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.
“It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.” Confucius (551-479 BCE)
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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
For a tourist resort, the restaurant was surprisingly good. Specializing in seafood, there was a fine selection of grilledclams 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…