ThaoApril 30th

Among all the temples and pagodas we have been to, the But Thap pagoda was the most original one. Many artifacts were made from the 17th century and have not been through major restoration. We could still see the golden lacquer of the statue of Quan The Am with Thousand Hands and Thousand Eyes. In addition, none of the pagodas and temples that we had been to have the guardians as big as this pagoda, and they are also highly ornate. The table on which the altar for the queen was placed was also very elaborate, with figures of dragons curving its body and the sun in the middle. I was surprised that the table has been there since this pagoda was completed. The motif of the dragons carved on the table and the stiles as well as the dragons embracing the pillars of the But Thap tower was big and strong with scales, which was typical for the later dynasties of the history. All of these, along with the worshiping for some royal members, were evidence of a very well constructed place with the support of the royal family.

The well, which was made to look like a lotus, looked beautiful and wholly. Yet it was so sad that many people threw trash into the well and pure water no longer run into it. It was also distressing to see a lot of writing and carving on the statues and the walls of the pagoda by some uncultured tourists.

I like this pagoda because it was in the countryside settings, with the vegetable fields surrounding it and many old people of the village came to worship.

May 3rd

It was nice leaving the busy and crowded city behind and heading out to the more quiet and disperse countryside, even though I personally still have a lot lingering in Hanoi. I do not know how many times I want to say that the color of green of the countryside please my mind.

Hoa Lu, the first capital of Vietnam for 41 years, was buried under the ground, yet there was still the aura of the first and second dynasty of Vietnam. From this peaceful countryside, the first king who defeated the Wu army and established an independent Dai Co Viet was born. On this ever green rice field, the king in his young age showed his great mind on military through fake war with water buffaloes as horses and reed stems as flags. The temples for the first two kings here reminded us Vietnamese about their contributions and also to protect the peace that they fought for, which the kind people in this town have had for only about 30 years.

Hoa Lu village was settled in a beautiful location. The river running by the sides of the mountains, which was the extension of the same range of mountain from the Huong Temple, was very calm. We slowly slid through the water and go under three caves, watching the rice paddies on the two sides and the goats leaping up the mountain cliffs. At this time of the year, the rice plants were still developing and green. Next month, we would be able to see the flowers and then the yellow seeds that heavily bend the stems. The villagers would ride the boats, quickly and skillfully cutting the stems and mount their boats with the products of half a year of work as we saw in “Inside rice.” Harvesting would be one of the happiest moment of the year; the sound of the machine separating the grains from the straws would ring everywhere in the village. Then, yards and streets would be covered with the golden grains, which the farmers treasure as much as gold and gems. Knowing how hard it was to produce rice, I had always been eating all of the rice in my bowl since I was small as the old teaching.

Among all of the pagodas and temples that we had been to, the group of three temples at Bich Dong complex was my favorite. These temples were very old, dated back to before the first dynasty of Vietnam, and restored during the Late Le dynasty, roughly seventeenth century. What I liked most about them was their location and the tranquility of the surrounding. Three temples, one at the foot, one at the hill and one at the top of the mountain, had their back against the rock. The second temple at the middle nearly attached to the mountain, and behind this temple was the cave that led to the third one. Inside the cave was the altar for the Bodhisattva Quan The Am, vaguely lit by the dim light that penetrate through the exit of the cave. The highest temple was built at a great location according to fengshui. This temple had three sides block by the mountain; in the front were a small mountain cliffs and a range of mountain farther behind the rice field. This mountain was believed to block all the evil from entering the temples. The view from the yard of the highest temple was beautiful: green fields spread farther then my eyes could see and grey mountains partly covered with a darker green of trees stood solidly in the middle of the fields and also at the horizon. The temples stood apart from the everyday life out there, thus they were extremely peaceful. They correlated with the vitality and quietness of the surrounding nature. This place was a wonderful place for us to shake away all of the concerns of our normal life as well as to be quiet and at ease. No wonder a long time ago, devout monks would withdraw to these temples to meditate after consulting the kings with administration.

May 4th

Driving from the north to central of the country, I was very glad that the mountains and lands were covered with forests or productive plants such as rice, corn, veggie or rubber and pepper trees. In my memory, three or four years ago Quang Binh province looked much more deserted, since not all the mountain lands were planted with trees. The location of this province was not very advantageous; one side was the Truong Son range of mountains, and the other side was the South China Sea. The land for agricultural cultivation was rather narrow. This land also endured heavy bomb raiders during the Vietnam War, and remained bomb craters in the middle of the rice paddies were the evidence. The war was over nearly 30 years ago and the size of the bomb craters had shrunk a lot. One day, they will be filled up and all of the rice paddies will be connected. The wounds caused by war could not be completely healed as the land. Nevertheless, the pain will be slowly appeased as time goes by and the next generations, having not seen the cruelty of war, try to reach for a better life as well as contribute to the development of the country.

The Vietnamese never had a period of peace that was long enough for the people to entirely focus on their everyday life. Thinking that peace will stay in my country from now on makes me glad, because my people deserve a much better life after years of suffering and loss. Born in peace, I did not witness how devastated the country was but I could tell that the country was changing rapidly for good. Many bumping trails were replaced by nice, smooth highway, such as the Ho Chi Minh trail now became a national high way which was leading us to the south. These roads helped connect the remote and poor countryside to the more crowded towns and cities. Trading of local products increased and places with tourist attractions like Quang Binh became more accessible. In addition, easier transportation brought more industrial investment to many provinces and created many jobs. Thus, the newly constructed roads play a very important role in mobilizing the development of the poor provinces. The Ho Chi Minh trail, running from north to south, was once the way the northerners transported supplies for the frontier in the south. Now, it plays a supportive role in improving the life of the people living along the central strip of Vietnam.

May 5th

Visiting Phong Nha for the second time, I was still amazed by the indescribable beauty of the place. Streaming down the Son River, I saw the corn fields by both banks of the river. The water was extremely clear; under the bright sunlight we could see the bottom of the river. The caves were also magnificent. We visited two caves: one on the mountain and one in the water. The cool air of the dry cave felt very nice after the hike up the steep steps that were perfect for 6-foot-tall people. From the way up to the cave we had a very nice view of the region: we saw more mountains from afar, rice and corn fields as well as a cluster of small houses with red tile roofs where a branch of the Son River split into two. The river was light blue, and every thing else was covered with different tones of green

The dim colorful light set up in the dry cave gave it a supernatural awe. We were only allowed to walk through the safe part of the cave and there were more for the explorers to discovered, yet its nature-made columns and rocks amazed us already. The wet cave was also astonishing but our cameras could not capture the beauty of the place. I first learned that the Northerner Army used to hide their weapons in the wet cave; therefore, this area was heavily bombarded during the Vietnam War.

May 6th

It was so painful to see the tombs of the fallen soldiers at the Truong Son National Cemetery. The cemetery was for one division yet there were so many tombs already. The total number of the dead soldiers must be beyond our imagination. What made things even more heartbreaking was that the bodies of many of them were missing in actions; they could not rest at their motherland. There was no one in my family or close relatives whose life was lost at Truong Son that I knew of, yet my eyes were wet and blurred to see the place. I could not imagine how much more painful to be one who lost his brother or sister, a mother who lost her child, a wife who lost her husband or a soldier who witnessed the death of his comrades. The image of my mother sobbing when she first told me about her sister, who died because of traps in the war, suddenly came to my mind. My young mind could not grasp the pain in her heart when she recalled the memories of her sister, but now I understood. For the second time in my life I got the direct sense of how much war had taken away from the Vietnamese, and the feeling was too overwhelming. No victories, no planes that we shot down, no enemy that we killed… could replace or revive the life of the soldiers who lied down at Truong Son and other parts of the country. Nothing could cure the handicapped children affected by Agent Orange that I tutored at an Agent Orange victim center in Hanoi. I am afraid that after this visit to the cemetery, if a person mentions the Vietnam War or any other war to me, the first thing that I think of will be the horrible consequence of war, not the events or any victories. War should not be present anywhere in this world. This will always remind me not to take my life for granted.

Finally we arrived in Hue, the capital of the last dynasty. Compared to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam for the most time of the history, Hue had a very different atmosphere. The city still possessed the austerity and refinement of the old time. Hanoi was cramped with people from nearby provinces, thus the famous refined manners of the Trang An’s people were hard to be found. After lunch, Kimal, Quinglan, Tom, Kendall and I wandered the streets of Hue. Outside the area around the hotel, there were no fancy souvenirs or silk shops. We saw only stores that supply necessities for everyday life. Hue was less crowded, clean and still kept much of its tradition. Young female students with the white ao daistrolling down the streets under the Phuong tree were very charming.

The visit to Thien Mu temple was such a great experience. The temple faced the south, the auspicious direction for every palace and temple. In front of the temple was the gentle Huong River (which would be fierce during the flood season) and far away was mountains embraced by the floating white cloud. The complex itself was beautiful. The enormous bell that used to be rung every morning and afternoon was impressive. On the bell a lot of auspicious elements were expressed. Each season was represented by one spot equally divided on a circle on the Bell. When the Bell was still in use, the position where the Bell was hit had to correspond to its season. Under the season circle was the 8 diagram representing Taoism, and lower was the 8 emblems of Confucian scholars. Under the emblem circle was waves that represent the idea of “life is the ocean of suffering” in Buddhism. All of this elements belonged to the bottom part of the bell. The bottom part was made of gold and bronze and thus the echo could go as far as 10 km. Whenever the bell was rung, the monks prayed that all of the dead souls could escape the circle of suffering and go to heaven.

I learned a lot about Buddhism on this visit. The concept of wisdom and compassion was very inspiring. Compassion without wisdom would lead to mistakes; wisdom without compassion would lead to bad deeds. Thus, a benevolent ruler must have both of these qualities. This teaching of Buddha was expressed by the second gate that led into the center of the complex. The right gate was named “compassion” and the left gate was named “wisdom.” By the right gate was the “compassion bell”, by the left gate was the “wisdom drum,” and they would always be played together. According to Buddhist rites, we entered through the “compassion gate” and existed through the “wisdom gate” to exemplify that that we came with compassion and leave with wisdom.

The center of the complex was the temple that housed the altar for the Buddhas of the Three Periods. As most of the temples or palaces, there was a big court yard between the main temple and the gate. The temple was very nicely built to worship the supreme Bodhisattva and they fairy that instructed the first Nguyen lord in starting his capital. The temple was big, with the happy Buddha in the front, the main altar inside and the room for the Abbot at the back. We were very lucky to come here with Thay Trian, since normally tourists were not allowed to visit the main altar. Statues of the Buddhas of the Three Periods—the Past, the Present and the Future–were beautifully covered in gold. We had a lecture from the Abbot on the meaning of the five offerings. Flower and fruits represented the idea of karma. If you did bad things or “plant the bad seeds,” you get bad consequence or “bad fruit” and vice versa. Lighted candles offered light which symbolized light of wisdom against darkness of ignorance. Water represented purification and incense stood for the fragrance of morality.

The hospitality of the Abbot of the Thien Mu temple was indescribable. He was so happy, friendly and fun. He heartily laughed and talked all the time. The vegetarian meal with the exchange of music between the monks and our group was unforgettable. The Abbot even sang and played the flute for us. Despite the great dinner that the Abbot prepared for us, the normal meal of the monks was very plain. Their sleeping place was also very simple. Every body from old monks to novices got up at five every day, had their training and did their chores for the whole day. They were very well disciplined.

May 7th

The Citadel of Hue was mostly in ruined, but the restored part was beautiful and I could not remember everything we saw. Inside the outermost wall, we saw the nine cannons which were made from the bronze of the Tay Son’s weapons and held spiritual meanings only. Four of them were on the right to stand for four seasons, and five was on the other side and stand for five elements. To enter the Royal citadel (second layer) we had to go through the Noon Gate, where important ceremonies took place. There was an old picture portraying how a ceremony was like. The emperor would sit above, looking down to rows of mandarins and elephants that stood in the yard in front of the gate.

After the Noon Gate was the Supreme Harmony Palace (Thai Hoa) where the emperor sat to listen to reports. I liked the name of this palace, since it reflected the idea of being the Son of Heaven, the emperor must kept Earth in harmony and peace. Next in my memory was the Queen Mothers’ palace. It was partly restored; the gates and screens was beautifully decorated with phoenix, symbol of the queen, using pieces of porcelain and colored glass. The last building we went to was the temple that worshipped all of the main kings of the Nguyen dynasty and the Nine Urns that dedicated to the nine major kings. The one dedicated to Gia Long, the first king, stood out in the front. We directly observed the animals, seasons, plants… mentioned in the reading that were skillfully casted on the urns.

The motif of dragons in columns and roofs of the Nguyen dynasty were big body with scales, long whisker and five fingers representing five elements. They were looked much stronger and more elaborated than dragons in Ly and Tran dynasty.

In the afternoon of this day we visited the mausoleum of Minh Mang, the second king. Minh Mang chose his tomb to be in the mountain, quietly embraced by nature. The gate, which was never opened after the burial of Minh Mang, the stele where the eulogy for the king was written, bridges that go across the ponds, the pavilion and the tomb of the king were exactly on a line. Two side of this line were trees, rocks and water, which gave the complex a very peaceful, cool and quiet air. The scary stories that Thay Trian knew about two treasure hunters who happened at the same time after they opened tombs of Ly or Tran kings, scared us a little bit. Thay Trian said that every king would have a curse put on their tombs that haunted the person who opened it, because all of them, trying to stay eternally in this mortal world, did not want anybody to disturb them after death. The bridge that connects the pavilion, which I thought to be where the king sit to watch over the construction of his tomb, with his real tomb was partially damage, and the tomb was not restored. We did not cross the bridge to see the tomb. I wondered if because it was dangerous to walk through the damaged bridge and unrestored tomb or because people were afraid of the curse of the tomb that we were not allow to visit it.

May 8th

This morning we visited two more tombs, one of Tu Duc, the 4th king and one of Khai Dinh, the second to last king. The structure of Tu Duc’s tomb was familiar to that of Minh Mang. However, beside the tomb part, the place had building that served as the living place for the king, because he lived in his mausoleum for 16th year before he really died. There were houses for his women and servants, a place for the king to stay and work and theater for entertaining. He also had a beautiful pond with a pavilion built for him to view the scene. I found the simple altars for the women who stayed in the mausoleum to worship him after his death and the tablets for his favorite concubines in the worshipping room for his mother very interesting. The contradiction between his big and lavish tomb with the long eulogy that he wrote for himself and how he named everything with the word “humble” was comical. Except for the fact that his tablet was smaller than his wife, there seemed to be no evidence about the humbleness that he claimed to bear as the curse that made him have no children. In addition to Tu Duc tomb, his first wife’s tomb and adopted son Duc Duc were also established within the complex. How Duc Duc was dethroned, after only three days being king due to a plot set up by some powerful members of the Royal chamber, and starved to death in his now altar room, was very sad. After Tu Duc’s death, the whole country had fallen into the colony of the French, thus the royal court was manipulated according to the French’s will and they only wanted a puppet king to be in the throne.

The mausoleum of Khai Dinh was marvelous, yet I had a negative feeling toward this king. His tomb did not follow the tradition of the previous ones; it was very modernized and built with expensive materials imported from other countries. Cement was from France, porcelains and some ceramic products were from China and Japan, and probably more that I could not remember. There were many steps that we had to climb before we reached his tomb. The dragons that were installed along the steps were much bigger that those at other tombs and the citadel. Instead of one row of statues of mandarins, elephants and horses on each side as in other tombs, Khai Dinh’s had two rows and the statues were about the actual size of a real people. Clothes of the mandarins were also carved in much more details. This king lavishly spent money and labor on building his final resting place, and I had to admit that it was beautiful. The main building had high ceiling, with his altar and tomb in the center. The ceiling was beautifully painted with nine fierce looking dragons in grey tone. The walls were decorated with pictures of flowers that symbolized four seasons, emblems of a scholar or normal patterns. This king had porcelains or colorful glass broken into pieces and then made into pictures and decorations. In addition, he had a statue of him made; it was covered with gold (color) and placed above his tomb as if he was still in the throne. No wonder it took so long to build his tomb. There were also statues and pictures of him in French official clothes. Khai Dinh was greatly influenced by French culture and he was not a good king; he was just a puppet for the French, spent a lot of money and abused labor to build his spectacular yet wasteful tomb.

Thay Trian said that he planned for us to see all of the tombs that followed the same kind of architecture first and the most different one for last, or “save the best for last.” Then, Kimal’s remark, “save the worst king for last,” made me laugh.

For the past two nights Kimal, Q and I went to had iced milk coffee at the same place because the music videos that the shop played made us laughed so much. We talked about Vietnamese pop music, and I honestly said that I did not like it except for some high quality songs. I explained that nowadays so many young people, immature and lacking talents, became famous because of their cute look with the help of expensive clothes and cosmetics. Lyrics were shallow and voices were weak, but with modern technology, their CDs turned out to be acceptable. Songs and video clips also lacked of creativities; there was one video that obviously used the idea of a famous song on MTV. A series of song by some Vietnamese Americans made us laugh the most, because of the confused identity of the music. 4 boys and 4 girls sang a bunch of cheesy songs about love or heartbreak, sometimes in English, sometimes in Vietnamese. The boys had the weirdest expression on their face, trying to express the sadness of the song and be cool looking at the same time. Yet the result was horrible: they looked very feminine for me. The girls were pretty, wearing sexy clothes but clumsily dancing. The background dancers did some break dance moves. Of course none of us could said that their music was the representative of the Vietnamese pop music, yet they were not at the level of American music either. What were they? How did the young Vietnamese abroad identify themselves? Did some thought of themselves as Vietnamese, some as American? Were the rest confused?

May 9th

I hoped going to the poor village at the outskirt of Hue was a change for everybody. We had been seeing things that were made nice and clean for tourists; this trip must have shown us the other face of the country. The road leading from the highway to the village was very rough. Small, unstable looking houses built by bricks or woods and hidden under trees were where the villagers lived. We, the foreign group that the people here probably saw on TV only, were invited to the house of Thay Trian’s clan. The main room was so simple and served multiple functions. In the middle were an ancestral worship altar and a long table which served as both dinning table and where guests were greeted. By the two sides of the room were beds with mosquito nets already hung up and a few people would share one bed. There were smaller houses around where members of the clan lived in.

We could tell that food and money were far from being abundant for these people, yet we were warmly welcomed by many people beyond my imagination. It seemed like every member of the family was there putting out seats and setting up fans to make us feel comfortable. The village planted and grew most of the food themselves but they served us so much water melon, taro and tea. I felt really bad, because they could have sold or enjoy these products. At that moment, Thay Trian’s clan members looked like they were having fun trying to communicate and singing for us, but I felt very troubled. Just comparing my life to these people’s lives made me felt very lucky and sad. I put a lot of effort to go this far in life, but I started out with more advantages than the children in this village did. If they had the supports that I had, these young children with such bright eyes might have achieved more than I did. We were born differently, and this inequality would go on for a long time. Being unable to do anything for them made me feel uneasy.

In the afternoon we had dinner in a temple again. The temple was still being rebuilt but the Abbot made a vegetarian feast for us. People in the central were so nice; they never treated their guests less than their best in any circumstances.