The Annamite Mountains divide Vietnam’s one thousand mile strip of mountains and beaches along the Pacific Ocean. The south is tropical year round, but northern winters can be cold and damp. Political upheaval in the late 18th century led to the Nguyen Dynasty’s triumphant unification of the northern and southern factions in the early 1800s.
Yet political upheaval seems to have been the natural order often until 1975. The end of America’s Vietnam War allowed the Vietnamese to concentrate on what they enjoy the most — doing business. Whether it’s a BMW auto dealership in Hanoi or a convenience store in a rowboat on a bay, the Vietnamese are capitalists. It’s part of the throb of real life in Vietnam.
Part of life is also stunning natural beauty, crazy traffic, the silence of fog on a bay and the iridescence of a fresh pearl just shucked from its shell. One trip is not enough. This exploration highlights five key destinations in the north.
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.
To cross the street a pedestrian simplycrosses 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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Dragon, by a young revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, Khai Dinh was ridiculed for being all pomp and no substance, but he did knew how to impress.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
All respectable Vietnamese buildings based on Confucian design principles have an entrance gate opening onto a small space backed by a freestanding wall – the Spirit Wall. To enter the courtyard one simply walked a short distance to the right or left around the wall. Easy for humans but not evil spirits who cannot sail through so effortlessly. This would be especially useful for an imperial capital. The moat enclosed fortified walls of the 2-1/2 square mile Hue Imperial City was home to hundreds of buildings – palaces, temples, administrative offices and housing – lakes, gardens fountains and the Forbidden Purple City – home to the Imperial family. This vast complex was “Versailles” for the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1946). After years of war wresting control from feudal lords, Gia Long, first Nguyen emperor, established the modern boundaries of Vietnam – fatefully, with a little help from the French. Yet even double gates and fortified walls could not prevent floods, nor could meticulous planning under Confucian principles protect from bombs and artillery. Tempered by this reality, what remains of the vast UNESCO World Heritage Site with its ongoing restoration is beautiful, serene and haunting.
Wandering freely, after paying the admission of US$2.50 at the inner Ngo-Mon Gate, through palaces, gardens, ruins under restoration, past breathtaking decorated gates and crumbling walls, what struck me was the modern Vietnamese attitude toward the Imperial City. No matter that not all Nguyen family members were fondly remembered – to say the least – this was still the shrine to 144 years of national ancestors and therefore sacred ground. Even the 1933 tennis court of the last Emperor, playboy Bao Dai is being restored. The descriptions – written in French, English and Vietnamese – for the extensively restored Dien Tho Palace complex is nearly reverential.
Sadly there isn’t an army of restoration workers on site. Despite UNESCO designation, the projects are vast, requiring research, meticulous craftsmanship and lots of money. Germany and Japan are actively contributing to several current projects. Maintenance alone is a daunting task – this is 2-1/2 square miles of monuments.
The 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War (locally known as the American War) inflicted severe damage on the Imperial City, yet there are no vitriolic nationalist slogans, just a sober plaque describing the skeletal remains of a palace building within the Forbidden Purple City (bottom left).
Yet there are always the reminders that this is Vietnam where the practical tasks of everyday life are as important in Confucian thought as the lofty actions of State. Laundry drying on the Imperial City’s walled moat? As long as it’s feng shui…