Sunday, January 29, 2017

Return to Kengtung—Luxury-Style

                                                  by Jim Goodman

Naungtong Lake, 1998
       Kengtung, in northeast Myanmar, is one of the least visited cities in the country.  Tourists generally stick to the main sites in central Myanmar.  They don’t have the time for a place so far from the popular destinations.  In fact, most travelers who venture as far as Kengtung do so from Mae Sai, Thailand, where they can obtain a special permit, in lieu of a Myanmar visa, valid for Kengtung. 
       Since the bulk of its visitors come in from Thailand and not other parts of Myanmar, tourism promotion concentrates on publicity in Thailand.  To that end, in January this year the city’s largest luxury hotel, the Amazing Kengtung Resort, sponsored a group of ten writers based in Thailand for a stay at the hotel and a tour of the sights.  I was fortunate to be included and looked forward both to seeing a city again that I was already fond of and discovering what a luxury tour is like.
one of Kengtung's many temples
       I had been there twice in 1998, when doing research for a book on the Akha ethnic minority.  I hired a motorcycle driver to take me to Akha and Palong villages in the vicinity, but also spent some time exploring the city, which I found very pleasant.  Kengtung dates its founding to 1267, when King Mengrai of the newly established state of Lanna, its capital in Chiang Rai northern Thailand, drove out the Wa inhabitants and established a city.  He left his younger brother to rule as king and ever since then Kengtung has been regarded in Thailand as Chiang Mai’s Younger Brother, even though Chiang Mai was not founded until 1292.  Same dynasty, though, so technically it should be Lanna’s Younger Brother.
the central market in 1998
       Anyway, the main implication is the close cultural connections between the two.  The inhabitants of Kengtung are mostly Tai Khoen, closely related to the Tai Yuan of northern Thailand and the Tai Lu of Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China.  Their dialects are mutually intelligible.  They use the same alphabet as old Lanna and share the same monastic traditions.
       Kengtung, therefore, resembled cities in northern Thailand, but as they existed twenty or thirty years ago.  The temples and chedis featured similar architecture.  The residential houses were stilted, as in northern Thailand, and the women dressed in old-fashioned blouses and sarongs.  The morning market revealed the ethnic diversity of the area, as shoppers from several minorities showed up, both men and women dressed in their ethnic clothing—Palong, Lahu, Lisu, Wa and five sub-groups of Akha.
Palong woman and her silver belts
       The city lies on gently sloping hills, so that when walking around it’s never tiring and there’s always a good view, since chedis and temples proliferate in every direction.  The most attractive spot is Naungtong Lake, with chedis, temples and other fine buildings lining its shores.  Back in 1998, electricity ran only two hours a night, from 6 to 8, and nightlife was severely restricted.  At Nauntong Lake, however, there was a floating disco, with its own generator.
       This was the weirdest disco scene imaginable.   A dozen or more pretty girls in white sweaters and red miniskirts worked as hostesses.  To dance with them the boys bought tickets.  One ticket paid for one session, which lasted about a minute and a half.  Then loud whistles interrupted the music, signaling it was time to turn over another ticket to continue dancing.  Thanks to its generator, the disco stayed open a few hours longer than other public places, its raucous music and incessant whistles audible for blocks away.
Buddhist ritual, Wat Jong Kham
       Nine years later I made a third trip to the city.  Fortunately, a new road connected Tachilek with Kengtung, paved all the way, and it only took three and a half hours by bus.  In 1998 the road was only paved in the few towns along the way, full of dirt ruts in between and there were no buses.  I rode in an old station wagon and it took eight hours to cover the 165 kilometers.  A few months later I only decided to make a second trip because I could get a round-trip airplane ticket.
       The city was slightly bigger, but not any busier.  Now it had lighting throughout the evenings, even some dim public streetlights.  The disco was gone, though, and the only available nightlife was sitting with friends in a coffee shop or lakeside bar.  The morning market was as active as ever, but scarcely any women from the hills dressed in traditional clothes.  A few temples had been recently renovated and formerly white chedis were now completely gilded.
Loi woman, central market
Akha woman, Wanpin village
      The most prominent new structure in town since my 1998 visits was the large standing Buddha on a hill across the lake, pointing to the center of the city and its most prominent chedi.  It’s modeled on the original on Mandalay Hill and is a peculiarly Burmese type of Buddha.  The local Tai Khoen never had that kind of image, but now it’s the biggest in town.
planting rice outside Kengtung
       In a way, the Buddha also points to the Amazing Kengtung Resort.  It stands on what used to be the site of the local ruler’s palace, built in 1905 in Imperial Indian style.  He abdicated in 1959 and left for another residence.  The Ne Win government ended Kengtung’s autonomy and the palace began to decay.  Rather than renovate it, the government demolished it in 1992 and authorized the construction of the hotel, in line with its new policy to promote tourism.
       For this trip, my fourth to Kengtung, the hotel sent a comfortable van down to Tachilek for us and one of the staff to take care of the paperwork at the border and at the checkpoints along the way.  We all got spacious, well provided rooms with views of the pool and garden and excellent service.  Our multi-course dinners were fabulous, with mutton, prawns, beef, pork, fish head soup, chicken and local specialties like a kind of rice pancake.  We also dined as sumptuously on our afternoon meals our two days on the road.  Well, on a luxury tour you’re supposed to eat well.
Ann woman, Ban Lea village
the jewelry of an Ann woman
       But what was going to be the Kengtung they were going to show us for two days?  Since the capacious central market is most active in the morning, we naturally started there.  Our guide was quite informative, especially since only two of us had ever been to Kengtung.  He pointed out Loi women standing in the lanes waiting for work as porters, a few Akha women in their ethnic attire, odd foods like buffalo skin, bamboo grubs and other edible insects, and a girl inserting hot coals into an old-fashioned, non-electric iron for pressing clothes.
three generations, Ban Lea village
       We next drove to Naungtong Lake for a view of the prettiest part of the city.  More buildings had gone up since my last look, but all of them attractive.  It was a sunny day and great photo-op, though actually a better view could be had from the balcony at the end of the upper floor hallway of our hotel.
       After a brief look at an abandoned colonial-era residence, we made stops at two temples:  Wat Jong Kham and Wat In.  The compound of the former includes the biggest chedi in the city, while the interior walls of the viharn, the main assembly hall, feature a fascinating array of murals.  In golden yellow on maroon backgrounds, they depict various vignettes of everyday life along with Buddhist motifs and mythology.  Wat In is notable for its Buddha sculptures, elegant chedi and unusual brick book depository.
cherry tree blossoming near Loimwe
       Kengtung has many attractive temples with pretty much the same features.  These two were certainly representative and well worth a look.  So far the tour was going fine.  But then we spent the afternoon in the countryside, our ultimate destination being two ethnic minority villages in the hills an hour so away.  Getting there was pleasant, passing villages and their temples with the characteristic tiered steeples and people planting rice.
       Then we climbed slightly above the plain and arrived at Wanpin Akha village.  I had been in many Akha villages already, in four different countries, on countless excursions in the course of my work and my research, but never with ten people along.  I was wearing an Akha jacket, made by the same sub-group we were visiting, and could converse in their language. 
       That made my encounter different from that of the others in the group.  It meant that I could at least deflect the conversation away from what they were trying to sell me.  The others could not.  We had stopped next to a shop full of handicrafts for sale and a couple stalls just outside marketing the same.  Taking a couple of our group down a village path, hoping to show them the traditional Akha gate and swing, I learned that the village didn’t have either.  They were Christian.  Gave it all up.
Kengtung family on a picnic at Loimwe Lake
       We didn’t stay long, and next headed up the mountain to Pan  Lea, a village of the Ann people, a sub-group of the Wa, an animist group famous for their black teeth.  It’s the result of chewing betel, believed to strengthen the teeth.  They’re not the only people to do so.  We would see Akha, Lahu and Wa with black teeth as well, but they’re the only folks advertised by the tour agencies as the ‘black teeth tribe.’
       The village lies on a rather steep slope, full of traditional stilted houses, with bamboo aqueducts funneling water through the settled areas.  Most everyone dressed in their traditional clothing, mainly black garments.  Older women wore turbans with cowry shells attached and big silver earplugs festooned with colored braided threads.
Italian-built Catholic Church at Loimwe
       Villagers saw us coming up the road and so when we arrived we were all but surrounded by smiling women, some with babies on their backs, offering us various handicrafts—scarves, jewelry, bags, purses and other trinkets, some made by the Akha down the mountain.  Our guide gave a short introduction to the Ann, mostly about the black teeth and a fertility festival in which two men, one dressed as a woman, simulate the sexual act.
       Interesting people, certainly, but our experience was limited to a balcony of a house, with the eager sellers following us, and a look inside.  It’s not that the women were particularly pushy.  They were polite and they did get a few sales from our group.  They were just particularly numerous.  It was not, and could never be, an authentic cultural encounter.
       We left for a stopover at a plains village producing rice spirits for the entire region, enjoyed a few samples, and then returned to Kengtung.  Our destination the next day was Loimwe, a hill station 30 km east, at 1600 meters altitude, 700 meters higher than Kengtung, set up in colonial days as a British retreat.  We had glorious weather, good long-range views of Kengtung and its mountainous setting and the treat of wild cherry trees in full blossom.
fruit wines for sale at Loimwe
       Loimwe’s main attraction is its artificial lake and on weekends Kengtung residents flock here for picnics and visits to colonial houses and the Italian-built Catholic Church.  The area abounds in fruit orchards and shops in the town beside the lake sell wines made from cherry, peach, crabapple and other fruits.  Menus can be a little exotic, too, and our meal here included fried shredded venison.
       The mountain people around Loimwe, mostly Lahu and Wa, are all Christian.  Missionaries were encouraged in colonial days.  The American Baptist Paul Lewis set up the Lahu Theological Seminary near Loimwe in the late 1940s and it's still going strong.  Christian villages aren’t so interesting for potential tourists, though.  The people are polite, but don’t dress in their ethnic clothing because the missionaries persuaded them all that traditional stuff came from the Devil and had to stop.
village temple outside Kengtung
       Besides the Ann village, several animist settlements of Akha, Palong, Lisu and others lie within reach of Kengtung.  Unfortunately, government policy has never permitted foreigners to stay overnight outside the city.  Trekking can never offer much insight into mountain culture if trekkers have to leave the village before dark.  They miss the dinner arrangements, who cooks what, how the family eats, who goes to sleep first and awakes first and what is the first task of the day.  That’s the core of the traditional lifestyle and it won’t be revealed on a brief visit.
       It’s not the fault of the Akha and Ann villagers that their encounter with us was so distressingly commercial.  Regulations determined the circumstances and they were no more allowed a normal experience with us than we were with them.  The government cites security concerns, but the last lingering embers of the Shan insurgency burn a long distance from the Kengtung area. 
       Kengtung is a nice place to visit for its temples, scenery, lake and ponds, interesting walks, sparse traffic, special cuisine and friendly people.  Yet it could offer so much more, specifically authentic encounters with traditional ethnic minorities, the full spectrum cultural experience, just like its Elder Brother Chiang Mai.  But the first requirement is a new law on trekking.
view of Naungtong Lake from the balcony of Amazing Kengtung Resort
                                                                        * * *


Thursday, January 19, 2017

New Year Part Two: Early Festivals Around Hanoi

                                                                        by Jim Goodman

boats on the Đáy River heading to Chùa Hương
       Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, falls on 28 January this year.  People across the country are already preparing for it, buying the decorations, ritual items and gifts for the occasion and arranging a schedule for which days they will visit which relatives.  In Hanoi as elsewhere Tết is mainly a family affair, a time for strengthening the bonds among household members and renewing ties with both living relations and ancestors.  Some activities are public, most notably the government-sponsored midnight fireworks at Hoàn Kiếm Lake that heralds the New Year.  For several nights residents can also watch staged entertainment and circus performances at various venues around the lake.
       On the fourth day of Tết families hold their ancestor rituals and many businesses reopen after that.  The seventh day is Khai H--taking down the New Year Tree—which marks the official end of Tết.  But the general good will towards everyone and genuine conviviality (no one wants to start the year off with any expression of social enmity) continues at least until the full moon day the fifteenth.  It’s still the holiday season to most folks and local festivals have already begun.
musicians at Đền Trịnh
       On the fourth day festival action begins in Mai Đng, Hai Bà Trưng district and Chùa Trằm Gian, an hour south of Hanoi.  The latter includes a water-puppet show and both feature wrestling matches, events held in what us usually pretty chilly weather.  On the fifth day Hanoi residents attend the festival in Đống Đa that honors Quang Trung’s victory in 1788 over the Chinese invaders.   A very history- conscious people, Vietnamese also flock to the one-week festival beginning the following day at the ancient capital of C Loa, across the Red River in Gia Lâm.
       One of the most popular excursions the first fortnight of the New Year, particularly the even-numbered lunar dates, is a pilgrimage to the Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Hương), about 60 km south of Hanoi.  Sited up in the steep limestone hills that mark the topographical terminus of the flat Red River Delta plains, it has been popular with devotees since the temples were established in the 17th century.  
wild game market at Đền Trịnh
       Anticipating the crowds, Hanoi folks set out as early as 5 a.m. for the hour and a half drive to Đức Khê village, where hundreds of boats lie waiting to transport visitors down the Đáy River for an hour to the landing point below the temples.  Early mornings are usually rather foggy this time of year, the picturesque hills in front of the passengers only visible as dark gray shapes.  
       The boats first make a stop a short distance downriver to the 17th century Đền Trịnh, the temple dedicated to the Trịnh Lords, who ruled northern Vietnam from 1592 until 1787 and commissioned most of the more than thirty temples and shrines in the area.  It’s a festive atmosphere here, for besides the pilgrims making their offerings and praying inside the temple, musicians entertain in the courtyard and the carcasses of wild game, mostly deer but also fox, boar and leopard, hang from rafters in an adjacent marketplace.      
Thiên Trù Pagoda
       From here it’s a longer ride, passing local fishermen, to the pier below Chùa Hương.  After a 20-minute walk past concession stands, and maybe a stop for a bowl of morning noodles, the pilgrim arrives at Chùa Thiên Trù, another 17th century temple, dedicated to Quan Âm, the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion.  She is supposed to have lived here as a nun in the distant past, 
       Behind the temple a path leads up to mountain to the cave shrine that is the ultimate destination.  In the past, this took one and half to two hours, depending on how slippery it was, with scarcely a any scenic vista.  Since 2006 pilgrims have the far less strenuous option of a cable car to the top, with splendid views on the ride, especially if the fog lifts and the sun comes out.
reaching for the water drops, Hương Tĩch Cave
cable car ride at Chùa Hương
       The mountain is called Hương Tích—Traces of Fragrance—after the sweet selling flowers that start blossoming a month or so later, during Chùa Hương’s festival, which lasts until the end of the third lunar month and is the other popular visiting time.  Both the cable car and pathway end just outside the Hương Tích Cave.  Several shrines and statues of Quan Âm have been set up inside the cave, reached by a stone staircase of 120 steps.  Stalagmites and stalactites, many with designated names, dominate the interior.  Pilgrims jostle under one breast-shaped stalactite to catch the drops of water, associated with good fortune and prosperity.
pilgrims inside Hương Tích Cave
         From the enthusiasm and eagerness with which the pilgrims reach for the water drops one could assume that they are, at least for the occasion, true believers.   It is the first fortnight of Tết, though, when traditional rituals, customs, activities and entertainment accentuate the days and nights.  The holidays remind them that, however modernized they have become in recent decades, they still take pride in their cultural heritage.  At this time all things traditional are revered:  offerings to the gods or the ancestors, pilgrimages to famous temples, dress-up village festivals and ancient indigenous entertainment like water puppets and quan h singing.
female duet at Lim Hill
male soloist at Lim Hill
       One of the oldest singing traditions in Vietnam, originating in the 13th century, quan h is a type of antiphonal singing in which the male and female singers take turns belting out an old tune and then responding to it.  The melodies are those handed down from classical times and the lyrics romantic and sentimental.  In the past the lyrics were spontaneous and the responses to the songs would be applauded when the answering lyrics seemed especially appropriate, or perhaps amusingly risqué.  Nowadays hundreds of quan h songs have been recorded and singers can choose from a vast repertoire of standardized song dialogues.
wrestling match at the Lim festival
       The quan h tradition is especially strong in Bc Ninh province, its birthplace, across the Red River east of Hanoi.  Bc Ninh quan h singers perform at many festivals throughout the Red River Delta.  The most important event for them, though, is the annual festival at Lim village, held the 13th day of the first lunar month.  Besides neighboring villagers, the festival draws many thousands of Hanoi residents, more than the biggest day at C Loa. 
       Before the government rebuilt and widened Highway 1A, the road was just a two lane route, 25 km from Hanoi, with sloping shoulders that even motorbikes couldn’t use.  If you didn’t depart Hanoi before 7 a.m., the traffic jam might prevent you from getting there at all.   Anyway, local people start setting up early, while it’s still foggy, cold and drizzly, and by 8 a.m. performers have already started singing.
riding the swing at the Lim festival
       They are from several villages besides Lim, even from neighboring Bắc Giang province.  For two days prior to the 13th festival authorities vet the singers and award the winners a spot on Lim Hill, the festival venue, about a half-kilometer off 1A on the southwest side of the village.  Thus, although the program includes other activities, the festival is like an Expo Quan H, showcasing the year’s most talented singers.
       The last stretch of the road from the highway to the hill, as well as the field at the foot of Lim Hill, is full of commercial stalls of various kinds, typical for a Vietnamese festival.   Gambling booths stand at one end, followed by stalls selling noodles, snacks, confections and drinks.  Others hawk decorative items like pine boughs, colored dough figurines on sticks, paper turtles and bamboo dragonflies.  Cheap votive objects and temple offerings may also be on sale, for a modest pagoda stands on top of the hill.  But it doesn’t attract much attention this day.  It’s not really a religious festival as it is one of fun and games.
quan họ singers on the pond beside Lim Hill
       Besides the games of chance and skill offered in the booths along the entrance road, chessboards line a lane on Lim Hill itself.  Here players can indulge their passion in a place with a setting of quan h singers right behind them.  Two or three large swings also stand in the vicinity.  These comprise a pair of three long bamboo poles lashed together and a thick rope hanging down from the yoke between the pole sets.  Riders, solo or with a partner, stand on a plank in the loop of the bottom end of the rope and pump their bodies to attain height.  They can easily get so high as to be parallel to the ground.  But not for very long, for swing handlers grab the rope to ease them down and allow the next person in line a ride.
bats on the belfry at Và Temple
       In another area a wrestling contest takes place.  Bare to the waist, two young men face off and grapple one another.  It could be quite chilly weather but this is a chance to win public acclaim, so they don’t mind the weather.  The match ends when one pins the other to the ground.  Winners then pair off until a final champion can be declared.
         The main attraction, of course, is the music.  About ten or twelve tents, with a guard rope in  front to keep visitors at a respectable distance, house separate village ensembles.  The men wear long gray and black tunics, split on each side, over white trousers, and round black caps.  The women dress in a maroon tunic, split on four sides, over black silk trousers, and wear or carry a large round bamboo hat.  A donation table stands in front of their tent and visitors usually drop banknotes there.  Some want to take the microphone and give their own sort of karaoke version of quan h, but companions quickly persuade them their inebriated, off-key performance won’t get any applause.
village contingent arriving at Và Temple
playing a conch in the procession
       The tents are rather close to each other, so the overall audio effect wandering around the area approaches cacophony.  On the other side of the hill, though, away from the competing amplifiers, a quan h troupe performs aboard a small boat, poled around a pond.  Here the sound is unsullied by other noises and skillful renditions of the male and female singers most easily appreciated.
       With so many performances going on at once, quan h at the Lim festival is atypical.  In the past, pairs of villages in Bc Ninh and Bc Giang, for kinship or other reasons, became ‘twins,’ like contemporary ‘sister cities.’  A troupe of one village performed with a troupe of its ‘twin’ and the antiphonal singing was a dialogue between them, often with very local references in the lyrics.
at the start of the rituals, Và Temple
       Elsewhere, inter-village bonds could extend beyond pairs.  On the full moon day of the New Year month, five associated villages west of Hanoi near Sơn Tây hold a festival of their solidarity at Và Temple.  The compound lies in a wooded area a little southwest of the town.  Dedicated to the ancient Mountain God Sơn Tinh, its original construction was in the 8th-9th centuries, when the Chinese still administered northern Vietnam.  The buildings there now date to the 18th century. 
       At the end of the entrance path is an elevated square, for the compound stands a little higher than the grounds around it.  Next to the massive, red wood entrance gate stands a towering sacred tree.  On festival day a table in front of it holds the offerings of the faithful—trays of fruits, flowers and food.  The contents change constantly, for devotees return to take them away after their prayers in the temple.
offering liquor to Sơn Tinh
       The five associated villages hold their processions at various times.  Long lines of men and women, young and old, dressed in colorful traditional garments, make their way down the road to the temple.  Some carry the palanquin of their own village tutelary deity.  Others brandish flags, banners and ceremonial staffs of various kinds.  Some carry trays of offerings on their heads.  Musicians play fiddles, drums, flutes and conch shells. 
       The compound is rather modest.  Besides the temple it also features bell towers with circular upper tier windows, around which are low-relief bats.  When the processions from all five villages have arrived the courtyard is full.  Then the rituals commence, first with the men, carrying small trays of liquor, with drums beating and horns blaring to either side.  After their prayers conclude the rest of the villagers make their ritual rounds.
       When all have concluded, the separate village contingents pick up their palanquins, staffs, flags and instruments and begin the processions home.  Tết is officially finished and so is their own role in it.  But when the twelfth lunar month rolls around, and people start anticipating New Year again, some people will have more on their minds than fireworks, presents and family banquets. They’ll be thinking about their festivals, the costumes they will wear, the wrestling and swinging skills they’ll display, or the songs they’ll perform in front of new holiday audiences.

palanquin bearer in a procession to Và Temple 

                                                                                   * * *         

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Roaming Around Huế, the Last Imperial City

                                      by Jim Goodman

boats on the Perfume River
       When Nguyn Ánh finally emerged victorious in 1802 after a protracted civil war, changed his name to Gia Long and founded the Nguyn Dynasty, he chose Huế to be his capital.  In its previous incarnation as Phú Xuân it had been the capital of the Nguyễn Lords, Gia Long’s predecessors, from 1687 to its capture by the northern Trịnh Lords’ army in 1775.  It was also roughly in the center of a newly expanded and unified country, with the borders it has today, and halfway between Gia Long’s long time base at Saigon and the former Đại Việt capital of Thâng Long (now Hanoi).
boat traffic near Đông Ba market
       The city had been devastated by war and virtually nothing was left of its former glory.  The first building the new Emperor ordered erected was a massive Citadel on the northwest side of the Perfume River running through town.  Still standing today, renovated and repaired, its buildings are the primary tourist attraction in Huế, along with the imperial mausoleums, mostly in the southern countryside.  But besides these historical monuments, Huế has much more to appreciate.
Trường Tiền Bridge at night
       The Perfume River neatly divides the city into two parts.  On the northwest side lie the Citadel and the commercial district that grew up on its eastern side in the early 19th century.  It suffered considerable war damage and today the best surviving remnants are the Hainan and Guangdong Chinese Assembly Halls on Chi Lăng Street, the main thoroughfare, and Chùa Ông, built by Chinese from Fujian Province in the mid-19th century and often restored, featuring highly ornamented roofs and pediments.
    .  At the lower corner, next to the southeast corner of the Citadel, is Chợ Đông Ba, the large riverside fresh produce market.  Small boats fill the waters here, coning to deliver items or buy things to take home.  The Trường Tiền iron bridge at the end of this market, that connects this area with the new city, is illuminated at night with a succession of different colors on separate portions.
unloading a boat on the Như Ỹ RIver
       When the French conquered Huế in 1885 they left the Nguyễn Emperors in their Citadel as figurehead rulers and moved the capital back to Hanoi.  In Huế they built a new city on the other side of the Perfume River, just opposite the Citadel, in between two tributary waterways; the Như Ý River in the north and the Phú Cam Canal in the south.  Lê Lợi Street, running along the Perfume River from the train station just across the Phú Cam to the Như Ý River confluence, contains some of the best examples of colonial architecture in the city.
Nguyễn Dynasty monument on Lê Lợi Street
       On the lower part of this road the French opened a spacious high school campus of red brick, European-style buildings in 1896.  Hồ Chí Minh was a student here once, but was expelled after a year for taking part in revolutionary activities.  Other famous ex-students were Pham Văn Đông, Võ Nguyễn Giap, Le Duàn and Ngô Định Diềm. Across the road on the riverbank stands a Nguyễn Dynasty memorial building, flanked by two tall columns, in a style common to buildings in the royal tombs.
       Further up the road, between the Phú Xuân and Trường Tiền bridges, are some of the elegant French administrative buildings.  They are two or three stories high, with gently sloping roofs, narrow, multi-paned windows, colonnaded balconies and white or pale colored walls.  Today they serve as local government or corporation offices.
schoolgirls riding home
       Beside the Trường Tiền Bridge is a park full of odd and fanciful modern sculptures, mostly in sleek white marble.  Nothing neo-classical here, the works are both abstract shapes and strange statues like two swimmers, one atop the other, mounted like a flag from a post, or of the upper torso of a big-breasted woman with a bare, oval head, or the one of a naked bronze woman sleeping while cuddled by a black tree trunk with ten pairs of outstretched arms. Equally unusual sculptures stand in a park on the other side of the Perfume River near the Citadel. 
       The modern business district of Huế begins here, on either side of Hùng Vương Street, which proceeds several blocks from the end of the Trường Tiền Bridge.  Most of the hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and other businesses catering to travelers lie in this area.  On the wide avenues and side streets are more colonial-era buildings and a few churches.  A Cao Đài church lies on the lower end of Hùng Vương Street, perhaps the northernmost example of this very Southern religion, recognizable by the All-Seeing Eye depicted on its façade.
colonial building on Lê Lợi Street
       The most imposing church, in a thoroughly modern style, but with an Asian-style tiered spire, is that of the Redemptorist Mission of the French Catholic Church; the Notre Dame Cathedral, built 1959-1962.  It is near the southeast bank of the Phú Cam Canal, not far from the An Định Palace, another wonderful colonial-era building.  The second last Emperor Khải Định had it constructed in 1917, displaying his personal preference for a European-style mansion.  Three stories high, quite wide, with balconies and large arched widows, the façade painted white and yellow, the palace looks totally French, except for the roof of the octagonal pavilion in the courtyard, with sculpted mythical animals on its tiled roof.  Along with the Citadel and the Nguyễn Dynasty memorial on Lê Lợi Street, it is one of the venues for performances during the bi-annual International Huế Festival.
Phú Cam Canal
       Huế is still a relatively small city, so it doesn’t take long to get out to the suburbs and countryside.  At the lower end of Lê Lợi Street, a turn south on Điên Biện Phú Street eventually leads to Nam Giao, the former site of annual rituals the Nguyễn Emperor made to the Lord of Heaven.  Only the mound remains, but a right turn here, the route to the Tứ Đực Mausoleum, puts one in typically attractive Huế suburbs.  Unlike the outskirts of Hanoi or Saigon, here the houses are sited on bigger plots of land, spaced comfortably apart from their neighbors.    
Notre Dame Cathedral in Huế
       Likewise, the Buddhist temple compounds are larger than those in the city.  The most attractive is Chùa Từ Hiếu, set in a wooded area off the main road alongside two ponds. This is an active monastery with over a hundred resident monks and nuns.  The compound includes an entry gate with three arches, a couple temples, a cemetery, a shady walkway along the ponds, quarters for the monks and nuns and a bamboo rest house beside one of the ponds. 
       Buddhism still has a significant influence in contemporary Huế culture.  More Vietnamese take up the religious life, at least for a time, than in other cities.  And except for the Khmer-inhabited provinces in the south, Huế is the place travelers are most likely to see monks and nuns circulating in the city in the daytime, even visiting the tourist attractions, or happen upon Buddhist priests conducting rites on a city sidewalk.  Its religious reputation has even spread abroad.  At Chùa Diều Nghiệm, just up the slope from Chùa Từ Hiếu, next to an old Nguyễn Dynasty, square-based pagoda, Westerners come to stay for some time, don monastic robes and take classes in Buddhism.
An Định Palace
       From Từ Hiếu the road continues west to a junction and turns south, passing the turn-off to the mausoleums of Tự Đức and Đồng Khánh, and runs above the Perfume River on Vong Canh Hill.  This road continues along this scenic route, then descends to the broad plain in front of the Thiệu Trị Mausoleum, though a turn-off goes to a ferry landing opposite Chùa Hòn Chén.  Sited below a rocky promontory beside the river, when the Chăm held sway in this part of the country the temple honored Pô Nagar, their principal goddess.  The Vietnamese subsequently drafted her into their own pantheon of Holy Mothers and renamed her Thiên Ý A Ná.  The interior features a unique altar of nine tiers and ritual dances for the Holy Mothers occasionally take place here.
rest house at Chùa Từ Hiếu 
       The rural area around Lăng Thiệu Trị is very typical, with scattered farmhouses, rice fields, arched bridges over the streams and fish traps mounted beside them.  Another attraction of Huế is the proximity of its captivating countryside.  One of the most rewarding excursions is to Thanh Toàn, about 7 km east of the city.  The road passes through a network of canals and rice fields.  Small boats ply the waters, temple compounds flank the rice fields and farmers use scoops mounted on bamboo tripods to move water from the canals to the fields. 
sidewalk ritual in downtown Huế
       Fish traps common to Central Vietnam stand at intervals alongside the canals.  This contraption consists of a wide square net suspended from a bamboo tripod connected to an operating lever.  When released, the net then drops into the water.  When the lever is pushed down (and it’s a little strenuous an effort), the net rises, hopefully containing a lot of trapped fish.
       Thanh Toàn village dates its foundation to the 16th century, when immigrants from Thanh Hóa followed Nguyễn Hoàng here when he became governor of the area.  In 1776 a descendant of one of the original 12 founding families sponsored the construction of a covered bridge spanning the canal that divided the village into two parts.  About 17 meters long and 4.5 meters wide, slightly arched, a tiled roof, ornately carved dragons ornamenting the apex and roof ends on each side, with compartments inside for overnight travelers (one of the original intentions), it is one of a handful of covered bridges in the country.  Nowadays no one sleeps there, but it is a popular hangout for the villagers.
countryside near Lăng Thiệ Teị
       The village also has a communal house (đình) and a museum housing traditional tools, baskets and other everyday rural devices and implements.  Many of these are still employed and because of its still largely traditional setting and way of life, plus its beautiful bridge, Thanh Toàn is an additional venue for the International Huế Festival, staging contests in pounding rice, making conical caps, cooking rice and holding boat races on the canal.
       Huế is also close to the sea and a short ride up Highway 49 north of the city to the mouth of the Perfume River leads to Thaận An beach, near the northern end of a long, thin peninsula between the Hà Trung lagoon and the sea. It’s not a particularly scenic beach with no small offshore islands to look at and Huế’s weather pattern allows for few days in the year for swimming and sunbathing.  But in any case there are plenty of restaurants offering fresh seafood in a quiet environment marked by the sounds of rolling waves.
hoisting a fish trap near Thanh Toàn
       On the northern side of the Perfume River a very different kind of rural attraction is Kim Long village, just west of the Citadel on the way to Thiên Mụ Pagoda.  Famous for its garden houses and a popular excursion for Vietnamese tourists, the village dates its origin to the years immediately after the fall of Huế to the French, founded by ex-generals and former Court mandarins who had little to do after the colonial takeover.
       So they built nice, comfortable houses for themselves in Kim Long, outfitted with traditional elements like domestic shrines, carved wooden furniture with lots of mother-of-pearl inlay, ornate porcelain jugs, vases and jars, and flowers, shrubs and bushes to decorate their yards.  By no means mansions, they are generally one-story buildings with an attic to where the residents, descendants of the original families, remove themselves and essential furniture during severe floods.  These can reach as high as half the height of the ground floor rooms.
garden house in Kim long village
       They have a definite turn-of –the-century look, with columned fronts, often adorned with vertical plaques of traditional ‘parallel sentences’ (câu doi), tiled roofs and multi-paneled folding doors.  A few of the bigger compounds include a pond and an artificial mound, placed according to geomantic principles to ward off evil influences.  Some of the villagers have added teahouses or restaurants to their compounds to cater to visitors.  These are usually open-sided, with sloping tiled roofs and fit in with the existing architectural style.  The biggest garden house compounds include fruit orchards as well and maybe a fishpond and a covered passageway to the family shrine.
Perfume RIcer west of the Citadel
       Continuing west past Kim Long the road reaches Thiên Mụ Pagoda, on a hill beside the river.  This is the oldest Vietnamese temple in the province, commissioned in 1601 by Nguyễn Hoàng on his first visit to the area.  Beyond this a few km is the former Temple of Literature, where aspiring mandarins trained for service in the Huế Court.  Only the entry gate and the row of steles honoring the laureates still remain.  Another few km and the Perfume River bends to the south.  Near this turn a village temple compound features a replica of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India.  It’s not listed in any tourist literature, yet it’s another example of the pleasant surprises in store for anyone ready to roam around the enchanting environs of Huế.

18th century covered bridge at Thanh Toàn 
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Huế is one of the stops on Delta Tours Vietnam’s cultural-historical journey through the country.  See