Thursday, July 17, 2008

Raiding the Imperial City

Hue was the Imperial capitol of the Nguyen dynasty from the early 1800's to the mid-20th century. As such, it is home to a massive citadel, a city within in city on the north bank of the Perfume River. Modern Hue surrounds this old walled compound. The north bank is called the Imperial City or the Citadel, and the part of the city on the south bank of the river is sometimes called the European city, a reflection of its more recent origins. Ancient-looking walls surround ancient-looking buildings with ancient-looking woodwork. By and large, however, most of the feeling of ancient-ness in the Citadel exists at the intersection of illusion, artifice and really clever marketing.

This is not to say that Vietnamese culture is not very very old, because traceable elements of it do extend back thousands of years. But as ancient-looking as this amazing structure was, we just kept thinking that there were things older than this in Boston. The oldest things we were seeing dated from the mid-nineteenth century, and on top of that, most of the buildings of the Citadel were destroyed by the particularly intense fighting and bombing campaigns around Hue during the American War. The scenic gardens, the houses of meditation and worship were mostly reconstructions of a remembered past.

Still, it was a sight to behold, with its high and forbidding walls surrounded on the exterior by a moat filled with beautiful purple water lilies. An interestingly delightful choice for a defensive mechanism usually filled with stakes, burning oil and/or crocodiles. Maybe all of these things were in there. If so, it's a little like putting a candy coating on a wrecking ball.

Holly and I were not alone on this little tourist jaunt. No, the young girl pictured here is not some wayward street urchin, nor a girl that Holly and I are adopting to bring back to the US (surprise!). Interestingly, these are not too far from the truth. Unfortunately, these sad, made-up scenarios are not even fully reflective of the real tragedy of her story. Her name is Tam, and she and her sister are orphans. They lost their parents years ago and now live with my aunt in the clinic. She is, frankly, more cheerful that I would be if that were my life, and she had a great time exploring the temples and gardens of the Hue Imperial City and the Thien Mu Pagoda we visited that day.

The Thien Mu pagoda is more expansive than one expects and houses a Buddhist monastery on its grounds. Above, you can see some new recruits getting their first taste of the ascetic life. We started talking to one of the older monks there and he told us that these young men were former pickpockets and street thieves turning over a new, and more cleanly shaven, leaf. As I'm used to saying as a teacher, every day is a new day, right?

Every day is an opportunity to do right by the world, too. The Thien Mu pagoda is mostly a testament to a distant past, but it holds one semi-modern relic shown above. An old beat-up car is a standing monument to the Buddhist monk who immolated himself in Saigon to protest the lack of religious freedom experienced by the Buddhists of Vietnam. At first sight, seeing a car on these natural surroundings seems dissonant, but ultimately the mind brings into focus what they eye can't see: that sometimes creating a peaceful nirvana on earth requires acts of personal and grotesque sacrifice.

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The Cowardly Lion said...
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