Chùa Thiên Mụ Pagoda, Hue, Vietnam, 2013

thien mu pagodaChùa Thiên Mụ, or Thiên Mụ Pagoda, is a Buddhist temple in the city of Hue. It sits atop the Hà Khê hill and overlooks the northern bank of the Perfume River. The pagoda is seven stories tall and is the tallest religious building in Vietnam. Moreover, it is regarded as the unofficial symbol of the former imperial capital. (Interesting note: you can see Laos from across the river).

The name of the pagoda comes from the local legend about an old lady, Thiên Mụ (“celestial lady”),  dressed in red and blue. She sat at the site rubbing her cheeks, and foretold that a lord would come and erect a pagoda on the hill to pray for the country’s prosperty. Nguyen Hoang, the first Nguyen lord, overheard this tale while touring the area, and immediately ordered the construction of a temple after his visit.

Beginning in the summer of 1963, the Thiên Mụ Pagoda became a hotbed of anti-government protest. South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority felt discriminated against under the rule of President Ngo Dinh Diem, who showed strong favouritism towards Catholics. Catholic priests led private armies against Buddhist villages, and discontent turned into outrage when nine Buddhists died at the hand of Diem’s army on the birthday of Gautama Buddha.

banks of perfume river

A protest march was ended when government forces opened fire — this sparked a series of Buddhist protests across the country, and Thiên Mụ Pagoda was a major organizing point for the Buddhist movement.


prayer session

The pagoda once again became the focal point of discontent when a person was murdered near Thiên Mụ, and anti-communist protests closed traffic around the Phú Xuân Bridge. The communist government responded by arresting monks for disturbing traffic flow and public order.

the car

The Austin motor vehicle pictured was driven by Thích Quảng Đức, a Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death at an intersection in protest of the persecution of Buddhists. Wang told us that Duc’s heart remained intact and did not burn. As a result, the heart is considered to be holy and is now protected in a glass chalice at Xa Loi Pagoda.

Quick aside:In Buddhism, a relic is called 舍利子 [se li zi], or Sarira. It refers to a pearl or crystal-like bead purportedly found among the cremated ashes of Buddhist spiritual masters. The Sarira are believed to embody the spiritual knowledge, teachings, and living essence of the masters.

Tomb of Tự Đức, Hue, Vietnam, 2013

tu duc entrance

The Tomb of Tự Đức is located in a narrow valley in the Duong Xuan village within Hue. Nguyen Emperor Tự Đức reigned the longest of any monarch of the Nguyen dynasty, for nearly 40 years. He had over a hundred wives and concubines; in spite of this, he was unable to produce an heir (possibly because he became sterile after contracting smallpox).


His epitaph is inscribed on a stele the largest of its type in Vietnam, brought from a quarry over 500 kilometers away. It took four years until the stele was transported to the pavilion. Etched into the stone is the Khiem Cung narrative: composed by the Emperor, a retelling of his life and imperial cause, his misadventures and diseases.


Temple buildings served as a palatial retreat for Tu Duc and his wives, and eventually the tomb’s palace buildings became his place of residence.

Luu Khiem lake greeted us when we entered the temple area. The Emperor used to come here to compose poems, read books, and admire the flowers in the company of his escorts. I can imagine it being far more beautiful in its heyday, instead of the swampy mess of algae blooms and dying trees that we saw.

luu khiem lake

In the middle of the lake sits a tiny island where the Emperor would hunt small game. The lake is also large enough to boat across, which Tu Duc would often do.

Although the palace and tomb site have a reputation of grandeur and luxury, most of it seems to be in a state of disrepair. Faded lacquer, cracked paint, chipped wood. Barren, quiet, and lonely. Cracked tiles, scratched out inscriptions, and a desolation felt most deeply when the only sound that cuts through the gray, winter air is the mechanical clicks of tourist cameras.

du khiem pavilion

a quiet temple

Tu Duc was actually buried in a different, secret location in Hue. Not at the place he spent two decades planning, building, and living in. The 200 laborers who buried him were all beheaded after they returned from the secret route, to protect the true location of Tu Duc.

Phước Thạnh, Hue, Vietnam, 2013

Boy, it’s been a hectic couple of months! Forgive me from my blogging inconsistency–three weeks of eating my way through Kansai and Taipei; spontaneous lighthouse sightseeing in Portland, Maine; and hiking through the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee for July 4th weekend. It’s been exhausting and thrilling, and oh dear, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to a point where my blog posts are written in present tense! 😀 What a wonderful problem to have, to be blessed with the resources and companionship to travel — and to have a bottomless repertoire of experiences to share!

Anyway, I won’t keep you any longer —

phuoc thanh entranceLunch in Hue was at Phước Thạnh Restaurant. Everyone was seated at long tables in the center of the restaurant, with enough chairs for about 15 people on each side.

The food ranges between good and okay. Nothing stands out in particular, but I didn’t leave with a bad impression of the place. Perhaps we were simply victims of inexperienced vegetarian cooking.

First dish was a small bowl of pho, with fried tofu and vegetables. The relatively generous amount of veggies was a pleasant surprise.

I also noticed that–across all of our meals in Vietnam–all of the broths were suspiciously perhaps they used MSG (?) ;). But in all honesty, MSG-flavored soup is better than boiled water with salt any day (unfortunately, this actually happens sometimes).

vegetable pho

Then a tapas-sized plate of bánh xèo. This was really tasty. The pancake was crunchy like taco shells, but not overly greasy. We stuffed these with lettuce, carrots, and cucumber slices.

bahn xeo

Some spring rolls came up next, with vermicelli, mushrooms, and more bean sprouts on the inside. It seems that at least half of every meal we’ve had in Vietnam had deep fried foods. Don’t get me wrong, fried stuff is delicious, but eaten meal after meal, day after day, you start to feel heavy and greasy.

spring rolls

Banh cuon — Vietnamese rice noodle rolls. The rice noodle skin was far too thick. There was naught but a sliver of lettuce and 3 bean sprouts at most.

bahn cuon

I’m not sure what this is called, but it reminds me of 肉圆 [rou yuan, or ba wan in Taiwanese], a Taiwanese street food with disk-shaped translucent dough. It was sticky, and kind of tasteless.

steamed sticky rice

The desserts served in cute pandan-leaf boxes were one of my favorite parts of the meal. In each larger box, there was a black sesame mochi-like ball stuffed with cassava and coconut paste. This was a bit dry for my taste, but I love the flavor of black sesame regardless.


Khanom Man is a cassava cake, made with grated cassava, mung bean starch, tapioca flour, and shredded coconut. This was wrapped in the smaller box and was the one I enjoyed more out of the two. I’m addicted to all things coconut :).

PSA: I also finally caved into getting an Instagram (resisted for so long), so if you enjoy my photography, you can find more of it there!