Just before midday, the heat presses down like a hot wet towel, especially after climbing the many steps to the Thien Mu Pagoda. I got here by ‘dragon boat’, from Hue (4km away). The cool breeze rising from the Perfume River carries the scent of hundreds of frangipani and jasmine trees lining the banks.
Our very handsome dragon has gold scales, blue-green crests and red light bulbs for eyes. Giant pink lotus flowers float on the river, part of an artistic installation of floating lanterns lit up at night. It was a cool ride and the best way to get to -not only this magnificent Buddhist pagoda originally built in 1601- but the Royal Tombs as well.
The way to ancient Hue
Venturing to the back gardens of the Thien Mu Pagoda, I spot a young novice monk emptying a giant kettle onto a Bougainvillea laden with blossoms. Alongside manicured gardens with dozens of bonsai trees in pots, run avenues leading to more buildings and groves of jack fruit trees.
Following the novice with the kettle I find an open-sided pavilion where teenage novices are busy setting up a long table in a lavender room where fans whir softly in the heat. The table is set for about twenty fully-fledged monks not present yet. There is an earthenware bowl for each with a neatly folded hand-towel on top and a china bowl by its side. Serving bowls go in the middle.
A head novice in brown robes looks over the procedures and corrects the settings’ alignment the way a Silver Service butler would, instructing the younger ones in grey outfits.
When the table is ready, the senior monks in yellow robes file in, stand behind their chairs, say a prayer and finally sit-down as a flurry of steaming bowls arrive from the kitchen and the giant tea kettle does its rounds. While the senior monks eat, the young boys in grey stand behind ready to fetch more water or assist in any way instructed. The precision is military and the boys engaging but what is most extraordinary is the young boys’ hairstyles, a monastic version of chic punk.
As it pays to enquire when you see something you don’t understand, I ask my guide why the strange tufts of long hair left on otherwise shaven heads. The answer is irrefutably pragmatic. As a novice enters the monastery, his head is shaven except for three well delineated areas (top-front and sides) representing the three jewels of the Buddhist faith: the Buddha, the teachings and the monks.
As novices pass their demanding exams, one side tuft is shaven off. After the next successful exam, the other side goes. The top bunch stays till the finals are passed. Because the process might take a long time, the hair grows quite long and, if the novice takes a few goes to pass, the hair gets longer. This is a nifty way to identify who’s who in the ladder. Some boys hook their shoulder length ribbon of hair behind their ear for practical purposes. This practice, I am told, is unique to Vietnam.
A great way to see Hue is on a cyclo
Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam, has managed to maintain a slow and charming pace despite the number of travellers that have recently ‘discovered’ it. During the biennial Festival of Hue – which takes place on even numbered years, visitors from Saigon and Hanoi pour in.
The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City (the Citadel) comes alive with actors in period costumes going about as if they were courtiers carrying on with their daily lives bringing the otherwise empty pavilions with red lacquered columns and highly decorated ceilings, alive. On the grounds, delegations from everywhere in the world perform for the crowds that file past continuously.
The grand finale is always worth attending, if you can get in, but the main attractions are always the art installations, the shows and the exhibitions, and, more than any other, the boat races that take place on the river. The banks are lined with families; ice cream, coconut and sugar cane juice vendors provide some coolness to the show; long traditional boats are moored against tall grass with families perched on the prows to watch and cheer for their favourite teams. This is a photographers’ paradise.
Hue has a special Royal cuisine that delights with its freshness and dazzles with its elaborate presentation. Dinner at Y Thao Garden (3 Thach Han St, Hue), is a must. Try to get there just before sunset, as it is then that the exotic garden begins to twinkle with little lights strategically placed. Heavenly, Vietnamese food is served in different rooms of the traditional house, or in the verandah.
JASS (12 D Chu Van An, Hue) is excellent for Japanese food (if you need a break from Vietnamese) and for a good deed. JASS is a Japanese charity organization that trains orphans and street kids in the hospitality trade. Students learn Japanese cooking and language (they also speak English and French) and practice their skills at the restaurant.
My next stop is HCMC (old Saigon) where the hustle and bustle of a big city will be very different to this laid back provincial town full of charm. I am looking forward to revisit old haunts in search of French writer Marguerite Duras’ steamy trysts with her lover as depicted in her book L’Aimant (The Lover) later made into a movie of the same name starring handsome Tony Leung.
But that, is a different story altogether.
Travel to Hue Vietnam
Vietnam Airlines has daily flights from Australia to Vietnam and three daily connecting flights to Hue from HCMC, Hanoi and Hoi An.