natural dyes and ancient tools to produce stunning yards of intricately woven fabric – and selling them for a pittance.

Born into a Delaware clothing manufacturing family in 1906, educated at prestigious schools, a successful and well connected  architect and designer, Jim Thompson chucked it all after becoming disillusioned with life by the late 1930’s. Joining the army at the start of World War II, he was recruited into the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Sent to Thailand late in the war to infiltrate the Japanese occupation, he was assigned to head American intelligence in Bangkok. The war ended shortly after parachutting into the country, but Thompson liked Bangkok and made the decision to stay. That’s when he discovered the Muslim silk weavers.

(from Top left) silk worm, eating Mulberry leaves, mature cocoons boiling, (from bottom left) strand of silk fiber being pulled from cocoon, fresh silk thread

Jim Thompson cultivated personal relationships with the village weavers assuring them of markets for their cloth which did not yet exist. He encouraged the weavers not to give up the old methods and tweaked traditional designs for western clientele. (He later established a Muslim weaving quarter next to his compound across the canal. Today, wandering the Thompson House grounds, you can clearly hear the daily calls to prayer). Ensconced in Bangkok’s legendary Oriental Hotel, he effortlessly, it’s said, schmoozed with wealthy ex-patriots and visitors personally marketing Thai silk cloth. Within a few years his Thai Silk Company attracted the patronage of Vogue magazine and Irene Sharaff, fashion designer for the musical The King and I. By the early 1950’s Thai silk was an international rage, silk weaving was once again a vibrant home industry and Jim Thompson was dubbed the Silk King.

Muslim weavers quarter across the canal from the Thompson “House on the Klong”

Thompson became a celebrity in Bangkok and a confidant to the rich and famous. His parties at the unique compound he created in the city were frequent with an eclectic mix of the business and art worlds. Using his considerable skills in architecture and design, he melded together six antique teak wood houses brought from various areas of Thailand into a compound including his home, workshops and retail space. It doesn’t hurt that he filled the grounds with gardens, pools and priceless Oriental antiques.

Jim Thompson’s House on the Klong, Bangkok, Thailand
living room at House on the Klong
Jim Thompson silks and designer gowns

Although Thai Silk Company products are legendary today and available in elegant shops, Jim Thompson himself is simply a legend – or an enigma. In 1967 while visiting friends at their country house in northern Malaysia, Thompson went for a walk and within minutes had disappeared. No word was ever heard, his body never found. Speculation/conspiracy theories run rampant even today – a truck hit him and the driver took the body, a large animal ate him, he was still working for the CIA and was either eliminated by them or Communist guerillas (although he questioned the wisdom of the Vietnam war), or perhaps he simply wanted to chuck it all again and went native. Oddly, only 6-months later his wealthy sister was mysteriously murdered at her Pennsylvania estate – no robbery, no alarm, even her dogs didn’t bark.

natural dyes for silk thread

 

Lao Textiles, Vientiane, Laos

Carol Cassidy, on the other hand, is hearty, alive and well in Vientiane, Laos. When I met her for the first time a couple of months ago, she took me back to the workshop with a very worried expression saying she’d ruined a run of silk. Not the first words I expected from one of the world’s most renowned women in the art. She showed me this beautiful skein of shimmering teal silk. That was a mistake?? It just wasn’t the exact shade she wanted for the project, and considering silk is made by a worm, it’s not like she can run down to the local 7/11. Traditional arts for a contemporary clientele are long, serious work.

one-of-a-kind Carol Cassidy shawl

The scion of a prominent Connecticut family, Carol was the first American allowed to establish a business in post-1975 Laos, Lao Textiles, in 1990. This was after a career with a variety of NGO’s world-wide as a textile expert. Although she’s frequently compared to Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Co., their business model is the only similarity. Both use traditionally trained weavers, pay fair wages and build personal relationships with the craftspeople. Yet where Thai Silk’s designs are for a mainstream international market, Cassidy specializes in made-to-order art hangings and clothing utilizing traditional Lao patterns. This carries over to the very limited runs of products available in the atmospheric 19th century French Villa showroom/workshop. Most are one of a kind Carol Cassidy wearable art in Lao silk and a terrific memory of that beautiful country.

hand bag with silk balls, Phontong Handicraft Cooperative

Local non-profit organizations dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts exist in all Southeast Asian countries. In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative has been organizing village craftspeople and marketing their work since 1976.

Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, has a large vocational school complex for carving and graphic arts in town and a sizable silk farm and weaving operation just outside the city. The school particularly trains the disabled.

silk weaver at Artisans d’Angkor
monk and silk dresses

Whether it’s adventure, fortune, art or simply a way to make a living, silk has never ceased to fascinate:

“Upon them shall be garments of fine green silk and thick silk interwoven with gold, and they shall be adorned with bracelets of silver, and their Lord shall make them drink a pure drink.” ~the Quran 

“He who has little silver in his pouch must have the more silk on his tongue.”~ Edward Bulwer-Lytton   (1803 – 1873)

“Once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas it’s hard to get up early” ~ Eddie Arcaro (1916 – 1997)

“A good start…is to be a Buddhist.”

monks in Luang Prabang, Laos

That’s two-time Academy Award winning actor, Sir Michael Caine,* listening to a profound statement on the necessity of Western intellectuals to adopt an enlightened vision of the future…no. It’s the response on asking a resident of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) the best way to cross the street. From recent personal experience, this is a profound – some might say life affirming Q & A.”

Although far more people walk than in any American city I know – pedestrian friendly is an alien concept in Asian consciousness. Sidewalks do exist but, even if they are wide, nearly every square meter is occupied by vendors or motor bikes using the space as parking lots. Congestion on these sidewalks frequently made me use the street sharing the often narrow space with cars, trucks, motor bikes and other forms of public transportation in a devil-may-care free-for-all.

Hanoi, Vietnam

To cross the street a pedestrian simply crosses the street into the traffic which on the many 2-way streets or 3-street intersections comes from all directions. Although daunting at first, this is exactly what the on-coming traffic expects as it, usually, avoids both pedestrians and other vehicles with deft agility. The gentleman’s response to Michael Caine’s question was not flippant. It takes a sturdy centeredness gained through Buddhism, or tenacity, to calmly sense the correct timing and enter the traffic. The worst action a pedestrian can take is to get spooked and hesitate halfway across several lanes of traffic – that’s when the cars and motor bikes get spooked and accidents occur.

 
crossing street in Chaing Mai, Thailand and forms of public transportation

I knew none of this when I arrived in Bangkok. Six weeks later, leaving Saigon, perhaps I’d become a Buddhist as I simply spent no more than a ½-second contemplating my move across the street.

Hanoi, Old City, Vietnam

My wife, on the other hand, followed  Michael Caine’s plan of action, “We looked for groups of Buddhist, inserted ourselves into the very center of them and crossed when they did. If I was going to be mowed down, at least I’d be in the right company.” * Except Jill looked for any vendor pulling (yes, pulling) a cart – frequently old women – and, using them as a human shield, crossed when they did.

Was it fun at first?  No. Did I react negatively? Yes. I “threw the finger” at one SUV in Hanoi, after a particularly disappointing meal. He was shocked. After all, he was only going 35/mph 10 feet from me, but I lost my cool and failed to realize he’d never want to splatter me across the street – not as long as the Lord Buddha was watching over us all.

bus in Bangkok - less than $.05/ride

 

* The Elephant to Hollywood,” by Sir Michael Caine

Restaurant, Seafood, Hotel – Hoi An, Part III

River Lounge, Hoi An

For a tourist town, Hoi An has a surprising number of decent restaurants at some of the lowest prices outside the major cities. My first dinner in this city of 200 + year-old-buildings was at a hip new boutique hotel and café, River Lounge (35 Nguyen Phu Chu). The simple, modern white interior provides a nice foil for imaginative interpretations of traditional Vietnamese cuisine.

Take simple cream of pumpkin soup, found on so many menus, River Lounge serves a cream foam topped with the seasoned pumpkin puree in a swirl on top in a tall clear glass. The textures of hot puree mixing with cooler cream, as well as the visual, is a nice touch. The rest of the meal was equally satisfying.

An assortment of spring rolls, an entrée of grilled river fish with steamed morning glory greens and lime foam and fresh noodles and one of boneless chicken in a sesame/soy/ginger reduction accompanied by a block of rice and grilled mango. Dessert was a perfectly executed creme caramel topped with a crunchy ginger sugar glaze.

Cafe Can

Cafe Can(74 Bach Dang St.) is one of many Hoi An river front restaurants that all basically offer the same menu. Cafe Can caught my eye for both its pleasing outdoor dining and its large wood charcoal grill off to the side with fresh fish and seafood for dinner. In simple large pots of aerated water are freshly caught giant prawns, crabs and clams.

Sold by weight, they are best grilled napped with a variety of herb/garlic/ginger/soy sauces. The meal was accompanied by a large platter of steamed vegetables and mushrooms, with a large local beer.

A variety of other preparations, from fish baked in banana leaves to fried as well as non-fish dishes are available. Being open to the street directly across from the river, don’t be surprised when more than one street vendor wander in selling bracelets, the English language Vietnam Times, dried fruit and homemade candies. It’s all part of Vietnam.

(top left) Cafe Can, (top right & bottom) Dem Hoi Bar & Restaurant

Dem Hoi Bar & Restaurant, just down the block from Cafe Can, has the advantage of a beautiful French colonial building with a large open second floor that offers stunning views of the river and Hoi An harbor. The menu is decent – nothing surprising but well prepared.

Hoi An Market – sleeping on the job… or next in line?

Over on the French Quarter are several cafes that serve, if lucky and they are available at the market, Vietnamese delicacies such as pig’s brain and eel. The brain was unavailable but the eel was nicely fried in a light batter – tasted a lot like trout (see, not chicken!) The Hoi An Market is classic offering everything from hot soup to wonderful French crepes topped with coconut ice cream (top right).

Windbell Homestay Hotel

When it comes to hotels there is a large selection of accommodations with many moderately priced first class venues. The newest choices are on the expanding residential island of Cam Nan, a 10 minute walk across the bridge from the Old City. Cam Nan Island is quiet with a pleasant mixture of old wooden houses with vegetable plots to the larger homes of new middle class residents.

Windbell Homestay Villa has an established  reputation for comfort, service and a good restaurant. Set around a central garden and beautiful blue tiled swimming pool, this family run hotel offers spacious rooms with lots of windows that open onto nice private vistas letting in the sea breeze. Including a full breakfast, strong Wi-Fi, double rooms average in the low US$100s.

Windbell Homestay Hotel Restaurant

Serving all meals, the Windbell Homestay is one of the rare small hotels with a full service restaurant with everything freshly made to order. A Hoi An specialty, White Rose, (bottom left) is a delicate dumpling filled with savory mixtures which the Windbell does particularly nice as well as spicy shrimp, Beef Pho (upper left) and a great herb calamari sauté on mint and watercress (upper right). Add a bottle of white or red from Vietnam’s largest winery, Vang Dalat  and you’ll enjoy a pleasant meal overlooking the lit gardens and pool. (Vang Dalat will not win any awards soon).

Hoi An Folk Art Museum (center) Ba Trao singers, (top right) tea garden, bottom right) Unicorn Dance

The Hoi An Folk Art Museum is well worth a visit. It has a fine display of traditional tools, everyday life items, artistic and musical traditions, the important silk weaving industry and some contemporary art. The large 18th century structure is a treasure in itself.

Hoi An is one of those rare villages tourism has revived that, as of yet, has not been destroyed by its success. Perhaps it’s the strong merchant background of old Hoi An – sails and a port still equals sales. It doesn’t hurt having a strong preservation ethic among the town leaders. New construction in the Old City was following strict building codes using the same materials and methods of construction as 200 years ago. That commitment bodes well that even though it will remain a tourist town, Hoi An’s real, still going about its business and beautiful.

Save

Festivals, Seafood and Song – Hoi An, Part II

 
 
 
kids sharing our umbrella at the Opening Ceremony

I’ll start with song. We just happened to arrive on the opening day of the First Vietnam International Choir Festival and Competition Hoi An. Unfortunately, the Opening Ceremony was an open air event and it rained, light but steady, although that did not damper the mood or the pride of the young people from thirteen European and Asian nations participating in the two day event. The opening artistic event was a 10 minute ballet based on traditional Vietnamese themes performed by dancers from companies founded by Imperial patronage centuries in the past.

The Competition just so happened to coincide with the monthly Full Moon Festival. Each weekend of the full moon the Old City is closed to traffic Friday and Saturday evenings from 6:00 pm and all but emergency lighting is extinguished, until 9:00PM. Candles and oil lanterns light the streets, temples, Assembly Halls, shops, restaurants and ancient houses. Musicians of ancient music, artisans and poets perform at various locations. At this particular March festival, the choirs were performing as well.

 It’s hard to know if the Full Moon Festival, held monthly on the Friday and Saturday evenings closest to the full moon, has a basis in ancient culture but it sure makes for two nice atmospheric evenings in an already charming Old Town. The absence of electronic music, most electric lights, the sound of motor bikes and horns and their replacement by darkness, the glow of fire light, human voices and acoustic music does set a unique mood. No one is going to be fooled that the T-shirt shop is medieval, but the 18th century tea house, open to the street, that’s hosting a poetry reading in Vietnamese is real. On the Thu Bon River, hundreds of colorful paper lanterns with votive candles are available for less than US$.50 each. Making a wish and setting a lantern to float down the river will speed your prayer to heaven.

      

Hội An: Silks and Spices and Silt – all gold

“It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.”                    Confucius  (551-479 BCE)

Dragon in the Thu Bon River, Hoi An

The estuary of the Thu Bon River is a watery maze of emerald green islands opening within a mile onto the South China Sea. For over one thousand years its villages prospered as major ports feeding the Champa Kingdom with trade, especially from China and Japan, superb fish and seafood. The decline of Champa gave rise to Vietnam’s influence, continued China/Japan trade and, by the 15th century, new Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish trading houses. The village of Hội An was a hot item on the South China seacoast.

18th century Hoi An in the 21st century

As prosperity increased both population and agricultural production and given the fickle nature of alluvial rivers, the Thu Bon River began to fill with silt making navigation by ocean-going vessels difficult. By the early 19th century the port of Da Nang was replacing Hội An as the area’s major international trade center. The town slowly sank into obscurity sustained by the accumulated wealth of old merchant families and its abundant seafood and agricultural products. Its old 18 and 19th century cypress and ironwood buildings remained intact impervious to the river’s floods and their owners inability to modernize. More remarkable was that during the wars of the 20th century while Da Nang was in the middle as the site of both a major port and airport, Hội An a mere 10 miles south, was hidden among the reed covered islands of the Thu Bon estuary.

(top left) Hoi An market (top center) hand pump for benzene - motor bike fuel, (top right) fishermen with net traps (bottom left) Pho noodle soup vendor (bottom center) junk food delivery, cyclo drivers in line, restaurant kitchen (bottom right) shoe stalls
21st century merchant house in historic Hoi An

The silting of the river that threw Hoi An into a time warp allowed it to emerge after 1975 as the most intact pre-19th century village in Vietnam. In 1999, the Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the 15th to 19th centuries.  Some decry the “preserved-for-tourist” nature of the Old Town with its rows of shops and cafes in the old buildings. Yet the reality remains that Hoi An is today what made it famous centuries ago – a busy merchant town. With a population of 120,000, it’s once more a prosperous port but now the goods don’t sail out on ships, they’re packed in tourist suitcases.

Tan Ky House, 18th & 19th century merchant house, currently in the 7th generation of the family

 Tan Ky House (101 Nguyen Thai Hoc St.) is one of several privately owned house museums in Hoi An that are prime examples of how these entrepreneurial families lived. Two stories tall, the street front of the house was always for business. The solid walls on either side of the door in the collage above are actually wood panels that can be removed to open the shop. The staircase to the left is to the second floor storeroom. The homes living quarters begin directly behind the shop surrounding two to three courtyards. The first sitting room contains the altar to the ancestors and, in Tan Ky, an elevated altar to Confucius. The detailed and elaborate interior woodwork as well as the 19th century mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture attests to the family’s prosperity. Tan Ky was particularly well situated running the full depth of the street with a direct opening to the waterfront in back.

The Tran Family Temple

Hoi An has a number of endowed “family temples,” a common method for wealthy Vietnamese families to broadcast their status and provide for the perpetual and public honoring of their ancestors. Many of these “chapels” are actually large temple/monastery complexes. One of the oldest, largest and most beautiful in Hoi An is the Tran Family Temple still sponsored by the family in its 15th generation.

Cam Pho Temple and the Cantonese Assembly Hall
Thien Hau, Goddess of the Sea & Protector of Sailors at Fukien Assembly Hall

A “guild system” among Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian merchants both regulated and governed trade as well as provided support groups. The Chinese in particular constructed several Assembly Halls which served as Confucian temples, hostels and a social gathering place for these ex-pat sailors. Japanese merchants constructed a Hoi An icon – the Japanese Bridge in the 16th century. More than just a bridge, it contains a small temple dedicated to the protection of sailors. The Assembly Halls are still active temples and social halls.

Japanese Covered Bridge, 16th century

 Although Hoi An was already in decline when the French put the Vietnamese Empire under its “protection,” French merchants and ex-pats found the charms of Hoi An sufficient to create a French Quarter just outside the old medieval town. The graceful tropical colonial architecture and tree lined streets with attractive shops and cafes make is a less hectic stroll than the Old City.

Hoi Ans French Quarter, late 19th early 20th century
barrier closing street to traffic

Hoi An is Vietnam, it is a tourist town, the streets are narrow, motor bikes and cyclos are everywhere, selling is in their blood so be prepared for constant pitches every step for everything from ice cream, postcards, chickens, paintings, street foods and, especially, silks – high quality made-to-order clothing and shoes take 1-1/2 days minimum with a reputable store. It’s a cornucopia of colors, smells and sounds. At least once a day for several hours, and during festivals, the cobbled stone streets of the Old City are closed to all motorized traffic. The absence of at least that noise certainly adds to the town’s charm. There is an admission price to most of the merchant houses, assembly halls and museums. A strip of tickets is purchased at one of several tourist offices in the Old City at a price of less that US$1.00 per venue.

Hoi An is a beautiful and relaxing town, especially surprising given its tourist nature. Within less than one mile are empty pristine white sand beaches. Surrounding the village are emerald green rice fields and vegetable farms. There are additional tourist “villages” for farming, sculpture and fishing but these are virtual recreations of life in the past and generally are excuses for more shopping. The land is flat and ideal for renting bikes. Mountains are in the distance and the fishing fleet actually fishes, it doesn’t just give tourists rides. Quiet hotels and a growing local middle class have spread out onto adjacent islands. Both residents and the town government keep the village clean, something not common in most of Vietnam. If satisfaction can be judged by the large numbers of foreign visitors, Hoi An has patiently, as Confucius advised, turned its silted river into tourist gold.

fishing boat – the eyes as so the ship can see the fish

 next: Hoi An Part II – festivals, seafood and song

Beach Anyone? An Undiscovered Vietnam

the beach at Lang Co, 40 miles (65 km) south of Hue

Vietnam:  jungles, mountains, green and 1,956 miles (3260 km) of  coastline (not counting islands)  much of it pristine, undiscovered, wide, white sand beach. “Undiscovered” by a beach-hungry Western tourist world but for how long?

The 65 mile (110 km) trip from Hue to Hoi An is a beautiful coastal drive past fishing villages, wet lands and rice paddies with the road winding through the hills of the Truong Son Mountains. The postcard fishing village of Lang Co is situated between the Pacific and a perfect crescent lagoon dotted with boats. Tourism investment money is starting to develop the beach towns, but it will, hopefully, be some time before they’re condo canyons.

We were on our way from Hue to the UNESCO Heritage village of Hoi An, some 10 miles south of Da Nang. From Hue the passenger train line from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) hugs the same coast as the coastal highway, a 4 hour trip to Da Nang. From Da Nang you catch a taxi to make the 30-45 minute drive to Hoi An (cost $28 – $45/double train and taxi). As beautiful as the rail trip would be, I chose to arrange for a car and driver to make the trip to Hoi An with the option of stops on the way. For US$60/double this was a terrific day trip as well as transportation to our next destination.  

Lang Co lagoon

I would have enjoyed wandering around the village of Lang Co, but on this day it was primarily a lunch stop. The Thanh Tam Seaside Resort is nicely designed. The main reception building contained a spacious restaurant decked over a sloping hill and opening onto a sweeping view of the Pacific at palm tree-top level. The palm trees create a large shaded sitting area at beach level. The rooms for the hotel were in separate beach front buildings. I did not see the rooms but TripAdvisor reviews are not kind. Of course there was a large store selling jewelry and clothing. There was no competition on either side of the resort for the peace of an enormous stretch of sand with beautiful views of the mountains.

even monks need a little R & R: Thanh Tam Seaside Resort

 For a tourist resort, the restaurant was surprisingly good. Specializing in seafood, there was a fine selection of grilled clams and oysters topped with a variety of savory sauces. Spring rolls were delicate and lightly fried. Prices were at the high end for Vietnam meaning that lunch or dinner for two will average US$25/30. (Our light lunch with espresso was $18/two). 

Thanh Tam Seaside Resort

  The Hai Van Pass is the reason for making the overland trip by car – or if intrepid, by bicycle. The train dramatically hugs the coast around this finger of the Truong Son Mountains that literally juts into the Pacific Ocean creating a 1500 foot (497 m) barrier geographically dividing the country north and south. By car Highway 1 switchbacks up lush mountainsides, brushing clouds, opening vistas of the blue ocean set against the intense green of farm fields. This mountain barrier creates the moist microclimate that makes Hue and the Perfume River delta a unique ecosystem.

Hai Van Pass with 200 years of military installations (top right) Lang Co lagoon (bottom right) Da Nang Bay

 For over 1,000 years, Hai Van Pass (Pass of the Ocean Clouds) was the boundary between the Kingdoms of Vietnam and Champa. Even after the final conquest of Champa by Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty in the early 19th century, the Pass was deemed a strategic position through the Vietnam War. Pill boxes are next to a 19th century watch tower. Today the site’s a rather windy, shabby remnant of a violent past. One side of the road is lined with the ubiquitous tourist stalls selling the same trinkets, water, soda, cigarettes, scarves, postcards etc that you’ve seen so many times already. Your car literally will be surrounded by well meaning and persistent sales women. I admire their persistence, even while regretting that I do not need what’s for sale, because it’s certainly a peaceful pursuit after this site’s violent past millennium.

Museum of Champa Art Da Nang

  Having traveled to both Cambodia and northern Vietnam, I could see and understand the distinct break in artistic traditions between the Chinese Confucian influenced north Vietnam and the Hindu/Buddhist/Khmer Champa Kingdom of the south – there is a cultural divide. Da Nang’s Bao Tang Dieu Khac Champa Da Nang (Museum of Champa Art) is both a gem and the world’s largest repository of the exquisite sculpture of this civilization.

Da Nang Sports Complex

The rapidly sprawling rather charmless city of Da Nang looks like a new settlement. If there was a historic core or a building prior to 1975 it’s well hidden. Being both a major port and air base during the Vietnam War did make it a prime target for severe damage. With modern Vietnam’s penchant for getting on with the future there’s little to no evidence of that past war. Yet Da Nang’s future fame will result in the development of its miles of stunning beaches. Australian money has already begun to pour in starting major golf/hotel/condo resorts. Iconic China Beach is highly desirable real estate. Da Nang’s airport is undergoing major expansion. I know it would be politically correct to decry this future loss of pristine nature, but also patronizing. This is an ancient land. It changes.

In Rediscovery: Huế, Việt Nam

(top) River park, Dragon boats for hire, (bottom) Imperial City Citadel, house boat on the Perfume River
laughing Buddha at Thien Mu Pagoda

There has been a river port on the Perfume, just a few miles inland of the Pacific, at least since the early 14th century. The unpredictable river has intertwined for 650 years with Nguyen dynastic intrigue to inexorably shape the modern city. Hue exudes a less frenetic pace than Hanoi – although the cyclo and tourist boat drivers are just as “persistent.” It’s a city with an attitude: “I’ve seen it all before, several times, so let’s move on.” Besides, the river moves on regardless fertilizing the farms, and frequently cresting its banks creating destructive floods even the Imperial City cannot defend against.

 
 
Before the Vietnam War’s 1968 Battle of Hue severely damaged the city, graceful French Colonial villas blended with ancient Confucian/Buddhist architecture. Much of that is gone, replaced by functional late 20th century commercial whatever. A loss? Of course, but, of course, before the French  it was all Confucian/Buddhist, and yet there was that earlier Champa period and …
keeping one foot in each of three centuries

 

within the Imperial City

A four day visit is not sufficient to prove, but I have a hunch that Hue has not rediscovered its role in 21st century Vietnam – and I’m not sure they’re all that concerned. In the old commercial city on the south bank of the Perfume, Hue is still a maze of narrow streets but with few pre-1970 buildings. Many charmless new narrow 5 to 6 story hotels and condos are classically jumbled along with cafes, shoe shops, clothing stores, spas and the postcard vendor. Only a few shops noticeably cater just to tourists. Perhaps that’s because most sites for visitors are outside the city or on the north bank, such as The Imperial City.

Han Chen Temple (current temple 1885) - 5 miles north of Hue on the Perfume River - dedicated in the 8th century to Cham goddess Po Nagar
Thien Mu Pagoda

Nearly equidistance between Hanoi and Saigon, Hue has been a meeting ground of the nation’s great cultural institutions. Confucian and Chinese Buddhist Vietnam in the north blended with Khmer/Champa Buddhism from the south and both have dealt with the French legacy of Roman Catholicism. Yet even under the Confucian Court of the Nguyen emperors, and the Socialist Republic, Hue’s mascot has been the 1602 Buddhist Thien Mu Pagoda. As in all Vietnamese cities, both Confucian and Buddhist temples built through family patronage, to publicly honor ancestors, can be found tucked away on many streets.

Roman Catholic Cathedral, shrine to the Virgin Mary
fresh coconuts full of cold cocnut milk - make a hole in the peeled top, insert a straw and enjoy!!

It is convenient to walk along the landscaped river park on both banks of the Perfume River and cross either one of two bridges that connect the Imperial City with downtown. “Convenient” as long as being comfortable with the traffic, the lack of crossing lights, stop signs and constantly being asked if you want to ride a cyclo or buy something. Otherwise, metered taxis are common and inexpensive – a couple of dollars between the Imperial City and any downtown hotel. Excursions to the Imperial Tombs and boat trips on the Perfume River – both highly recommended – should be made through your hotel (more likely to get a better boat at a fair price). I prefer the freedom of not traveling with groups. A private car and driver for a four hour excursion to some of the more remote tombs was US$30. A private dragon boat for a 7 hour trip on the Perfume River stopping at tombs, monasteries and a Garden House was US$20. Rates are less if you join a group.

local "pets:" (left) water buffalo, wooden horse at Han Chen Temple, a temple dog, (bottom) shrine to honor horses, bull elephant at the Imperial City
courtyard Hotel Morin Saigon

 

Hue has several luxury hotels including the newly restored venerable Hotel Morin Saigon (1904) starting at $100/double. Although featuring the comforts of a 5-star hotel with an attractive pool/garden/cafe courtyard, it possess all the sterility that goes along with such venues. There are many excellent small hotels offering much better service than their 3-stars would indicate. Although at a rate that would make most Western tourists think twice, the US$35/double per night including buffet breakfast Orchid Hotel on Chu Van An Street in the Old City was not only the best hotel at that price in which I have ever been a guest, but a fine hotel by any standard.

Orchid Hotel and breakfast

Clean, modern with a staff that would never even let you push the elevator button, the Orchid’s rooms were large providing ample closets, a spacious bathroom and a desk with a high-speed desktop computer included in each room! Hue traditionally is known for its Imperial Cuisine which, unfortunately, I found in few restaurants. The Orchid only serves breakfast offering an excellent selection of  items typical of Hue – chicken balls rolled in flaked green rice, fried rolls stuffed with vegetable/meat mixtures, banana pastry with caramel sauce and an incomparable Beef Pho, the Vietnamese breakfast noodle soup. A large selection of fresh fruit – including tropical varieties such as whole passion fruit –  baguettes and Western dishes rounded out the buffet.

Am Phu Restaurant

Many decent restaurants are found in the Old City all within easy walking distance of most hotels.  Confetti Restaurant & Art Gallery and the Tropical Garden, both on Chu Van An Street, offer well prepared standard Vietnamese food in pleasant surroundings just like the majority of the area’s venues that are patronized by tourists. Yet there are lots of small places filled only with locals with menus not written in English, but, I’ll be blunt, the sanitation methods I can see frequently make me dubious. Getting a recommendation from your hotel for local restaurants is a must or else I’d never have eaten dinner at Am Phu Restaurant a bit further down Chu Van An Street.  A calamari dish with greens, peppers and cilantro and light, moist coconut batter fried shrimp were as fine as in any dining room except I was sitting on a plastic chair under fluorescent lights with a TV soap opera playing. Dinner for 2 with beer was less than US$10.

street shoe repair man

 

Pastry, towel art  and Swan boats on the Perfume River, shade trees and gardens, ancient tombs and palaces, markets and street merchants, mountains and house boats – they were all here 500 years ago and, despite the history Hue’s helped shaped, they’re still here today waiting to be rediscovered.

who does not like swans?

Serenity, Violence and the Heavenly Lady: Hue, Vietnam

 

Phuoc Dien Tower & the Perfume River
the bonsai garden at Thien Mu Pagoda

The boat’s noisy motor is in sharp contrast to the serenity of the Perfume River as we glide toward the landing dock of Hue’s most important tourist attraction. Fortunately on this afternoon in March, there are no large crowds to mar the tranquility of arguably Vietnam’s most beautiful Buddhist temple complex. Construction commenced on Thien Mu Pagoda (“Heavenly Lady Pagoda”) in 1601 on Ha Khe hill, on the north bank of the Perfume River, the site selection being determined by a holy lady’s spiritual visions. She couldn’t have chosen a more serene site. High above the river, surrounded by a graceful pine forest, the Pagoda complex of temples set within green gardens captures the river breeze cooling Hue’s otherwise muggy afternoon.

2 of the 6 guardian warriors at the gates of Phuoc Dien Tower

The number “seven,” as in Seven Stages of Enlightenment, plays a significant role in the temple’s design concept. From the river the complex is constructed on seven slightly rising tiers. The dominant octagonal Phuoc Dien Tower (1864) in the front of the complex rises in seven levels with seven statues each a different representation of the Buddha. It is guarded by six warriors on either side of the three entrance gates – ok, that breaks the pattern, but…

Dai Hung shrine, Stela (1715) on marble turtles recounting Buddhist history and thought

On the next level is the elegant Dai Hung shrine with a rotund brass laughing Buddha brilliantly set off by the dark wood and deep reds of the building. Through side windows I had an unprecedented view of monk’s quarters within a temple.

Dai Hung shrine with laughing Buddha

Thien Mu Pagoda is Vietnam’s oldest monastery, and a visitor should be mindful that they are enjoying the grounds where dozens of monks and novitiates are in work, study or prayer.

A small open building on one side of the complex always has a crowd of people. It contains a sacred relic from Vietnam Buddhism’s more recent past – a circa 1950’s Austin motorcar. It was the car driven by Thích Quảng Đức to the Saigon intersection where, in June 1963, he set himself on fire in protest to the anti-Buddhist dictatorial regime in South Vietnam hastening its downfall. Thích Quảng Đức was originally a monk from Thein Mu Pagoda and, partly due to the fact that his heart didn’t burn, he is venerated today as a bodhisattva.

the Austin of the Venerable Thích Quảng Đức

Violence and serenity – an unholy glue – well known in a land several millenniums old. Next to the Venerable Thích Quảng Đức’s rusting Austin the path to the Pagoda exit is through an exquisite simple Peace Garden.

Perfume River After Life – the Nguyen Tombs

Monk in contemplation at the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc

Here’s the project – and money’s no object: build a place away from work and home where you can just get away from it all, surround yourself with your friends, do what makes you happy and stay there forever. If you were a Nguyen emperor of Vietnam you did exactly that and included artificial lakes, islands, palaces, temples, gardens, courtyards, and, of course, your tomb and that of your wives. They were simply following a long tradition of emperor worship both to solidify the continuity of the dynasty and take their place as an ancestor of the nation. The Nguyen emperors certainly did it in style constructing virtual country estates to pass relaxing hours painting, eating and escaping the pressures of State both in this life and for the afterlife.

Dai Hong Mon temple at Emperor Minh Mang Tomb

Minh Mang (1791-1841) and his grandson, Tu Duc (1829-1883),  2nd and 4th Nguyen emperors, created lush forested landscapes with paths, streams and lakes. It easy to feel comfortable here for eternity.

Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang - constructed 1841 - 43

 

the Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc - constructed 1864-67

Tu Duc spent many quiet hours in the Xung Khiem Pavillion (upper right, 1865) looking out on the lake and at the boat landing to the temple (bottom left) playing music and writing poetry. He was a prolific poet. The grounds contain a lovely tomb to his first wife, Empress Le Thien Anh, and burial spaces for many of his additional 103 wives.

(upper left) incense sticks for sale, (lower left) Mandarins to serve the Emperor in the afterlife, (lower right) protective Naga on the stairs to the burial chamber at Tu Duc

Khai Dinh (1885-1925) 12th. Nguyen Emperor, was less than 5 feet tall, slightly built and unpopular because of his Francophile leanings. In the 1924 play, The Bamboo Dragonby a young revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, Khai Dinh was ridiculed for being all pomp and no substance, but he did knew how to impress.

The Emperor Khai Dinh's burial chamber: life size statue with jade sceptre

  Rather than spread out over a park-like setting, the compact tomb complex is built on top of a forested  hill surrounded by steep hills overlooking the Perfume River. The design elements are a fusion of traditional Vietnamese features with late 19th century French baroque. The exterior has a somber countanence because the palace was constructed in concrete made with the Perfume River’s volcanic gray sand so has leached a gray/black discoloration.

ancestor altar and exterior: Tomb of Khai Dinh
Emperor Khải Định (1885 - 1925)

Yet the interior is an explosion of gold, blues, reds, fuchsia, pinks, greens – all tile and glass mosaics covering every nook and cranny of the walls and ceilings. Dragons, birds, flowers, tables, vases, trees all are depicted in excruciating and fanciful detail, many in 3-dimensional compositions. The craftsmanship is unparallel for mosaic art glass. The Emperor reigned for only 9 years but it took 12 to build his tomb – 1920-1932. Khai Dinh died as he lived, over budget. A special tax had to be levied for the tomb’s completion.

details of the 3-D glass mosaics at Khai Dinh Tomb

The opulent tomb of Khai Dinh is the last in Vietnam’s Imperial history. His son, the Emperor Bao Dai (1913-1997) abdicated the throne in 1946 and died in exile in France. Perhaps it’s karma that the last tomb should be that of an unpopular monarch since the dynasty started out on that footing.

Emperor Gia Long

The first Nguyan Emperor, Gia Long (1762-1820) was fearless, feared and unpopular. He forced Vietnam’s feuding lords to bow to his unified empire, moved the capital from Hanoi to Hue, built the Imperial City and raised taxes to pay for it all. Worse, he gave France its first foothold in Indochina, a circumstance of war he later regretted but the nation never forgave. As the founder of an empire, Gia Long knew exactly the importance symbols were for dynastic continuity represented by the worship of Imperial ancestors – the fathers of the nation. His tomb set the pattern – constructing small versions of the Imperial City for the eternal pleasure of the souls of the nation.

Tomb of Gia Long

Ironically, his tomb is the furthest south of the city and even the taxi driver had to ask several times for directions. Stopping on a dusty street outside the dilapidated walls of a small old temple, I’m told to go through a creaking wooden gate. Walking across an empty dusty yard through another gate down a path alongside a farm plot I spy the virtual ruins of the great Emperor’s final resting place. It’s overgrown with weeds and the dogs are barking from the adjoining farm. I feel a pang of melancholy as I look out on the overgrown field and feel sorry that I didn’t visit the Tomb of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi (although cremation, not mummification, was Ho’s last wish). Gia Long struggled against major odds, seeing most of his immediate family killed as a boy, before creating an empire he ruled till his death. Not much different than Ho Chi Minh. Yet even if Gia Long’s tomb is in disrepair, his ancestors, his descendents – and now those of Ho Chi Minh – are all part of Vietnam’s collective soul.

Perfume River Life: Hue, Vietnam

If it wasn’t for the palm trees I could imagine Huck Finn fishing the Mississippi on a lazy summer day, but this is a hazy March day on the Perfume River. Like Huck, the fishing isn’t just for fun, it’s dinner.

Perfume River just a few miles west of Hue

 Like so many rivers that nourish lands holding ancient cultures, the Perfume River is the artery of central Vietnam and Hue. Twisting hundreds of miles from northern mountains, she spreads wide over the low plains before joining the Pacific just east of the city. In fickle March when morning fog turns into muggy afternoon, with or without chilly showers in between, the land is as emerald green as Ireland. Lush riverside farm gardens are worked by dozens of men and women with hand tools. The plots are postcard perfect and serious work for these farmers.

farming on the banks of the Perfume River several miles west of Hue (top center & right) scarecrow & laundry to ward off birds

  Every late summer and autumn, like all alluvial rivers, The Perfume floods for as far as your eye can determine a tree line or the second floor of sturdy buildings. Bamboo structures visible now near the fields are seasonal and will be gone in the floods. Therefore house boats are common for many who cannot afford housing on land at a safe distance from the river.

(top) house boat, temple, (bottom) Catholic church, laundry, cemetary on a hill side

The practical resilience of river life is fascinating. Why not use it for both the wash and rinse cycles –  especially when the boat’s in motion and tourists are up front.

laundry: wash and rinse

  The grittier side of commercial life on the Perfume is sand extraction. With endangered reserves of hard woods forcing Southeast Asian nations to restrict the forest industry, demand for concrete is high in this rapidly developing region. Since these rivers silt-up frequently they have been a convenient source of sand, but now demand is outstripping supply. Over dredging of the Perfume, due to the alluvial nature of the river, is a cause of worse than average floods within the past decade. These dredging operations are usually family run with simple power pumps to suck and filters to capture the dark gray sand from the river bottom – frequently mounted in their house boats. All day up and down the river are dozens of family operated sand ships. At the end of the day the owners sell their sand for a pittance to a central collector.

sand ships after a day's work, collection center

A river this tranquil, with misty mountains beyond green fields, attracted Vietnam’s wealthy and intellectual elite. Riverfront land became favored “suburban” home sites for 19th and 20th century professional families, many with connections at Court.

An Hein Garden House's ancestor shrine with current family owner, entrance and lily pond

Called garden houses for their proliferation of individual fruit, flowering trees and plants on their 5 + acre plots, these affluent houses were the ultimate of upper middle class life. An Hien started as the home of an Imperial Princess (of a minor wife) over 135 years ago, passing to a high Court Mandarin and to the present generation of that family. It’s not only remarkable that the antique all exotic wood house with priceless family heirlooms survived wars but the Perfume River’s floods. Although set several hundred feet from the river bank, we were shown the 4 to 6 foot water levels of the last decade of floods! The traditional tile roofed 3-bay house, supported by intricately carved ironwood pillers and beams, contained the ancestrial altar and living quarters of the family, sans the kitchen, etc. Open to the lily pond through carved screen doors, these havens of peace for their busy professional owners were based on strict Confucuan design to maximize harmony and tranquility.

not one nail or screw - 135 + year old ironwood & jackfruit wood

The gardens were prized for both their breadth of plant varieties and significance to agriculture and cooking. Jasmine, cinnamon, pomegranate, sunflowers, climbing and wild indigenous roses, exotic species of orchids, fruit trees characteristic of all of Vietnam’s regions: lychees, persimmon and pears from the north, mangosteen and durian from the south with pomelo, jackfruit and oranges plus almonds and the list goes on.

selections from An Hien garden

Is there an army of professional gardeners? No, simply the extended family members and in this case they range from California to London. Opening the house to visitors is purely voluntary and none of the Garden House owners receive compensation other than donations. In An Hien’s case the only “commercial” pitch were plant cuttings for sale. If I could only have brought some back to the States…

a pole for a seat, toes on the rudder, family in the house boat, river calm