Wednesday, 16 January 2008

This soggy morning we headed to Hue, a city that was once the capital of Vietnam. Because it was raining, we didn’t take the scenic route over the mountains, but the tunnel that went through it. The rain continued to fall, as we passed by green fields and mountainsides, I know it would have been magnificent if the sun had been shining. The rain cloaked it all in a gray haze, and the only picture we took was of the bicyclists we passed as we went through some of the villages on the way. There seems to be a standard rain coat worn by Vietnamese, a plastic poncho that is pulled over the head, with a hood. They come in pastels, and the bicyclists looked like Easter eggs as they pedaled along, their rain coats billowing behind them.

The wind was strong, if the person was pedaling into the wind their rain coat blew behind them like a cape. If there were two people, the rain coat was pulled over the head of the second passenger. Small children walking home from school looked like pastel ghosts, their legs and arms hidden from view by their sheaths of plastic so that it glided along. Seemingly floating.

It’s interesting how the modes of common transportation change as we travel from country to country, and how quickly we get used to these changes and take them for granted. In Morocco and Egypt, we saw a lot of donkeys. In Rwanda, most people walked, and most taxis were a motorcycle with the passenger riding on back. Starting in Cambodia, we saw tons of tuk tuks taxiing people around. In Vietnam, bicycles and motor scooters are the mode of choice. We see very few privately owned cars, most vehicles are either busses or vans full of tourists.

After getting to the hotel in Hue and dropping off our bags, we visited the Citadel, where many kings once lived. Two walls enclosed the dwelling of the king and his many wives and concubines. One king had 104 wives, yet no children. Another had 140 children (he died early). Even through the incessant drizzle, even though much of it had been destroyed in the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War, it was a beautiful place. Graceful roofs swooped at the corners, colorful gates restored to their former, colorful selves. In a pagoda ancestors were worshipped, pictures of the former kings were displayed on intricately carved chests.

Truk explained that once a year, the week before the New Year, all the gods who take care of things on earth, travel to paradise, and the ancestors come back to the earth to take care of things while they’re gone. This made the ancestor worship make a little more sense, by worshipping and honoring the ancestors, they are ensuring they will return and take care of them the week before the New Year. Truk also explained that the ancestor is allowed to return on their “death day”, the day they died on earth. People in Vietnam have big celebrations on their ancestor’s death days, asking for time off from work so they can attend these special celebrations.

Truk gave an illustration of the difference between the ingrained social structures of Americans versus Vietnamese. If there was an American family and a Vietnamese family (several generations of each) on a boat and the boat began to sink, the Americans would save their children first, while the Vietnamese would save their parents first. Taking care of the oldest generation, honoring them and respecting them, is instilled from the time they are very young. It is a different way to think, to live. The older I get, the more I like it!

We went to a folk show while at the Citadel. It was a little baffling, since we had not been given an explanation of what we were seeing. Especially confusing was a dance with a woman in white, who made disturbing facial expressions and rolled around on the floor and moaned. Truk told us later it was a scene from a famous opera, she was a magical fox that could become a human, but had been tricked by her lover who stole her magic. I would have never guessed. The show also included a dragon dance. Two bright dragons pranced out, two people made up each one, one pair of legs the front legs, and one set of legs the back legs, their heads hidden under the dragon costume. They reminded me a little of Barclay on Sesame Street as they lurched around on the stage, and I couldn’t tell if they were supposed to be fighting or mating during their dance, until a little dragon appeared. So they were mating. Benji was on the edge of his seat during this dance, he loved the dragons.

The show ended with a bunch of dancers making neat formations while holding lighted “lotus flowers”, plastic flowers with flashlights in the middle of them. It reminded me of a drill team’s performance, as they made pyramids and pass-through lines and circles within circles. It was all pretty entertaining, and the kids really enjoyed it. I have to say, the music got on my nerves, it kind of made me want to scratch my eyes out, but apparently I was the only one in our family bothered by it.

After visiting the Citadel, we went to a Buddhist temple. As we approached and removed our shoes, we realized some worshipping was going on. We stood behind the threshold of the door, watching while monks chanted to the gong of a bell and the occasional beat of a drum. They all knelt in front of three Buddha statues, at one point one of the monks took a letter and set it on fire, dropping it in a big pot. This envelope contained the prayers of a family, who wished it to be burned so it could rise up to the ancestors and gods in paradise.

In the front row were some young monks, maybe teenagers, dressed in yellow cloaks. Behind them were younger boys, maybe aged six to twelve, dressed in simple gray cloaks. These were “monks in training”. They were still little boys, some of them lost their place in the service and weren’t sure what they were supposed to be chanting, they got up and whispered in ears and grabbed a book to reference. These young guys had their heads shaved in back but a longer part hanging down on their foreheads, while the older monks had their entire heads shaved.

We left the service, the chanting fading behind us, and peeked into the room where the younger monks sleep. It was full of rows of trunks, spotlessly clean. Truk explained that inside each trunk were all the possessions of each boy, their books and clothes and a mattress and mosquito net. At night, they slept on top of these trunks, a pole fastened to one corner that held their mosquito net. As we watched, the service ended and little boys flooded into the room, removing their top cloak. Some of the boys were even younger than the ones we’d seen in the temple, maybe five years old. The youngest ones had two clumps of hair in the back, plus the hair hanging on the forehead. I guess as they get older, they shave more hair.

The boys totally ignored us and went about their job of folding their outer cloak neatly to be stored in their trunk. The older boys were quite adept, folding it quickly and efficiently. I watched one young boy struggling with his, he must have been Benji’s age. He tried to fold his cloak in half but one sleeve was twisted  and he couldn’t make the sides match up, poor guy. I really wanted to go in there and help him, there wasn’t a mom in sight. These boys live only with the older monks, learning how to be a monk themselves someday. I was blown away by the enormity of it all, letting your son go to live in a monastery and be raised by someone else at such a young age. I guess it isn’t much different than Rachel bringing Samuel to the temple to be raised by Eli and the priests.

An older boy came and hustled the younger ones to the kitchen where they had chores to do and lunch to eat. We strolled to a garage where an old car, an Austin, was parked. Behind it were dreadful pictures of a man on fire. Apparently, this was a Buddhist monk who, after driving himself in the Austin from Saigon to Hue, set himself on fire. He was protesting the bad treatment of Buddhists and so he caught himself on fire to make his point be heard and noticed. Explaining self-immolation to the kids was not an easy task, I’m not sure I understand it myself.

We returned to the hotel, the rain still falling outside, and rested an hour or so before dinner. We only have one night in Hue. In the near future, we’ll spend seven nights in a row in seven different beds. I quake at the state of our laundry when it’s all over, with no time for things to dry and no time for a hotel to wash and return laundry. Ah well, the worst that can happen is wearing dirty clothes, I’m sure we’ll manage.


Thursday, 17 January 2008

This morning we packed our bags and selves into the car and made a trip out to the hills to visit two tombs before we headed to the airport. These were both tombs built by kings while they were still alive, making sure they would be buried in a suitable place. Ancestor worship and taking care of the spirits is an important concept to Buddhists, and one way that rival dynasties would secure their power was by destroying other kings’ tombs. One especially violent king unearthed a previous king’s bones, put them in a cannon, and shot them across the water, making sure the spirit would not be returning to claim any power.

The final dynasty, the Nguyen dynasty, built many of their tombs in Hue. The first one we visited was the tomb of the king who had 104 wives but no children. This poor man was a big disappointment to himself. The country was lost to the French during his reign, he never produced an heir, and he was very, very short. His shoes were in a glass case, my feet wouldn’t have come close to fitting in them. To compensate for these shortcomings, he tried to make a name for himself in other ways. He wanted to be known as a great hunter, but because he was so small and weak he couldn’t travel deep into the forest to hunt like other kings had done. So, he sent men far out to capture the animals and bring them closer, so that he could kill them and have his conquests recorded.

He was doted on by his faithful wives, concubines and staff. At his summer house, which eventually became his tomb, he had a large pond full of lotus flowers. His servants would go out in the morning and gather dew off the lotus petals, enough so the king could drink lotus-flavored water. In the afternoon the lotus flower closes, before it closed the servants would put tea leaves in the flower. The flower closed over the leaves, and in the morning, before they opened, they would open up the flower and gather the tea leaves, now scented with the lotus flower, so they could brew the king lotus tea.

The king realized he was not the strong ruler his people needed, he wrote an autobiography on a giant stone. It is written and read top to bottom, left to right, one column at a time. In his autobiography, he admits to his faults and shortcomings. He was still concerned about protecting his remains, regardless of how successful he had been. So when he died he massacred the 3,000 men who knew the exact location of his burial place to keep them from revealing his final resting spot.

The second tomb we visited was very different than anything we’ve seen on this trip so far. It was covered in tile mosaics, but they were 3-D. Dragons and flowers and golf clubs (this king played golf!) adorned the walls, I could barely keep myself from reaching out and stroking the shiny bits of ceramic and glass. This king was a puppet king for the French, not a very effective ruler for Vietnam, and his tomb is the last one built for that dynasty. His son finished its construction after the king died.

After the tombs, we headed into town for a quick lunch before going to the airport. We feasted on chicken noodle soup, with delicious rice noodles and a plate of spices we could add at will. Clay is supremely happy with the food in Vietnam, and looks forward to finding recipes on the internet so we can duplicate them back home. He’s also on the lookout for a good Vietnamese restaurant back in Austin, so chime in if you’re privy to one.

Our flight to Hanoi was uneventful, but the afternoon held a very delicious surprise. Look for this date on the Hanoi entry to find out what it was . . .