This Hue exploration day is the twelveth post in a series of Vietnam experiences storied by Rochelle Porper, for the previous ones please read these.
- Greeting from the other side of the world – Porper story #1
- Days of Saigon streets and Mekong boat trip – Porper story #2
- Vietnam war confronting – Porper story #3
- A massage adventure in Saigon – Porper story #4
- First hit to highland Vietnam tour – Porper story #5
- Vietnam rain forest and hills of plantations – Porper story #6
- Kontum, tomb houses and tribal villages – Porper story #7
- On the way to hoi an ancient town – Porper story #8
- Hoian farming day – Porper story #9
- Another day in paradise – Porper story #10
- On the way to hue – Porper story #11
Hue has been the Imperial City since the early 1800’s and we spend much of today learning about it. This is where Long was born and raised, and you can tell how passionately he feels about his birthplace because when he talks about it, he places his hand on his heart. One of the most powerful things I have learned so far on this trip is how important family is in this part of the world. It comes first before all other things, and the wishes of the parent often dictate the course of their children’s lives.
Long and I have developed a really nice friendship over the course of the last 10 days. We tease each other a lot, and I know he appreciates that I care enough about his country to take copious notes all day and that I am keeping this diary. I am sure he has seen me moved to tears. So when he invites me to have dinner with his family tonight, I am dumbfounded. I feel like this is a special honor, and later when I find out that he has never invited anyone home before, I know it is one. But first, we explore the city. Well, actually, first we go shopping. We go to the local market and load up on hand painted bowls and other useless but pretty items before we head off for the Imperial Palace.
The Imperial Palace of Hue was built in the early 1800s and originally contained over 200 buildings stretched out over so many hectares that I can’t remember. It was the second largest Imperial City in the world until we took care of that during the war. Various Kings lived here, but the most famous is the one we focused on. His name was Minh Mang and he was quite famous for a number of things, including having 3000 concubines. There were entire sections of the Imperial Palace that were set aside to house his harem of desirable women. Once a woman was selected to be the King’s concubine, she could never leave the Palace grounds or show her face. If her family wanted to visit, they could only do so behind a silk curtain.
With 3000 concubines, one wonders how he could possibly choose who to bed with at any given time. Well, he had a large bowl of chopsticks, each with the name of a concubine engraved on it, and he would select 5 at a time. The King liked a good party. If he really enjoyed one of his concubines, he could request that chopstick for the next night. In fact, and I kid you not, his virility is so famous that there is a special wine named after his greatest accomplishment. It’s called “One night, sex with 5 ladies and 3 end up with babies”. I saw the wine so I know that it’s true. The King was an incredibly powerful man, who was very protective of his ladies in waiting.
There were portions of the City that were sealed off from men, lest they have a wandering eye. Gaining access to the King was highly desirable, so men would castrate themselves in order to earn that privilege. But it wasn’t enough to just go through the motions – you had to come to the Palace door, drop your pants for inspection and then spend several hours in a room full of naked women to make sure that what was left of your ‘manhood’ was no longer functioning, if you catch my drift. Once accepted into this very special club of eunuchs, one gained considerable power.
The Palace grounds were originally quite spectacular. Unfortunately, as with so many of these stories, it was mostly destroyed during the war because it was a Vietcong hideout. Out of the original 200 buildings, only a few remain. Luckily UNESCO has intervened and is providing money to the Vietnamese to restore as much as possible to its original beauty. The problem with a war is that not only does it kill the people, but it wipes out the culture as well. This is painfully evident no matter where we go in this country.
But I digress. The Palace was built using feng shui, and everything was constructed in clusters of 4 (for the seasons), 5 (for the elements of the universe) and 9 (which is the last number before numbers start to repeat). The steps all around the palace were built really high – even I had trouble climbing them, and that was to make sure the king walked very slowly to command attention. While the King was largely benevolent, he did have a penchant for frying in oil anyone who did not obey his command.
From the palace, we went to a very famous Buddhist temple. If you are as old or older than I am (is anybody??), you may remember seeing the footage in 1963 of a Buddhist monk who came to Saigon and lit himself on fire to protest what was happening in South Vietnam. I remember seeing it on TV, and he was wearing an orange robe. He came from this temple, and there is a monument to him here. Shortly after he burned himself alive, General Diem (the then leader of South Vietnam) was assassinated and Long believes that we probably had a lot to do with that assassination. It wasn’t long after the assassination that we got involved militarily here. We walk around the temple and take in the peacefulness of it. By now it is late morning and the heat is unbearable. Sam and I put the cones on our heads, and the English ladies whip out their parasols. It is classic. Diane must have been broiling – I found out that she has worn hose everyday since the trip started.
From there, we hop on a boat to take a long slow cruise up the river. The people who own the boat actually live on it, and I can tell you that there isn’t much comfort involved. There is room for a few plastic chairs, and the kitchen, as it were, is in the back of the boat. When we look towards the kitchen, we see the couple’s infant son sleeping in a basket suspended from the roof. I try and not to think too much about what kind of life this must be.
We see several boats hauling sand down the river towards Hue, and we ask Long where they get the sand. A few minutes later, we see for ourselves. There is a man in the water with a basket in his hand, and he is diving to the bottom, scooping the sand, and dumping it – one basketful at a time – into his boat. The scenery in this part of the rural country is very different than what we have seen before. It has different vegetation and has a different feel to it. I am greatly disappointed when we pass a gaping gash on a hillside where the Dutch are building a 5 star hotel. I am telling you guys – if you want to see Vietnam in its purest state, you better get a move on.
After an unbearably hot picnic lunch at the King’s mausoleum, we come back to the hotel. I feel funny knowing that I am the only one of the group who is going to dinner with Long, and I only tell Sam because we were going to hang out together. I jump out of the van, run up to my room just long enough to wipe the sweat from my armpits and throw on another shirt, and off we go. He has borrowed a moped from a friend for the trip to his parent’s house, which is about 16 kilometers away.
As soon as we leave the city, I know I am seeing a side of Vietnam that most Westerners never see. The neighborhoods are poorer, and at one point, we stop on a bridge to look at a long line of shabby houseboats, where the poorest of the poor live. It was hard to take in. As we get farther and farther out of town, it’s clear that I am an anomaly. I can see that people are staring at me at first, but then when they realize I am a Westerner, they break out into smiles and yell ‘hello!’ This is particularly true of the children, a long line of which we see leaving their school. School starts earlier in this part of the country because the storms come in November, and they know everyone will be housebound for days on end.
Long tells me that I am probably the first white face these people have ever seen. I don’t know how I feel about this, except to know that I feel like an alien. We go by a village which is entirely dedicated to the making of bricks – everyone in the village works together and there are rows of houses with bricks drying out in front. It is not uncommon in Vietnam for villages all to work together toward a common goal. As we get closer to Long’s village, we see fields of sesame plants and mung beans. We pull over to look because I have never seen a sesame seed in the wild before. Hell, I have never seen most of this stuff in the wild before, come to think of it.
The transition from tour guide to friend is an interesting one. It is one thing to hear the story of someone’s life in abstract and try to picture what it is like. But when you are invited to become a part of one’s family, even for a short time, you bring to the relationship another level of intimacy. I will tell you that I was not prepared for how I would react to this. To have gotten to know Long the way I have, and then to see his house and hear his story was rattling. To put this in context, you need to understand a little bit about Long’s history. His father was a South Vietnamese, clearly on the wrong side of the war. When it was all over, he was sent to a re-education camp for a few years, and was stripped not only of his dignity, but of his wealth as well. More than likely he was tortured, but Long doesn’t know. His father had previously been a very wealthy man, and Long’s mother had also been from a wealthy family. Their marriage was arranged before they had even met. After his father came home from his internment, he had nothing. But what little he had was reduced by more than half in 1995 when someone from the government came to his house, put a gun to his head and took a good chunk of his land. He protested this action, and was thrown in jail for three months. He was let out only after he publicly acknowledged his ‘mistake’.
Now the family lives in a house that is so tired and old that it was hard to take it all in. The bathroom is a separate room, with just a hole in the ground, with a door made of pieces of cardboard taped together. The kitchen is hardly a kitchen and the front yard is mostly dust from the road, which is being plowed for some sort of improvement. The entire village went without electricity for 9 years after the war ended.
Despite all of this, his parents and brother seem very happy and were so kind to me. Long wants to see his grandparents so we take a walk up the road. Everyone in town knows him – he is literally the pride of the village because he has worked hard to get an education and has a career that allows him to send money to his family every month. Without this extra income, it’s hard to know how they could survive since his father doesn’t work.
Long tells me that every person who greets him says the same thing “when are you getting married?’. Long’s girlfriend is from North Vietnam and his mother is having a very hard time adjusting to the fact that her son has fallen in love with a northerner. It is a process that he has been working on for 4 years. He will not marry her until his parents give their blessing. Before we get to his grandparent’s house, we stop at a bridge and Long tells me their story. His grandparents originally had 9 children (5 girls and 4 boys) which was a blessing (remember how the numbers 4, 5 and 9 are special?). But during the war, all four sons were killed – 2 by the Vietcong, one mistakenly by the Americans and one by a bomb. The grandfather is inconsolable, because in this culture (as is typical in Asian cultures) boys are highly favored over girls. Finally, Long’s grandmother realized that she had to do something to help her husband deal with his grief, and since she was unable to have anymore children, she found a younger woman and ‘married’ the grandfather to her. The three of them lived in the same house until a son was finally born. The younger woman eventually left, and his grandparents raised this son together.
I asked Long how unusual this story was, and he said it was a very normal part of their culture, particularly because the war was brutal in this part of Vietnam. I am practically reeling by the time he has finished talking. We go to the house, and I meet his 92 year old grandmother, who is a tiny woman who walks stooped over close to the ground and whose remaining teeth are all stained black. His grandfather is 96 and is almost deaf. He has a white goatee and is so thin and frail that I don’t know how he walks from here to there. Long introduces me to them as his friend, and says I am a monkey (my Asian astronomical sign). The grandmother says I am a young looking monkey and I take this as a compliment. She makes tea for us and Long tells her I am an American. I ask Long how she feels about that, and he says it means nothing to her. I wonder if this is true. By this time, I am so overwhelmed by the whole experience that my stomach is literally in knots.
When we finally go back to his parent’s house for dinner, I don’t know how I am going to eat. They have cooked a lovely meal and I know this must be how the real people eat. There is boiled duck and fresh bamboo shoots and figs and shrimp and endless plates of rice. I want to be a good guest so I struggle through the meal but really I am too upset to eat. They laugh and joke with me and his mother at one point asks me how many kilos I weigh. I totally understand this is polite conversation and that it is a good thing in this culture to have some extra pounds but I get embarrassed, although I answer truthfully. Long’s mother and I are the same age, and when I look around me to see how she lives compared to how I live, I can’t really describe to you how it made me feel. But I am struggling. We finally get up to leave and they give me a present of two grapefruits. I am touched beyond words. I can’t believe that Long has invited me into his life in this way. It seems like such an enormous gesture that I haven’t really earned. But I think it meant a lot to him that I came. I hug his parents and off we go.
There is a huge lightening storm ahead of us as we get on the moped to ride back into town. I can barely take this all in and feel sick to my stomach. The lightning is so bright and dazzling that it lights up the entire sky. I hope we make it home before all hell breaks loose, but we don’t. We have to pull over and throw on those thin plastic raincoats that I saw so much of in Saigon. When have pulled over in front on someone’s house and Long gestures to the house and says “Its propaganda hour” and sure enough, the entire family is gathered in front of the TV. It starts to rain harder and I get nervous. All I can see is a never ending line of white globes coming at me from the other direction, and they are weaving all over the road. At some point, I just have to close my eyes.
When we finally get back into Hue, there is still a mob of people out and about. I guess the weather doesn’t bother them. When we cross over the Perfume River, I can see sheets of rain illuminated by the lights outlining the bridge, and there is so much traffic there that I am terrified. I am extremely glad to finally get back to the hotel.
In trying to come to terms with how I feel about this evening, I realize that the biggest problem is me. I have lived such a sheltered and lucky life that when the reality of how other people live their lives hits me in the face, it is hard to take it all in. We take so much for granted. I will tell you that Long would be surprised by all of this – he and his family are happy and feel more fortunate than most.
So that’s it for today. I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything, and I learned a lot about myself in the process. It was humbling, and its good for the soul to be humbled now and then.
So there won’t be an email tomorrow, as the hotel we are going to has no internet access. I will pick up this tale again in a few days.
by Rochelle Porper from Boston, Massachusetts, USA
For the next ones among this Vietnam travel experience, you can jump to the following days.