Wednesday, April 17, 2013


The auto which drove monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon
I’ve headed upriver from downtown Hue, and gone to a quieter corner of this former royal capital. Today I’m exploring a calmer, more relaxed place. I’m wandering through a Buddhist complex known as the Thien Mu Pagoda, and I’m enjoying the serenity. No matter what your religion is, everyone will agree that a pagoda is a place of peace.

Hue has always been a prestigious center of learning, and this tradition of education carried over into the pagodas, where novice monks still learn the ways of Buddhism. Thien Mu means ‘heavenly lady’, and the complex was established way back in 1601. The pagoda overlooking the slowly flowing Perfume River is impressive in itself. At seven stories in height, it’s one of Vietnam’s tallest.

I meander past the monastery, where the monks in their robes are going about their simple daily tasks of maintaining the complex. They clean, cook, study and meditate.

As I walk past a side building in the rear, I’m puzzled to see an old parked car through open doors. This is an odd place for a garage. Inside is an old blue Austin sedan that hasn’t been driven in ages. Strangely, a white and brown rabbit is seated underneath the old auto. This car is connected to this pagoda, and its place in history. A sign in front of it reads:

“A relic. In this car The Most Venerable Thich Quang Duc went from An Quang Pagoda to the intersection of Phan dinh Phung street and Le van Duyet street on June 11, 1963 in Saigon. As soon as he got out of the car, The Most Venerable sat down in the lotus position and burnt himself to death to protest against the Ngo dinh Diem regime’s policies of discriminating against Buddhists and violating religious freedom.”

Unlike most Vietnamese, the dictator Diem wasn’t Buddhist, he was Catholic. But Catholics and Buddhists alike feared him, since he ruled South Vietnam with an iron fist. With Diem oppressing Buddhists, Thich Quang Duc and several other Vietnamese monks committed suicide in this way as an act of protest. In recent years, several Buddhist monks in Tibet have died in this shocking manner, as they protest against the Chinese government.

A rabbit sits underneath the old car
On the wall behind the car, is a copy of the famous photo of the monk’s death,  seen in newspapers around the world. Seated on a Saigon street, the dying monk is surrounded by gasoline fed flames. In the background behind him, is the car parked here in front of me. Witnesses said that as Thich Quang Duc was consumed by the flames, he never cried out at all. To prepare himself for this final ordeal, he had been meditating for weeks.

Fast forward to 1993, and a Vietnamese man killed himself in the same way near  this very pagoda. After he set himself on fire, he chanted the word, “Buddha”. Although the earlier monks who had died from self-immolation were protesting the government, it isn’t publicly known what the later immitator was protesting.

After this tragic incident, the communist government later responded in the same way that Diem’s dictatorship had before it. They arrested monks, even though this time the man who had killed himself wasn’t a monk. So much for freedom of religion granted in the current constitution.

Leaving the quiet pagoda, I walk down the steps of the nearby riverbank, and board a dragon boat that takes me back into Hue’s city center.

Shadows lengthen, and I take a late afternoon stroll. Walking past a bookstore, I remember Hue is a college town. I’m wondering how much censorship I will find when it comes to the written word, so I head inside.
Dinner drink. Hue Beer, in a Coke glass, in an 'Italian' restaurant?

It’s a modern looking bookstore, and I’m surprised to find that there are plenty of western books. The largest selection is for Vietnamese translations of software books for popular PC programs.

Given the country’s economic liberalization, there are also plenty of books lining the shelves related to business and capitalism. On the shelves are biographies of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and Bill Gates. There are no less than six books  written by, or about, Donald Trump. There's the self-help book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” There’s no reactionary literature here, the only book related to politics is by Barack Obama.

After I grab some dinner, I head back down to the riverfront. Some street vendors are selling their wares, and have laid out war relic merchandise by the sidewalk. There are dog tags, pins, mess kits, and canteens. Just like I saw while shopping in Saigon-HCMC, most of what I see here are fakes.

One thing that isn’t fake, is an old concrete bunker that I approach. This pillbox shaped fortification was used during the war to guard this end of the
US military insignia and dog tags for sale; most are fakes
bridge. It’s present use is the oddest I’ve seen yet for an old military fortification. As I watch, a street vendor unlocks the bunker door, and carries several cages inside filled with live birds. This may not be a proper aviary, but for this street seller, it will do for pet bird storage.

The skies grow darker as I continue during my evening walk, and I get a better view of Trang Tien Bridge. It’s an older engineering style, with steel girders arching over each span like six great camel humps. Now that its night time, the bridge is lighted beautifully, and each section has separate lights that change colors. They go from purple, to blue, to green, to yellow, to white, and back to purple again. It creates a visual symphony of color.

Passing a university, I take a side path into a riverside park. It’s more of an art park really, with many sculptures of various styles. Thankfully, none of the sculptures are political for a change. Like the colored bridge, this is art for art’s sake.
Old military 'pillbox' bunker from the war years, used today for bird storage!

An occasional boat floats down the channel before me. It’s dark now, and this locale has a dreamy view of the riverside at night. As usual, young couples have gathered in the park, taking advantage of the romantic view. 

In the park the lighting is dim, but the opposite river bank is well lit with an arrangement of neon signs, some of them several stories tall. They are all for Vietnamese companies: Agribank, Co-op Mart, Kuda Beer and Viettel Mobile. I remember seeing communist party billboards in town, but they simply can’t compete with all of this bright capitalist neon.

I’m leaving this former capital soon, since I’ll be heading north to the former De-militarized Zone, but I’m wishing that I could stay here and enjoy the slow pace of Hue just a little while longer.

Hue has had a turbulent past, and endured destruction by the French, by the communists, and by the Americans. It has been rebuilt, and reborn as a city of art,  education, and culture. It has
Colorful incense for sale in Hue, used for Buddhist ceremonies
regained its position as one of Vietnam’s most beautiful cities. It’s a classical city at peace.


Links to more of my Hue stories and photos: 



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