A five-minute ride in a Mi Linh (green) taxi brought us to the doors of Saigon Morin and a spacious room with French doors looking out on the Huong River and Le Loi Road. My traveling habit had been for so long to find hostels and cheap hotels catering to backpackers for the night that this comfort was very seductive.
At the Hotel courtyard dinner, I chose the Vietnamese sampler. We dined to the sounds of a live band playing Western 70’s/80’s classics and…Que Sera Sera again! The saccharine tune and theme can get stuck in your head, and is as close to brainwashing as I ever want to get. Across the courtyard from us at a long table, Americans were taking turns telling stories to introduce themselves to their newly formed team. They are members of a Veterans group called D.O.V.E. It was hard to distance myself from the “American War” and all its consequences no matter how much Que Sera Sera was in the air. A member of the group said they are working in villages where at least three generations of people are showing the deleterious effects of Agent Orange. Another project of theirs delivers sturdy, easily assembled, hand cranked wheel chairs to disabled villagers.
Along the riverfront, we walked over stone pavers past the night market – booth after booth selling trinkets and clothing to a young crowd. Even with full moonlight and gas lanterns ablaze, we were all but invisible to the crowd that was so focused on cool customized key chains and other bright and shiny things. We were dull in comparison.
30 Le Loi Street
Escape from the Tuk Tuk stalkers
With plans for a walk across Phu Xuan bridge to the Imperial City, a full breakfast seemed essential. We were not disappointed given all the Western and Asian choices spread at stations across the inner hotel courtyard. And there was Hot Chocolate. Michele was very pleased.
Heading down Le Loi street we could not shake a couple of Tuk-Tuk drivers. Desperate to ditch the highwaymen, we sought refuge in an art gallery. Our hiding place was a high-end spot with La Ba Dang’s work on exhibit. In his 90’s and still producing , his work ranged from social realism during the Indochine war and American war, to abstract images with cats eyes, to topographic bas-relief work of cast paper . Though living as an expat in Paris, he returned regularly to support his home village.
Free of our lurking Tuk-Tuk stalkers, we managed on our own to get to the gates of the Imperial City, but not before two more tuk-tuk drivers tried to persuade us that the City was closed until after lunch…and we should hire them to take a short tour. So we narrowly escaped being tuk-tuk fucked twice over.
The restoration of the Imperial City following several wars is limited but stunning as you walk down recently painted red and gold corridors. Past the digital recreation of the full city, around the corners of devastation, you see signs of the havoc.
Bullet holes still pockmark a gate to the garden.
Foundation outlines hint of structures long obliterated. In some niches you can sense the splendor and extravagance of the royal presence: the Throne room with poetry painted on the beams, the nine large dynastic urns with molded iconic images of clouds and rain at the Pavilion of Splendor, the Queen Mother’s residence, Dien Tho Palace with the Truong Du Pavilion over a lotus filled pond. Though passing an old bomb shelter tempers the thrills.
We missed tea at the lotus pond (Mother was a no show). But we found an old guard house, now tea house, at the Hoa Binh northern gate. We climbed above the street crowd for a respite of coffee/tea and treats. On the one side the moat and Imperial City, and on the other side a busy boulevard and historic neighborhoods. We sat with just a few other local couples suspending a little time.
Mausoleums to Die For
A tour of the mausoleums of dead emperors may sound like a total downer, but these are not your average Grant’s Tomb. They showed distinct style and excess, each in their own way. Some of these guys actually lived on the grounds of their mausoleums prior to departing their mortal coils and riches.
Minh Mang includes a park like setting with constructed ponds and hills designed as a heaven on earth. One hill holds the sepulcher and the gate to the underground is opened once a year. Tomb Raider territory for sure. We were alone with the guardian statues until the first bus load of tourists cracked the silence.
Grey stone statues of mandarins and animals were the honor guard positioned on either side of the walk up to Khai Dinh. They loomed over us as we passed from one steep stone staircase to the next. The tomb showcased over-the-top rococo style interior spaces.
A riot of color and reflecting pieces of glass in wall mosaics would not let the eyes rest. Such décor probably disturbed the sensibilities of the traditionalists, but hey, the Emperor was the Liberace of his day.
On an enormous Stele at Tu Duc’s Mausoleum, the emperor’s regrets for not doing enough for his people are etched in the 20-ton rock. This is like a long gone distant relative, Judge Sewall seeking forgiveness on his death bed for condemning the women of Salem as witches. A little late, don’t you think? As we circled the Stele a haunting sound of grief, soul wrenching sobbing, inhabited the space. We found the source, a woman huddled against the outer pavilion wall consumed with inconsolable sorrow.
And, supporting the ancient monument in a few places, Crosby clips once again holding relics in place.
The last mausoleum stop was a peeling, rusting Austin car. A metal monument to the memory of Thich Wuang Duc that sits on up the Perfume River at the Pagoda of the Heavenly Lady. Thick Wuang Duc drove the Austin from Hue to Saigon in 1963, and then set himself on fire to protest the Diem regime. A photo of the self-immolation is on display…and provoked of disconcerting déjà vu. As a twelve year old, I had seen that image on T.V.; the fierce orange flames fueled by red robes soaked in gasoline and the black acrid smoke swirling above and there, at the very core, was a still, pale body in meditation. Sitting before a black and white T.V., I could not have viewed such a vivid image, but I had touched up the horror with a wash of striking colors over time.
We had the cabin to ourselves for the train to Hanoi so we locked the door, wrapped ourselves in silk sleeping bag liners and were rocked to sleep passing over the ties in the night.