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…
Have you ever wished you could live in a postcard? You can if you cruise the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. Situated on Vietnam’s north east coast, it has been an important player in the nation’s history and economy for over a millennium. It doesn’t hurt being one of the most beautiful sites on the planet.
Hundreds of limestone island mountains have been sculpted by centuries of erosion. The bay itself opens to the Gulf of Tonkin, the port of Ha Phong and the vast Pacific. It has been an artery of wealth for Hanoi and north Vietnam, as well as the cultured pearl capital of the country. The bay, like so many expanses of water in Southeast Asia, contains floating villages. Unlike floating villages on lakes, Halong Bay’s are not as polluted or dangerous for residents, although the average family wage is less than US$800/year – owning your own floating house can run 20X that amount.
The main occupation is cultured pearl farming and it’s an extraordinary art. A thin slice of the oyster’s skin is dissected under microscopic glasses and transformed into “seeds” that are surgically inserted into the live oyster. Several seeds may be implanted in one oyster, but, after 3 to 7 years gestation – depending on the type and color – less than 20% will ever produce gem quality pearls. Packed in baskets suspended from bamboo floats, this important crop waits for the luxury world beyond.
Prior to the Indochina wars that ravaged Vietnam during the 20th century, Halong Bay’s limestone islands provided shelter for villages and isolated Confucian and Buddhist retreats. During the war they served as protection from air raids and today they are fascinating caves for everyone to explore. Several caves have been transformed into “tourist-friendly” sites complete with guides and dramatic multi-color theater lighting illuminating an otherworldly scene that takes on the look of an “otherworldly tourist attraction” – shapes of hanging feet, a large erection.. etc. (I keep on saying – the truth – that Southeast Asians are playful and NOT dour.) It’s fun to walk through the caves.
Halong Bay’s a year round destination but summer is its high season. March was still chilly and damp but added a mystical mist to the entire scene. There are islands that have summer beaches and there are a variety of ways to visit the bay. The most popular is by taking an overnight cruise on a small Chinese Junk-style ship carrying between 10 – 35 passengers. From the port of Halong City, the ships sail into the center of the bay – about one hour – and anchor. From there passengers are ferried to the floating villages, pearl farms, caves, kayaking through caves and to beaches. There are over 400 ships that ply the bay ranging from small day-trip boats to “luxury” cruise junks. I place the word “luxury” in quotes because it’s difficult to determine beforehand which ships fit that description. Our ship, the Hanoi Opera, booked through the highly recommended Explorer Tours, was a fine ship carrying 20+ passengers but whose beds were designed for ascetic monks – the futon mattress was perhaps 1.5 inches thick to be generous. Paying $US420/couple for 2 nights to sleep on a wooden pallet was very uncomfortable. We discovered that there were many other ships that offered a higher level of comfort at less cost. Having researched the options for a month before booking the cruise, and after extensive conversations with fellow travelers, I would not recommend booking ahead. With so many ships available for tours, the best options are: (1) stay overnight in Halong City and take a day excursion on the bay, or (2) stay overnight in Halong City and check out the overnight ships to see which ones offer real beds. A one-night cruise is sufficient and should run around US$150 – $165/couple, including meals.
The three hour bus trip from Hanoi to the Bay – included in the cruise fare – was equally interesting. Although not comfortable given the condition of Vietnamese roads, passing through rural countryside and old villages undergoing rapid middle-class changes was enlightening. Rice paddies with Water Buffalo pulling wooden plows are next to French/Vietnamese style “McMansions” of affluent Vietnamese. Anyone owning a house more than 9 feet wide is affluent since ancient real estate tax laws dictate high levies on any structure wider – although depth and height are excluded. Catholic churches towered over Confucian and Buddhist temples. Trash, dust and too much traffic for the narrow roads was typical. Nineteenth century farming and building techniques were side-by-side with 21st century office buildings, truck dealers and technical schools.
Of course, the bus does make a shopping stop at a stone carving studio. Vietnam has an abundance of both limestone and marble. Hand-made marble carvings, especially garden fountains and statues, in sizes that are quite large, are available and shipping can be arranged – don’t look for bargains, these are top-of-the-line. Silk embroidery – some of it quite fine – is an art that frequently employs the disabled and is widely available, as well as jewelry and women’s ready-to-wear clothing – as long as you’re a size 8 or less.
“Past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation.” Senator Robert F. Kennedy, 1968
There’s little visible evidence of Hanoi circa 1010 – the city was established by Chinese expanding southward on settlements along the Red River that had been there already for 2,000 years. Actually, there’s little evidence of Hanoi pre 1870’s. Confucian culture preserves the spirits of the ancestors, not their buildings. Even if decades of war and millions of tons of dropped bombs had not significantly damaged the city, ingrained capitalism would have dictated their presence superfluous. The drive from Hanoi’s dreary Noi Bai International Airport – 28 miles (45 km) from the city’s downtown – passes extensive rice paddies boardering high-rise office complexes, narrow mold-streaked French colonial-style town houses next to another BMW dealership before winding snake-like into the heart of Old Hanoi with it’s 21st century sensory overload.
“Charming” is a term to apply to Hanoi only if you believe Manhattan deserves the moniker as well. Frenetic is my description. The motor bike horns begin by 4:00 AM, followed by the publically broadcast music from the computer/TV store across the street starting at 8:00 AM, then the TV in the hotel’s breakfast room entertaining the owner’s young son with the Cartoon Network dubbed in Vietnamese. Outside is pandemonium if not prepared.
Hanoi is a city that would make Donald Trump proud. Everyone is an entrepreneur and quite aggressive in their selling methods whether it be a cyclo driver following you down the street because you really don’t want to walk (?), or stepping over and around another sidewalk café while saying “no” to the hundredth deep fried donut, peeling the hand of the seller off your arm because you really do not need another map of the city all the while being aware that you’re walking in the middle of the street, because there’s no sidewalk space, along with cars, motorbikes and bicycles. Everything is for sale and streets, not just in the Old City, are frequently dedicated to a product – silversmith, watches… The Hotel Ho Guom was located on the edge of the Old City and the French Quarter and most of the surrounding shops were computer and TV stores.
Street life is not attractive compared to Thailand and Laos. The city is dirty. In Thailand and Laos both the cities and countryside were virtually trash free and yet there was not an overabundance of trash cans. Residents and shop owners simply picked up after themselves. Not so in Hanoi. There is an air of freewheeling rampant capitalism with a “me-me” attitude. It is nearly impossible to simply stop on the side of the street when walking to take a photo without having to dodge a vehicle, a person, a pile of discarded greasy food or a hawker. Yet Hanoi is a rich city. It is Southeast Asia’s most expensive real estate, everyone is either working or eating (or both), Bentley, BMW and Mercedes cars share the streets with motor bikes, high rise buildings are going up and the lakes are beautiful – even if they’re still not havens of quiet.
It is not a tourist city, it’s for business. Evidence of the horrific wars that tore the country apart are nowhere to be seen except in the museums – none of which are worth seeing unless you’re really into war and politics. The most prominent statue to a political figure is the huge monument to Emperor Lý Thái Tổ(974-1028) who ended Chinese domination over Vietnam. One of the city’s largest structures is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph (1886). Over 15% of Vietnamese are Catholic and Saturday night Mass was packed.
The Temple of Learning, built in 1070, dedicated to Confucius, functioned for more than 700 years as Vietnam’s Imperial University educating the country’s nobles, royalty, mandarins and other elite. If after years of study and a month-long series of exams, a student graduated as a Mandarin their name was engraved on stone stele that sits on large stone turtles in the temple. Annually about 8 out of every 3,000 exam takers ever reached that loftiest of degrees. The temple consists of a series of five landscaped courtyards. The first two are primarily gardens including fanciful designs and topiary. The third one has a lotus pond and the stellae. The final courtyard holds the shrine to Confucius. The northern half of Vietnam has been Confucian for centuries. More a social and political philosophy based on ethics and behavior, and quite compatible with capitalism and central government, Confucian thought – although complex – does guide Vietnam today. Ancestor worship and offerings to the animistic spirits of nature by burning incense and leaving food and drink on alters, in trees and at monuments is as common in Vietnam as anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
Within the Old City are several privately owned houses many within the same family dating back several centuries and are open to the public. They give a glimpse of middle class merchant life that, in reality, still exists today. The front of the house was always the store, and directly above were the 2nd floor store rooms reached by a staircase. Behind the store is the residence dominated in front by the alter to the ancestors. At least two courtyards open the houses to outdoor light and rain water. Chinese architectural influence is paramount in these pre-19th century structures.
Most “tourist attractions” signal to me to “stay away,” but Hanoi’s Water Puppet Theater is unique and well worth the US$3.00 admission (for a front row seat). Started during ancient rice harvest festivals, the flooded rice paddies were transformed into magical puppet theaters. Puppets are a beloved form of entertainment throughout Asia, but these puppet masters control their elaborate characters from behind screens and actually under the water. Fire breathing dragons compete with dainty court dancers and palm tree climbing coconut collectors. A live orchestra in traditional dress playing on traditional instruments completes the experience as one of the best cultural venues in the city!
Cuisine is not Hanoi’s forte. There are a lot of places to eat and, as usual on this Earth, they’re mediocre. The finest restaurant in Hanoi is also the most fascinating. Koto, next to the Temple of Learning, is in an elegant, 3 story French art nouveau town house. Opening at 11:30 AM it is full within the hour. Founded 20 years ago by concerned Australians and Vietnamese, it is a culinary training school and refuge for disadvantaged/abused/orphaned young adults. If I had not known this in advance, I would have assumed it’s simply a superbly well trained staff serving creative dishes at moderate prices. It was the best meal I had in Hanoi. Cost for two was less than US$18.00
Unfortunately, many restaurants in Hanoi listed in guidebooks or on user reviewed travel sites were geared to tourists with Western taste (Australian beef burgers) and overpriced for the country. One important note of traveling in Vietnam is that it’s the least expensive of the Southeast Asian nations. A metered taxi (don’t travel any other way) is a couple of bucks anywhere within downtown, dinner for two with beer is under US$20, a first class hotel is overpriced if it’s rates are more than US$55-75, admission to any museum is a couple of bucks. I did have a very interesting, but not consistently well prepared, dinner at the top rated Highway 4, on a dark and dreary street north of the Water Puppet Theater. Deep fried crickets were fascinating – like eating feathery nuts, but beef flamed in foil was tough and other unexciting dishes were under seasoned. Although they advertise such exotic foods as Water Buffalo penis and fried scorpians, none of these were available. The Hotel Ho Guom, $55/double, was centrally located with an energetic and helpful staff – although the web site pics are better than reality. The room was comfortable and the breakfast provided a nice choice of traditional and Western foods.
Hanoi is not a comfortable city, and I’d suggest no more than a two day stay. Yet, for someone of my American generation it was an important visit. Barely avoiding the draft in the late 1960’s, brought up on ideas of “communist domination,” it was valuable to learn that it truly was all lies. If Vietnam is a “socialist” state, Wall Street’s full of socialist. The war was a nationalist independence movement to throw off Western domination so that they could resume the rampant capitalism Vietnam always enjoyed before the French imposed their colonial regime. Vietnam succeeded, and if, along with their Chinese cousins, they eventually dominate Southeast Asia it will be through capitalist investment not ideology.
“The things they carried…P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits…they carried diseases…malaria and dysentery…lice and ringworm and leeches…and the land itself…the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles…They carried their own lives.”
from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Haughton Mifflin, 1990)
It’s been a quarter century since peace finally came to the lands of Southeast Asia. For centuries it was part of the fabled “spice route” between the eastern and western worlds, yet in the 20th century more than twice the tonnage of bombs were dropped on Indochina than in all of World War II. I’ll be leaving Sunday to spend 43 days in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I’ll have no worries or fears, unlike the brave but misled soldiers of that ill-fated war.
For me who narrowly escaped experiencing the horror of those past times, it feels odd that I’ll enjoy first class hotels, renowned cuisine, stunning scenery, cities and sites that have survived millennia of wars and legendary hospitality. From all my research of the past six months in preparation for this trip I expect to see, or even feel, little evidence (except in museums) of last century’s strife. As a chef, historian and travel writer I’m preparing myself for a flood of experiences that will test my ability to process this trip with all five senses – especially taste. Foods that few westerners ever have the opportunity to see, no less taste, await me, with fusion cuisine developed over centuries of east-west contact – durian cheesecake anyone?
Oddly, I’ll carry some of the same objects listed by Tim O’Brien – can opener (cork screw in my case), pocket knife, wristwatch, mosquito repellant, bottled water, sewing kit and malaria pills (one-a-day for 51 days). I’ll have to still be mindful of bed bugs – carrying bed bug repellant (fortunately I’m already aware of what they look, and feel, like.) Lice, leeches, dysentery are all still present – this is the tropics – which means swimming in lakes and rivers is out. I’ll carry my ignorance of customs – no pointing either with fingers or, especially, with one’s foot. I’ll be ignorant of the languages. For the first time in my life as a traveller I’ll be hopelessly unaware of what anyone is saying (with the exception of tourism workers that speak English). Language will become music, much nicer than the karaoke sounds my research says is the favorite throughout all four countries.
The best thing I’ll carry? A sense of wonder.
My first blog, from Bangkok, will post Tuesday, 8 February.
“It is Christmas in the heart that puts Christmas in the air.” W. T. Ellis
It is well documented that over the past 12,000 years of human existence, there has never been “peace on Earth” on any day. Is there a more visceral holiday wish for anyone that’s ever been fighting in war, or even amidst a war?
Holiday season, 1970, Dublin, Ireland. I am a 20-year-old student spending my 3rd year of university at Dublin’s National University (UCD). Walking back to my flat from a party, some time after 3:00 AM, through the peaceful quiet of St. Stephen’s Green, I pause to admire my favorite statue – Theobald Wolfe Tone, leader of the 1798 Rebellion. It wasn’t the first time I’d admired the striking, 10 foot modern bronze on its 3 foot tall square polished granite base. In the early morning Dublin mist, the abstract visage made me particularly mindful of the sacrifice (his life) that this wealthy Protestant gave to Ireland’s Nationalist cause. It was sometime after 3:30 AM when I continued on. Sometime shortly after 4:00 AM the statue vaporized – plastic explosives on the back side hidden by bushes. Fortunately, the only damage was to property.
19 December 1777, the Continental Army marched in to its 6-month winter encampment at Valley Forge. The village of Valley Forge was in the middle of the Great Valley, the wealthiest agricultural and industrial region (water powered mills) of the 13 colonies. Yet the enlisted men suffered through that Christmas nearly starving on “fire cake” (fried flour & water). For three weeks food was absurdly scarce to feed between 8,000 – 10,000 troops all due to incompetence and lack of central planning. Neither the enlisted men’s diaries nor Washington’s letters were kind during these weeks. By mid-January, the food issue was solved, but it was a bleak Christmas.
For me, the Web’s greatest asset is its ability to tell people’s stories. The earliest tragedy of World War I was its failure to be over by Christmas 1914 – as so much propaganda had predicted. Of all the poignant moments within the catastrophe of that pointless war was the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. In the late 1980’s singer/songwriter John McCutcheon told of this event with heart-rending lyrics. The creator of this U-Tube video of John’s song has paired the lyrics with moving art and photos.
The bitterly satirical 1969 film, Oh! What a Lovely War effectively dramatizes this seminal event:
In recent years, revisionist have questioned this incident citing that it romanticized war. Recent scholarship indicates such Christmas Day truces, unofficial although many may have been, did exist – and not just in World War I.
Yet the bitter irony of juxtaposing the sacred and the profane is belted out later in Oh! What a Lovely War when a soldier sings, “It was Christmas Day in the cookhouse, the happiest time of the year, Men’s hearts were full of gladness and their bellies full of beer, When up popped Private Shorthouse, his face as bold as brass, He said, We don’t want your puddings, you can stick them up your tidings of co-omfort and joy, comfort and joy, o-oh ti-idings of co-omfort and joy. It was Christmas Day in the harem, the eunuchs were standing ’round, And hundreds of beautiful women were stretched out on the ground, Along came the wicked Sultan, surveying his marble halls. He said, Whaddya want for Christmas boys, and the eunuchs answered tidings of co-omfort and joy, comfort and joy, o-oh ti-idings of comfort and joy…” (Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
The Wall House in Elkins Park, PA, dates from 1688. It has seen a lot of war. Two rooms are devoted to its World War II era residents. Besides letters to and from the Front among family members, holiday trees reflected the realities of war. In the picture above, center, is a field hospital “tree” decorated with blue and white ribbon/paper and painted tongue depresses. To the right, is a small living room tree decorated in paper and tin ornaments. The prized German-made glass ornaments were unavailable and unpatriotic.
“I had always thought there was no recognizable smell for impending death, but this country reeked of it…It was everywhere, no one left unscathed, no one left untouched, no one emotionally unscarred…It was the only time in my life I’ve ever felt a mutual, unconditional love for man and mankind…” James Worthington, Silent, Holy Night: Respite in Vietnam
I traveled in Vietnam in March 2010. That same 20-year-old kid that escaped being vaporized in 1970 along with Theobald Wolfe Tone, narrowly missed being drafted earlier that year in the first military draft lottery, or at best this might have been my second trip. I know/knew Vietnam Vets, some are no longer alive having succumbed to the demons of post-war life. I was lucky. Instead of Vietnam, I was in Ireland that Christmas. In his memoir, Silent, Holy Night: Respite in Vietnam, John Worthington reminds me what Christmas 1970 may have been like.
Peace on Earth, a tenuous dream that we humans never want to give up, yet never want to try. Worldwide, we celebrate our cycles of rebirth year after year – solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah – hoping that some year the magic will work. Let’s not stop the hope.