Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Vietnam: Hue's Temples, Palaces & Rural Beauty

My first impressions of Vietnam are of water buffalo lumbering through rice paddies, colorful street stalls and spirit houses smoking with the smell of incense. Motorbikes careen down highways releasing clouds of thick smoke and the sound of beeping horns in their wake. Driving here is an experiment in carefully contained chaos. On the side of these roads men struggle under the weight of wood balanced on their shoulders while women stand barefoot on the backs of water buffalo, wearing conical palm hats and searching for something in the horizon past the pandemonium occurring on the street below.

Down a winding maze of dirt roads we travel through the tiny rural villages, rice paddies and dilapidated shops around the city of Hue. Children wave from one-room schoolhouses with dirt floors; houses in the process of falling in on themselves seem to vibrate and buckle every time cars pass. Emperor Minh Mang’s Tomb is located in one such village and we stop to observe this 19th century Feng Shui masterpiece - carved dragons seem to hiss as they wend their way across the corners of the roofs here. Long pathways lined with baobab trees set off the imposing compound comprising of 40 buildings, lakes and bridges constructed by the Emperor's 100+ offspring.
Following the tomb we travel to a 17th century Buddhist pagoda (Heavenly Lady) built between the Perfume River and a pine forest. This seven-tiered pagoda leans a bit like the Tower of Pisa, its wedding cake layers representing all the human manifestations of Buddha. Monks chant sutras in the main temple while novices practice their calligraphy inside. One of the more moving exhibits is a national relic, the car in which Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc used to transport himself to Ho Chi Minh City on June 11, 1963 where he set himself on fire to protest the regime’s violations of religious freedom.

After a dragon boat ride down the Perfume River (where I somehow convince the driver using only hand gestures to let me steer) we dock at a waterside Vietnamese restaurant for lunch. Munching on fried pancakes with peanut sauce, white noodles with beef and spring rolls we’re in awe of this country, humbled by its ancient history and culture. Our last stop is to be the Imperial Citadel in Hue. Built in the early 1800’s by the first Nyguen Emperor, the Citadel is modeled on Beijing’s Forbidden City and features a breathtaking lotus pond and the Palace of Supreme Harmony. You can almost feel the ghosts walking the corridors here. Although many of the structures suffered destruction from U.S. bombing during the occupation of Vietnam, much of it still stands. Outside, rickshaws cruise down the road, motorcycles carrying groups of two’s and three’s zip by and market stalls are congested with the sounds and smells of produce, people and wandering dogs.

Come to Hue for the history and architecture but also know that part of the thrill is meeting the people, eating their food and seeing the way they live – it's an experience I won't soon forget.

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