We had been on the road for four weeks without a single incident. China, Cambodia, and a week left to check out more of Vietnam. We had visited Hue, a former capitol, complete with its own forbidden city-like complex and several tombs of former Vietnamese kings. The highlight of our time in Hue was a day where we spent the first part of the morning on the water, as there is a river that flows through the city. We traveled to an ancient Buddhist monastery. It was serene. Our guide, Phuong, dug in the ground and quickly found a shell from an American gun left from the war. Hue is filled with scars from the American war.
Going through the monastery, though, was peaceful. It was a bit overcast, and Rick and I enjoyed wandering the grounds on a hill rising above the river. There was a rusted car on display, the car that had been driven to Saigon in 1963 to protest the treatment of Buddhist monks by the Southern Vietnamese government. The driver, a Buddhist monk, borrowed it from a college student, parked the car, doused himself with kerosene in the middle of the street, and lit himself on fire. He committed suicide to send a message that the war was unjust. His home was the monastery in Hue. At least two Americans copied his act of protest—Norman Morrison, a 31 year old father, burned himself outside the Pentagon in 1965, and Alice Herz, an 82 year old woman, set herself on fire the week before Morrison on a Detroit, Michigan street corner.
After the monastery, we got back on the boat, headed up the river a bit more, taking in several fishermen. We got off the boat and got on the back of a motorcycle, each of us with our own Vietnamese driver. It was awesome. The rain started to let down. It didn’t really stop the rest of the day, only occasionally giving us respite. We continued on, and I enjoyed the views of rice paddies, interrupted by narrow roads and alleyways in neighborhoods. Our next stop was a coliseum like structure. It was erected during the French occupation (starting in the 1850s) for their amusement. They used it for animal fights, we were told. As we peeked through the locked gate, a group of kids came running up to us to check us out. Having spent some time in Cambodia, I assumed they were trying to get some money. They didn’t, though. They were just curious, and according to Phuong, they were on a school holiday, saw us, and just wanted to check us out. In Cambodia, where poverty is really bad, many children do not attend school because it is much more lucrative for them to sell goods to foreigners. I did not find that to be the case at all in Vietnam.
Next, we were off to see some tombs of the Nguyen family, who had officially ruled Vietnam from the early 1800s, but had huge influence in the region for hundreds of years. We stopped at one of the more impressive tombs, and it was in disrepair. Having spent time in China, I saw many parallels, but this tomb looked neglected. Hue is the major crossroads between North and South Vietnam. Unlike Korea’s 38th Parallel, which is man-made, Vietnam’s division between the north and south had existed for centuries. As a result, Hue became a crucial part of the war between the Viet Cong (Communist North) and the United States, who supported the South. There were a lot of major battles fought throughout this region.
For lunch, we continued to a Buddhist Nunnery, where we had an amazing vegetarian spread. The rain got far worse, and so we stayed for awhile. The nuns encouraged us to take a rest in their beds. Their beds consisted of a bamboo mat—the kind you purchase to hang out on the beach in Hawaii—on the concrete floor. This was typical throughout Asia—I saw this in several Chinese homes, Cambodian, and Vietnamese. The rain wasn’t getting any better, so we jumped back on the motorcycles to take a look at an old covered bridge.
There also happened to be a “history museum” next to the bridge, so of course I dragged Rick in to see it. An old Vietnamese woman, probably in her 80s, took us around to each exhibit and showed us how traditional people in the region lived through pantomime. She was wonderful, and when she smiled, her teeth were black. At the end of her tour, she took some green leaves and chewed them, pointing at her teeth. Then she offered them to me. Usually not one to refuse, I did this time. Thank goodness! When I asked Phuong about her teeth, he shared that it is popular for older people to chew leaves that turn their teeth black. It is considered a mark of honor for the elderly. She was definitely proud of her teeth.
After wandering through more beautiful countryside, we stopped at a shop selling all kinds of things, but most importantly, incense. Here I received a lesson on rolling incense. It’s difficult! From there we went back to civilization. We visited a friend of Phuong’s, a woman named Thuy.
Thuy’s mom was pregnant during the war, and her mother was exposed to Agent Orange. As a result, Thuy’s arm never fully developed, so Thuy functions with one arm. Because she was exposed to Agent Orange, no one will marry her, as they fear her children could also have genetic issues. Because she cannot marry, Thuy, a woman in her 30s, still lives with her parents. For a living she makes beautiful hats. Here we would call them rice paddy hats—the conical shaped hats that are stereotypical for those working in rice paddies to wear. The beauty of her hats is when you hold them up to the light, there is a silhouette of a typical scene in Hue. I bought a few different sizes. Thuy was lovely, and spoke reasonable English.
I really enjoyed Hue. The Vietnamese people were so gracious and welcoming. I think of Thuy often. She was filled with love and joy, in spite of the life of restriction she leads. She did not appear bitter, but accepting, and at peace. I hope to be more like Thuy in my day to day life.
All photos taken by me or Rick McDonough 1) Perfume River, Hue 2) Thien Mu Pagoda 3) Car at Thien Mu Monastery 4) Tiger Arena or Ho Quyen Coliseum 5) Nguyen Tomb 6) Buddhist Nunnery near Hue 7) History Museum near Hue 8) Thuy & our guide, Phuong 9) Countryside outside of Hue