I arrived in Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam, in the dark, after an arduous bus journey which inevitably took much longer than the advertised four hours! I found a small, traveller’s cafe, where the food was hot even if the local climate was not. It was cold, wet and miserable. I huddled beneath my two duvets, wearing three t-shirts, and wondered if I had made the right decision to leave Andrew in the relative comfort of Hoi An.
In the morning, on entering the rooftop, Soviet style breakfast room, I was even less convinced. The dining area was as silent as the grave. I bade a pretentious ‘bonne matin’ to three French girls who were busily tearing at baguettes in the corner, but to no avail. They glanced up momentarily, glared, and then went back to their breadslaughter – expressionless! I normally love the French. Andrew and I spent a wonderful few days in Normandy only last summer. the locals were charming. But on our travels through Vietnam the only type of Gallic cousin we have come across has been obnoxious and stuck up. I fear for their poor necks in years to come, as their noses are invariably stuck so far in the air, they are doubtless causing severe trauma to the upper spine. The Vietnamese loathe them, which I’m sure is not all due to their country’s lamentable colonial history here. Quelle dommage!
I sat at a small table, looking out over the ‘Perfume River’ which today looked particularly unfragrant and colourless. Hue had a very grey hue!
As did the breakfast.
I opted to ignore the blueish looking noodles and the dull eggs – more grey! And plumped instead for some fresh fruit and coffee, which is always reliable in this country. The mood did not lighten. It was reminiscent of The Last Supper, heavy and foreboding. I wondered if my fellow diners all knew something I didn’t.
Two American ladies on the opposite side of the salon conversed in a manner that only Americans can, loudly, and without any consideration for their fellow breakfastees. One was telling the other in vivid detail how she had eventually mastered the art of potty training her husband.
“I felt like a Carebear” she whined!
I felt like a sick-bag!
Her pal then droned on and on about the benefits of emotional therapy. After twenty five minutes of this interminable shit, I felt I could do with some too! The French just shuddered.
I was more than pleased to get out into the damp daylight, if only to escape the dreariness of my lodgings. I made my way on foot to the old citadel on the opposite side of the river. I wasn’t expecting much, as I had read how the French had ransacked the place at the end of the nineteenth century. They violently stormed the imperial city, burning down it’s ancient library and looting everything of any value, from exquisite treasures to the last toothpick! Then, during that other infamous conflict which occurred more recently here, the U.S. flattened the place with bombs and even painted the historic quarter with Napalm. It is true that this was a counter-attack after the Viet Cong had assumed control, and bludgeoned a sizeable portion of the local population to death, but it was still an incredibly broad brush stroke! The main victims of all of this futile fighting were, of course, the civilians of Hue. Thousands of men, women and children were killed during these atrocious campaigns.
With all of this in mind, I entered through the magnificent Noon gate with a very realistic attitude about what I was to discover on the other side. However, as it transpired, I was remarkably and happily surprised. Although the battle scars were very evident, the emperor’s once resplendent abode now a pile of rubble, there was still much to admire. Many of the buildings had been brilliantly and sensitively restored, and there was a wonderful atmosphere about the place. The site still resonated with imperial echos of it’s grand past, especially in the quieter, overgrown corners where one could imagine the many concubines bathing in their lotus-covered pools, bickering over the attentions of their lord and master.
As I stood in the centre of the ‘Forbidden Purple City’, once a place to which only eunuchs were allowed to enter, I felt lucky, not just to still posess my testicles, but to just be present in the presence of such regal ghosts.
It was a real trip – I’m glad a made it.
The following day, after another petit dejeuner from Hades, I made plans to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda. A veritable Vietnamese hotbed of political protest. The location which houses the old Austin in which the Venerable Monk Thich Quan Duc made his journey to Saigon to make his famous fiery protest against the treatment of Buddhists in the country, by burning himself into the next life!
Ignoring the pleading and incessant offers from at least sixty cyclo riders to jump into their baskets for the journey, I decided to walk. I had been informed by my hotel receptionist, Valerie,( at least, I think that’s what she said!), that it was a short two kilometre stroll out of town. After an hour of steady pounding, I was still promenading along the side of the river. I thought perhaps I had headed in the wrong direction, not for the first time. Before me on the wooded, mud-track I had foolishly chosen to take, was a group of men, nonchalantly grouped beside an incongrous W.C. on the verdant riverbank. I approached to ask them for directions. Almost immediately I realised the error of my ways. Let’s just say they were more than pleased to see me, and a little dissappointed when they realised I wanted a different sort of direction to the one on offer! It was all very pleasant. One of them looped his arm tightly around my lower waist, and used his free arm to finger my ‘Lonely Planet’, much to the amusement of the present company. I keenly followed his index finger as it ran suggestively along the length of my route-map, laughing along with them in a slightly petrified fashion. After he’d come to a conclusion, I thanked him very formally, and swiftly continued along the path, like a not so little but very red Miss Riding Hood. Feeling fortunate to have freed myself from the clutches of a pack of over-friendly wolves and leaving them to finish off their tasks in hand, which I had so very rudely interupted.
The winding path eventually ended and I was forced to join a busy four lane carraigeway, juggernauts and coaches sped perilously past me. I would have turned back but was slighly concerned that the gentlemen at the ‘gentleman’s’ may think I had reconsidered and was popping back for a refreshment stop and a quick handshandy! So I continued onward.
Eventually I stumbled upon a photocopying shack in the middle of nowhere, as you do, and managed to make clear to the lady-copyist the location I was seeking. This involved a lot of mime, including a terrible Joan Of Arc at the stake impression, which actually proved to be the clincher.
“Ahh” she nodded, and gestured further along the highway, “five kilometre”!
It was at this point that the thought of self-immolation crossed my mind too. The idea of dousing myself in petrol and whipping out a box of Swan Vesta, seemed only marginally less appealing than continuing on foot along South East Asia’s equivalent to the M25!
Needless to say, I resisted the urge to strike up, and just under an hour later the sight of the evocative tower before me extinguished any further hot headedness!
I climbed the many steps in solemn fashion, aware of the turbulent history that had unfolded here. As I neared the top, I was surprised to hear peals of laughter rather than religious bells. The whole summit seemed alive with joy and hilarity. A large group of extremely jolly Vietnamese were finding something outrageously amusing. As I got a little nearer I could see them pointing and guffawing, I realised then what the big joke was.
It was me !
They found me utterly hilarious. They were practically splitting their sides with laughter.
Andrew has always told me I have funny bones, but I hadn’t expected my skeleton to cause such uproar at such a seriously religious attraction. After countless photos, for which I happily posed, and a glut of hand-shaking, back-slapping and giggling, I said farewell to my new found friends and stepped inside the temple. The atmosphere was very different inside – much more sombre.
Monks were ambling gracefully around the grounds, and every so often one of the novices would bang a gigantic brass bowl with a Fred Flintstone club, resounding in a massive bong which would startle me every time. I marvelled at anyone’s ability to meditate with the incessant racket of the tourists and Wilma’s mighty dinner gong being regularly bashed, let alone find the extraordinary concentration to set oneself alight.
This was an amazing locale. Made even more so by the startling juxtaposition of the incredibly sacred together with the most mundane. On turning a corner and passing a beautifully ornate temple, I was confronted with a Royal Blue, 1960’s Austin automobile, seemingly parked out back. It was actually an exhibit.
It was the car in which the famous monk had been driven to the centre of Saigon. On arriving in that great city, he alighted from the vehicle, assumed the lotus position, and set himself alight. He was later emulated by several other brave souls who burnt themselves alive to bring light to the suffering of their people.
I could not help but be truly moved. I even touched the car in admiration, hoping, perhaps, that some of the spiritual courage may rub off on me. We can all surely take something from such selflessness.
On hearing of this genuinely brave flame throwing, the then president’s infamous sister-in-law was reported to have said, in an ‘Antoinesque’ manner,
“Let them burn! I love a big barbecue party!”
This comment unsurprisingly inflamed an already furious public, setting the wheels in motion for Ho Chi Minh’s communist revolution. We all know the rest!
I was interested to learn, that in 1993, another man performed this same pyromanical trick just in front of the pagoda. No-one knows why, it remains a mystery. Perhaps he was given the same directions as I was!
I sat quietly for a while, and meditated on how any being can develop the clear sightedness to sit calmly and turn themselve’s into a human torch for the sake of illuminating society. I left, feeling nothing but a perplexing sense of admiration for them.
I was, however, unpuzzeld by the route I wished to take back to the city. I decided to avoid the turquoise cottage and took to the water.
The Riverside Cottage!
Smugly pleased with myself that I had managed to barter the boatman down to just 100 dong for the return trip, I cast off in a vessel all of my own.
I realised though, on disembarking, just why my skipper had been so ready to reduce the fare for my passage. The port of disembarkation was, I’m not sure how one pronounces it in Vietnamese, but in The Queen’s English I’m fairly certain it is known as, the back of beyond! As I was cast ashore so mischievously I felt the fire in my belly begin to ignite, but instead of blowing a gasket, I thought of those beautiful monks from whom I had just learnt so much, and instead let myself – decompress.
I payed the captain, smiled and bid him ‘Tam Biet’.
I then set out once again on the long march home, this time on the other side of the river. At least there was no danger of having to quell the desires of the five knuckle-shufflers across the water.
By the time I eventually reached my dreary abode, my plates of meat were smouldering, I must definitely have burnt off breakfast, if not the dreadful recollection of it. That unfortunately was branded onto my long-term memory.
Just like the story of the brave and brilliant monk. His fate had seared itself well and truly onto my hard drive. I shall never forget the story of his burning passion for freedom and justice, and how it must be to have a real fire in one’s soul.
Bless him x