|Part of the Citadel in Hue|
We headed early for the Citadel which is a huge brick ziggurat surrounded by walls too tall to scale, and fancy gates and somewhere within a Purple Forbidden City, which we didn’t tackle in the morn’s blazing sun, it was already in the 90ties at 8 a.m. The whole thing looked macho to me, a man’s thing, so instead we took a rickshaw ride around the funky town for about an hour. That’s how to see life at its truest.
The guy pedaling made sure the canopy covered most of me. It was a scorcher. And we joined the fray of
transportation and toodled down tight streets and some of the bigger ones where, eccch, I worried if we’d get blasted away by a non-friendly truck. But, traffic just moves on, never straight, always a battle for place, and the law is you cannot pass on the left side even if there is a road hog in front of you in the right lane. Speed ranges from 20-30 mph even on the open road. Alas. But slow gave me a chance to see spirit houses, not at every place, but now and then. They all have the same size and shape (tho one gent had a whole floor in his house lit up with lights and exotica claiming it to be spiritual) but most are not as elaborate or filled with fresh food daily as in Thailand. The ornate Thai spirit houses must be placed by a Brahma priest and must be attended to daily. But in Vietnam, the spirit houses are little shelters, like simple bird houses, erected by the devoted to give happiness to the spirits, be they bad or good, hoping to placate them so they won’t disturb the karma in the house.
They fill them with candles, joss sticks (incense), toy furniture and items for the pleasure and use of the spirits, I was told. This is a big part of Animism and ancestor worship. In Animism, at death, the body which has been transportation for the soul, is left in some form. The soul never dies and may come back to pester someone, hence the houses. In fact, if it has been an odd death (like a car wreck or a murder ), that soul really needs to be taken care of and to be kept happy. Offerings are only brought on the first day of the lunar month and on the day of the full moon. Incense is burned. Incidentally, Vietnamese go by the lunar calendar, not the solar, and therefore, once every six years they have, somehow, two Septembers to catch up. We were in the second September - even in October.
|Vietnamese Spirit House|
After the rickshaw ride we drove to the Perfume River to board a rather iffy dragon boat, run by a woman in a coolie hat and her teen daughter, who did the heavy work. In the front area, there were cheap tourist fodder for sale, wood carvings, “embroidered” pictures, silk purses. We sat in red plastic chairs. And the windows were open but breeze was as generous as a tight-wad on a strict budget. So I got out my hand-fan and kept it moving. With the smell of the motor about to annihilate us, we rode along the river encountering other dragon boats with their own tourists, and our destination was the Pagoda (Stupa) and Temple
about a half hour down the river. We hiked up steps passed the Pagoda (relics buried) to the temple in back. One monk wandered around fixing things up. It was time for prayer. No one could enter unless you were there for prayer. A fat and happy bronze Buddha sat in a glass cage at the entrance. Incense burned heavily. We were the only people there, but for the monk in brown. So much in Hue was bombed by the US that their monuments and temples and tombs are under construction, still. The Vietnamese don’t have the funds nor the urgency to regenerate all that was lost. Not like China, which, after the rampage of Mao through its precious temples and spiritual has invested so much money into architecture and restoration that they have not only caught up and passed what was once before.
|Pagoda Holding Relics|
|Temple ready for Prayer|
What one usually misses about Vietnam is that it has a fascinating history of dynasties and emperors and intrigue. If you think it’s tough in China trying to remember all the Dynasties and who was who, try Vietnam. In a short time of imperial rule, they had some doozies. To begin with, the history of Vietnam is one of the longest continuous one in the world, half a million years of archeology and 20,000 years of culture. Ancient Vietnam was home to the earliest civilizations and one of the first to practice agriculture, thanks to the presence of the Red River Delta, its first state being in 2879 BC. Think: where was Moses then? With mountains along its interior borders and the rich river Delta and the sea along its other side with nothing but farm land in between - much narrower than Florida’s panhandle even - they were able to hold off conquerors and raiders until foreigners
knocked on the door and burst in. The Chinese Han Dynasty was the worst and kept them in restraints for 1100 years. For years Chinese Dynasties peppered the Vietnam ones until 10th century, the Vietnam conquered the interceptors and in 939 Ngo Quyen restored power to the imperial families and the dynasties took off like an Olympic race. There were exciting civil wars, attacks from Chinese Dynasties like the Song, Mongol Yuans, Chams, and of course the new kids on the block, the Dutch, the Manchus, the French and woe, the Americans. The French reduced lovely Vietnam to a colony for almost a century. Then Japan and the Red or Dead Communist took charge until finally Vietnam was able to become a republic but they divided into the North and South and the South sided with the French, while the North stuck to independence, under the leadership of Ho Chi Min. Peace is difficult.
|Emperors all in dragon dress|
And in even modern day Vietnam, the man still has domination over the woman and children. But this is a part of a truth hard for Westerns to understand. From 10th Century until French colonized Vietnam, the King, Emperor, founder of the Dynasty, had all the power from political, military and spiritual ritual. Mandarins were the facilitators of the Emperor’s wishes. Only the upper class was literate and the gap between rich and poor was gaping. Only in the 13th Century the Chu Nom language arose as Vietnam’s own peculiar style, but used just in poetry, literature, medical texts. The rest was still using Chinese characters. Agriculture was the only means of survival, which everyone knew best, and trade was not even on the map at that time. Whatever they needed, they had. The secret, I guess, and we could learn from this, was not to need what was not available. Yes, like everywhere else in Asia, Marco Polo came through, but didn’t blink, and Christianity came in with a hammer when the French took over. The Catholic Church was extremely powerful, and you were, even today, either Catholic or Christian (all the other religions with Jesus as their fore-front.)
|Dragons are Everywhere|
|Dragon out of a Carrot|
Westerers divide state and religion. Vietnam’s religion is a mix of Confuciusism, Taoism, Buddhism and Animism. it’s way more than “religion.” It is THE WAY of life be it in agriculture, social structure, political systems, every syllable, every action, was part of their “religion”, it was the community in action. Superstitions, animistic beliefs were all woven into
everything - just like the ghost bars at the entrances to any room, which you must step over (about 12-14 inches high), thought to keep the ghosts and bad spirits and maybe grandfather out. One writer said religion was the spiritualization of the community itself and the administration of Heaven. We in the west believe we move only forward on a straight line in time, aiming for that heaven, probably but not necessarily, but we aim for prosperity, happiness, accumulation, comfort and we go to church on Sunday but rarely carry our religious behavior further than that. I think wearing the robe of our faith 24-7 and in everything we do or think was what Jesus intended. We got greedy and liked the benefits better than the base line. In Vietnam, “religion” is the full design of the moral life of the individual in the community, with the community, and the social order of the entire country
|Tu Duc's Tomb|
Another point is we spread our loyalties all over the place - schools, churches, family history, trade unions, fraternities, football teams, school alumnae, clubs, bars, associations - we have to wave the flags of so many that it’s hard to keep up. We have many authorities: parents, teachers, judges, policemen, priests, coaches, doctors, bankers, professionals. For the Vietnamese, there is only the family, village, state, in that order and all connected to the same stem. There is only the authority of Father, and that is the biological one as well as the emperor. As the family can have only one father, the state can have only one head, the emperor. All three (family, village, state) move together and without drawing outside the lines. Peace, I read, is not a compromise between persons or groups or nations. It is a restoration to a single uniform way of life. There is no individuality and not room for creativity or being outside the box. Most of this philosophy is based on Confucius and ancestor worship.
Note about Dragons - I thought they had fierce meaning, but on asking I was told, dragons are responsible for good weather. They do appear on the fronts of the Emperors' robes. So I think it's deeper than that.