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.

temple

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).

epitaph

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.

pavilion

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.

A Quiet Day in Da Nang, Vietnam, 2013

hyatt regency danang

We strolled along the beach of our hotel, the Hyatt Regency Danang, early in the morning before breakfast. There wasn’t a morning call (usually they’re at 5am or 6am…), but we wanted to make the most of our time anyway.

tiny sand crab

Almost stepped on this little guy! He blended in too well with the sand. Watched him quickly scurry back into his hole after a close call with my foot.

gardener at work

hyatt gardens

A gardener was hard at work on this peaceful morning. We were the only guests walking through the hotel.

Breakfast was still mostly vegetarian-unfriendly, but nonetheless tasty to look at! There were fresh baguettes buttered and grilled that we ate plain, since we couldn’t use most of the bánh mì ingredients. We also had some of the rice noodles with scallions and fried shallots, as well as a “sweet and sour” bowl of dry pho noodles that I improvised.

hyatt danang breakfast

For most of the trip so far, my mom and I were rather disappointed with the famous Vietnamese coffee. But that morning we noticed that most people were ordering iced Vietnamese coffee. We had only been drinking it hot. We quickly flagged a waiter and asked for two glasses of iced Vietnamese coffee — they were almost running out! — and boy, it was a world of a difference.

This was coffee enlightenment. Drinking it cold somehow reveals the layers of flavor in the melange of sweetened condensed milk and dark roast coffee grounds. Sweet and bitter, muted by the heat when drunk hot, become vibrantly complementary when cold. Love.

cham museum pot

We stopped at the Museum of Cham Sculpture, a moderately small museum featuring the world’s largest collection of Cham artifacts. The Chams are an ethnic group in Southeast Asia, concentrated between Cambodia and Central Vietnam. At the height of the 9th centruy, Champa controlled what is essentially two-thirds of Vietnam, from Hue to the Mekong Delta.

Champa worshipped fertility and sexual organs through the Hindu god Shiva: linga is the male organ, and yoni is the female organ. The two are commonly featured in the sculptures at the museum, and are supposed to represent Yin and Yang.

entering hue

Our next destination was the city of Hue, where we would visit the tomb of Tự Đức, a Vietnamese emperor of the Nguyen dynasty. Since the road to Hue from Da Nang was a long one, about a 2-3 hour trip. Vietnam officially has no highways, even to this day. The only highway runs through its dense forests and mountains, which makes maintenance difficult. As a result, the highway is not used by the common people, but has instead been adopted by cows and sheep herds.

The roads we drove on were a roulette of paved pothole paths or dirt roads under construction. Sometimes there was only one lane, for two-way traffic!

Vietnamese coast

But the coastal scenery was beautiful. Wang taught us how to catch fish with a water bottle:

  1. Cut the top of the bottle off
  2. Put a rope through the top
  3. Put a metal plate at the bottom for weight
  4. Drop a piece of bread at the bottom for bait
  5. Catch fish, and reel it win with the rope!

Rice fields of Vietnam

The Vietnamese countryside scrolled past us, as Wang continued to illuminate with details of life in Vietnam. Apparently a sizable source of income for the rural Vietnamese is finding the remains of Americans from the war, and turning them over to government so that they can be returned to their families in the US. About $200 USD is paid for every batch of American — a significant amount of money for people who live on $1-3 USD a day. But many have taken to gaming the system by manipulating cow bones to look human, and turning those in instead.

You can also earn monetary rewards from the government by reporting homeless people or robbers. The homeless are taken in and fed, and given an allowance too! A win win for all. 🙂

Hoi An, Vietnam, 2013

hoi an during the day

Hội An is a UNESCO World Heritage city just south of Da Nang, with more than 2,000 years of history. It was once a principal port for the spice trade with Indonesia from the 7th to the 10th century and a major international port as well. Multiple cultural influences have shaped Hoi An throughout the years–from the Cham Kingdom, whose people came from Java, to Arab and Chinese traders, and the Vietnamese who settled there relatively recently.

entrance to old town

quang trieu temple

Our day began at Quang Trieu Assembly Hall, a building built by Chinese from the Guangdong province. Chinese fishermen and traders would use this hall as a rest stop and to exchange goods. Many of the statues you see are scenes from Cantonese musical dramas.

bird in cage on a quiet alley

A lonely bird on a quiet alley.

The main street of the Old Town is Tran Phu. We strolled past old, heritage hotels, tourist souvenir shops, and teahouses until Wang stopped us in front of a larger, wooden building. The Old House of Tan Ky. Seven generations of the family have worked to preserve this ancient house.

old house of tan ky

There are way too many tourists to fit in this house.

The house features a triple-beam structure that stands for heaven, earth, and human, and five round blocks to represent the natural elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth): features of Eastern philosophy.

Duc An medicine shop

We then went a few houses down to Duc An Old House, which has been run by the same family for 400 years. It became the most successful bookshop in the 17th Century and carried famous Vietnamese and Chinese texts, as well as political works by Rousseau and Voltaire, to name a few.

In the 1900’s it became a Chinese medicine dispensary. When anti-French revolts and movements began, the house became the darling gathering place for youths and intellects.

tran phu street

Tran Phu street.

lantern vendor

A bike full of lantern frames.

What was most interesting to me–and something you won’t find through pure research on the web or in tourist books–was that some of these houses were also used as opium dens. Upper floors were furnished with cushioned seats or beds for you to cozily drift off into ephemeral bliss.

afternoon tea

Care for some afternoon tea?

But such things were not meant for us to experience, so we made our way to the famous Japanese Covered Bridge, or Chùa Cầu. The bridge was built to create a link with the Chinese quarters across the river, and now connects Tran Phu St with Thi Minh Kai street.

japanese covered bridge

Sculptures of a dog and a monkey sit at one end of the bridge as symbols of sacredness in Japan and of the years many of the Japanese Emperors were born. A roof was constructed so that it could be used as a shelter from both rain and sun. It is the only known bridge to have a temple built inside it, which honors the God of Weather, Tran Vo Bac De.

boat vendor

We walked down towards the Thu Bon river, where the boats were. Hội An is a city to experienced at night–when lanterns light up the river like twinkles of starlight. The sun was waning, and a few of the villagers had already set afloat tea lights in colorful paper “lilies” on the water.

restaurant on street

Our tour included a “bicycle” tour of Hội An: the bicycles were actually a hybrid of stroller and bike. We kicked back in our chairs, while someone else did the peddling for us. Down Bạch Đằng street we rolled, passed various street vendors and brightly-lit restaurants.

local market

Boat vendors paddled up and down the river, seeking to make eye contact with a curious tourist who’d be willing to buy his wares. We rode past the local markets; a cornucopia of vegetables, meats, fish, and fruit poured onto the streets, splayed out in baskets or on small planks of wood.

hoi an lanterns

My favorite part Hội An was the lanterns. Maybe a third of the shops we passed were lantern stores that hung a curtain of paper lanterns, of psychedelic shapes and colors. It was wonderful.

paper cutouts

Another popular craft you’ll see in Hội An were the 剪紙 [jian zhi, Chinese], or paper cutouts. The streets were tiled with meticulously snipped and intricate cards of boats, flowers, dragons, and pictorials of Vietnamese lifestyle. We bought several of these to gift to family members, and a few for ourselves to take home and admire :).

hoi an at night

Cruise down the Saigon, Ho Chi Minh 2013

I was still in a food coma from our delicious lunch at Nhà hàng Ngon, but somehow it was already dinner time. Signet arranged a “cultural” cruise for us down the Saigon River: we were to dine on Euro-Asian food and feast on traditional music and dance.

the cruise ship

We boarded an ornate, rose wood ship and were greeted by women in light blue áo dài who led us to our table. Waiters whipped around the deck with cocktails in hand. Chilled and only lightly alcoholic–just enough to whet the appetite.

appetizers

An hors d’oeuvre of baguette slices were served with a dollop of vegetable slaw or meat slaw (is that even a thing?). Baguettes are clearly French influence, but the slaw may just be a Vietnamese take on what they think foreigners enjoy slapping on their bread. :p (Extra) salty peanuts slid in alongside the plate of hors d’oeurvre.

As we sat waiting for our table to be called to the buffet, we were treated to the first traditional dance of the night. I’ve struggled to find the name of this; but it was a very lively and airy dance with a lot of swishing of dresses and twirling.

vietnamese dance

Then we were finally unleashed unto the food. A seafood buffet that the others in our group had been itching to dive into.

My mom and my meals were specially ordered for us, since there were very limited vegetarian options. Since it would be a while before we were served, I decided to throw convention to the wind and start with dessert first. And a glass of wine.

dessert and wine

A table of shot glasses filled with white chocolate and milk chocolate creme piqued my interest–or should it be the flan? I did fancy the cream puffs as well, and the glazed donut holes…there’s no shame it trying it all, now is there?

We grew antsy with the slow service and took matters into our own hands by making rounds at the buffet. There were a few dishes at our disposal: vegetable vermicelli that was a bit too wet and a spinach and feta pastry that was much too dry.

buffet food

When we sat down with our pickings, the rest of our dinner was also finally ready. A bowl of pho to start. Noodles went down smoothly, but the broth tasted distinctly of MSG.

pho

Sushi was next. Too much rice, and rather odd fillings chosen for the roll: mushroom, celery, carrot, and tomato. Cucumber, pickled vegetable, and avocado would have suited me better.

sushi

Then came a small bowl of curry with a plate of baby, buttery baguette-bread-not-really-baguettes. The vegetables were chunky, meaty, and soaked up the curry well. I liked this one the most.

curry and baguettes

And then–a plate french fries! Gotta include some vegetables for those vegetarians. But wait! What if…what if we drop handfuls of these fries on the sides of a plate of cucumber salad?! Yes, that’s perfect. The American tourists will love this.

french fry salad

Let’s throw in a bowl of pumpkin soup too. They like that creamy, buttery stuff.

That’s what I imagine was running through the chefs’ heads as they drummed up dishes for us. It was quite an amusing meal; I guess they just don’t have many vegetarian guests :).

I don’t know about you, but I have this quirk where if I don’t particularly enjoy what I’m eating–even if I’m served a lifetime’s worth of food–I’ll continue looking for things to eat. I was definitely full by this time, but I simply wasn’t satisfied.

banh xeo

So I found a bánh xèo [Vietnamese crepe] station and ordered one with vegetable filling. This was just satisfying enough.

Those who didn’t spend over an hour waiting for their food to arrive had finished and were dancing on the floor to some swing music. I desperately wanted to join, but alas, the food in me would not have it.

bamboo dance

The dance floor emptied to make way for múa sạp tây bắc, or the bamboo dance. Múa sạp originates from the Northwest highlands of Vietnam. Four to six people hold two sticks of bamboo each while 8 other dance in and out of the bamboo in a 4/4 rhythm. The audience was invited to join in, but most were too shy.

music and dance

The rest of the night was filled with dances from different countries–Spain, the Phillippines, and even Russia. A fabulous Filipina took the stage and filled the air with sonorous notes of Latin love songs.

view from saigon river

I think the cruise ships had more lights than all of Saigon’s buildings.

City streets, Ho Chi Minh, 2013

our lady churchWe stopped briefly by the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, a beautiful brick church in downtown Ho Chi Minh. A vestige of French colonialism.  It’s precariously located on the edge of a rotary — our bus driver had to sweep around multiple times before there was a gap in traffic during which we could be unloaded.

Construction for the cathedral began in 1863 and completed in 1880. The two, imposing bell towers reach a height of 190 feet. The bricks from which the cathedral was built were all imported from Marseille; in fact, all building materials were imported from France.

Across the street and in front of the church is a tiny square, a flower garden where a statue of Our Lady of Peace stands to this day. The interior of the church was modest: white-washed and wooden pews.

interior of central post officeWe then walked westward across the street to the Saigon Central Post Office [Bưu điện Trung tâm Sài Gòn]. The post office is now more of a tourist attraction than it is a functional building. Its architecture is a blend of Gothic, Renaissance, and French influences. Some sources say that the building was designed by Gustave Eiffel — yes, that Gustave Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower –, but Wikipedia claims that it was actually designed by architects August Henri Vildieu and Alfred Foulhoux.

One can still buy traditional post stationery and even use an old-fashioned glue pot to stick stamps to letters. We unfortunately had only half an hour to explore both the church and the post office, so the most we were able to do was stand outside and snap some pictures. If, however, you fancy a taste of the old-world romance, this article has a couple beautiful pictures of the post office. 🙂

saigon central post office

for some reason I found this balcony interesting

for some reason I found this balcony interesting

a busy cart on a street corner

a busy cart on a street corner

on the other side

Nhà hàng Ngon, Ho Chi Minh, 2013

nha hang ngon sign

The tubers we had after our bunker crawl at Củ Chi was simply not enough to sustain us for the rest of the day. We hopped back on the tour bus and eagerly poured out onto the sidewalk, ready to be led to lunch at Nhà hàng Ngon.

reflection pool

Nhà hàng Ngon is a charming Vietnamese restaurant housed in what used to be a French villa. You enter through a leafy arch of trees and shrub-lined paths. Fairy lights sway gently in the warm air.

dining terrace

The building is painted in a warm, canary yellow with tailored, white borders accentuating the arches. Seating ranges between cafeteria-style–with rows on rows of tables–to elevated terraces with cloth canopies draped overhead. A courtyard with reflection pool sits in the center of the restaurant.

woks and spices

Along the perimeter of the restaurant are the food stalls where dishes are made to order. You are handed a small piece of paper, which is stamped when you place an order at the food stall. Sort of like dim sum, but instead of carts of food coming to you, you walk around and shop for the food you want.

making spring rolls

While the options were bountiful, it was largely vegetarian-unfriendly. Plenty of grilled seafood and skewered meats to go around, however. There was even escargot!

skewers, escargot, stuffed cake things

We were seated on the second floor–my mom and I had our own “vegetarian” table. our first dish was some tofu Gỏi cuốn [summer rolls] stuffed with carrots, vermicelli, lemongrass, and scallions. A peanut dipping sauce came on the side.

summer roll

Next was a plate of steamed vegetables: okra, carrots, squash, string beans, broccoli and cauliflower. No seasoning, just plain vegetables.

plain veggies

Then came the bowl of yellow curry with mushroom, eggplant, basil, mint, tofu, and some stewed veggie skewered “meats”. And a baguette for dipping into the curry, of course. This was an exciting departure from the plate of veggies; however, the curry was a tad salty. The baguette was warm and fresh, but dry.  Whether this was done purposefully so they could complement each other, I do not know.

curry and banh mi

Rotating waiters would drift by the table to refill your beautifully refreshing glass of iced lemongrass tea. Sweet just the right amount.

veggie pho

I never expected to see so much use of faux meat in vegetarian Vietnamese cuisine. Our next dish was vegetable pho. There were veggie fish balls, konjac, fried bean curd sheets, fried tofu cubes, an assortment of veggies–pickled and fresh–, and some shallots and scallions to top it off. The soup was flavorful enough (but had an MSG taste to it), and the noodles were pretty good.

three color dessert

For dessert we had Chè Ba Màu, or “Three Color Dessert”. A drink with pudding as its base, with green jelly, grass jelly, and some coconut jelly layered on top of each other. A wash of slightly sweetened coconut milk tops off the icy drink. This was so delicious and refreshing! Loved the variety of textures you work through as you scoop out the different jellies and beans and pudding.

Overall I really enjoyed my meal at Nhà hàng Ngon. In all honesty I can’t say there was a dish that stood out or that I can remember absolutely, but I still look fondly back on this meal as one of the most enjoyable I had in Vietnam.

Life in Saigon, Ho Chi Minh, 2013

Breakfast was early–we had a long day ahead of us! The Sheraton’s buffet was everyone’s dream except ours. There was a dearth of vegetarian options, mostly limited to fruit and salad. It was also packed at 7am. In Chinese we say it’s like a 菜市場 [cai shi chang], or street market: Chinese grandmas and grandpas shoving their way through a pulsing crowd, with handfuls of leek and bok choy in hand yelling at everyone and everything. So if you want breakfast without a line, get to the door before breakfast opens up.

sheraton breakfast

I managed to snag 2 slices of passionfruit, some jackfruit, star fruit, some pomelo, and red guava! Fruits I wish we could find as easily (and cheaply) in the US. I can only eat apples, bananas, and oranges so many times every day. When I was growing up, my mom made me eat a banana literally every day; when I hit high school, I felt like I was old enough to tell her no. And I didn’t have a banana for all 4 years of high school, until I got to college and had no other options.

We couldn’t have the pho, the rice, or any of the other (mostly seafood) dishes. But the banh mi station was our saving grace. French baguette, a crispy fried egg, and some pickled veggies. Slather sweet, sour, and spicy sauce on top. It wasn’t the best banh mi I’ve had, but it was good enough to tide me over for the morning.

Saigon on a hazy morning

Saigon on a hazy morning

Most Vietnamese eat a much simpler breakfast: coffee and pho. Street vendors can make $100/day just from selling coffee alone. This was evidenced by the tiny woman with a coffee cart right across from the hotel–it was early rush hour, and she already had a queue of at least 10 people. (I wanted a picture, but she kept glaring my way…).

Rent in Ho Chi Minh can get really expensive; it’s no better than what we see in NYC or SF, topping out at $3,000/month. Utilities average $100/month. The average Vietnamese takes home only around $500-700/month.

morning traffic

Morning traffic

Currently, the written Vietnamese language uses the roman alphabet, totaling 24 letters with the exception of W and Z. Its earliest form used Chinese characters, but evolved to using the alphabet after French occupation. Traditional Chinese was taught using Taiwanese textbooks before that, because Vietnam had (or has?) a peaceful relationship with Taiwan.

catching up

Catching up with friends

Spoken Vietnamese is a mix of Cantonese and French. And like China, they follow the Lunar calendar and hand out red envelopes on New Year’s. Students get 2 weeks of break for New Year’s, and workers get 9 days!

Vietnamese history totals 4,000 years. When the Chinese Communist party took over in 1975 and united southern and northern Vietnam, they also stripped everyone of their money. Businessmen, scientists, and chefs all fled. Refugees had to pay upwards of 20-30,000 VND to escape, an extraordinary amount at the time.

Businessmen melted all their gold, molded it into chains, and painted it black to disguise their wealth so that they could escape safely.

trash and phones

Trash collection next to a mobile phone store

Our tour guide, Wang, told us that he actually came from a very wealthy family that owned a prep school before the takeover. His brother escaped by rickshaw to Hong Kong, spending 40 nights on the sea before he reached land. He luckily had no encounters with the widely-feared Thai pirates that would smuggle and rape refugees.

A short side story on my family history

When my grandma was escaping from the Communists, she and my grandpa fled from Zhejiang Province [浙江省] in China to Guangzhou, where all the ferries to Taiwan would depart from the mainland. By the time they arrived, there was only one ferry left and it had already started to move away from the dock. My grandma was a few months pregnant with my aunt (the oldest and only) at the time. My grandpa jumped first as the ferry chugged further away; my grandma leapt and her feet scraped the edges of the ferry, but my grandpa caught her in time. And that’s how my mom’s family first settled their roots in Taiwan.

Anyone could be a spy for the government in those days; it was impossible to successfully get out. Wang’s mother paid a smuggler to take him to Thailand, but the guy took the money and left Wang stranded in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s reign. He was a teen at the time, and it took him 6 months to find a way out of Cambodia. A soap trader took him under his wing and made him tan on the deck of the ship every day so that he would look less Vietnamese.

roadside shack

A shack off the side of the road

Even more incredible was that Wang’s mother sewed gold and money into his underwear: enough to buy 3, three-storied houses. A lot of cash. It was very heavy, and Southeast Asia’s steamy climate is unforgiving. But Wang said he couldn’t risk taking the underwear off–and so he wore the same piece of underwear. For weeks. Until he reached Thailand.

He then used the money to get into the trading business, and eventually make his way back to Vietnam to raise a family. Many Vietnamese soldiers, on the other hand, bought their way back by marrying rich Cambodians and abandoning their marriages after taking the money.

early morning fishing

The daily catch

It is no wonder that with so many wars, that it has taken Vietnam so long to recover. There aren’t even highways in Vietnam yet, just local (and typically one-way or one-lane) roads. (Fun fact: the first time toilets came to Vietnam (before 1975), people actually used it as a fish tank or to wash vegetables!)

Amazing what you can learn on a bus trip. Our primary and secondary education in the US simply glosses over the ramifications of wars we forcefully waged on other countries. I was looking out the window as Wang was telling his story: each frame of passing scenery unfolding generations of struggle unknown and forgotten by us, but in which others continue to live.