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…