Look and love everyone, whoever sees this landscape is stunned Hồ Xuân Hưởng
To understand Việt Nam, keep in mind that poetry remains a national pastime. Rhymes, puns, word play, metrical schemata, aphorisms, banners all over the place, all blend to create an identity that blooms into daily graceful utterance. I’ve never seen people come up with better titles for things than the Vietnamese.
Do you know Hồ Xuân Hưởng’s poem Questions for the Moon?
Questions for the Moon
How many thousands of years have you been there?
Why sometimes slender, sometimes full?
How old is the White Rabbit? How many children belong to Moon Girl?
Why do you circle the purple loneliness of night and seldom blush before the Sun?
Weary, past midnight, who are you searching for?
Are you in love with these rivers and hills?
I first encountered this poem browsing at a children’s book at the Hà Nội Social Club. The words and its questions immediately stopped me cold. A mature innocence was the definition I’d been searching for to describe my admiration for the Vietnamese, and this poem put into words my generalized feelings about the country. This is a poem about celestial wonder that unifies old and young alike. And the poem also fits a national profile as its author is a woman, Hồ Xuân Hướng.
Considered one of Việt Nam’s greatest classical poets, Hồ Xuân Hưởng lived from 1772 to 1822. Her poetry is a case study of the contradictions of Vietnamese cultural life. A single woman in a Confucian society, she lived in the vicinity of West Lake in Hà Nội and is moving in a feminist fast lane when viewed from even the 21st century. No subject is off limits, and her sexual double entendres are astounding. Happy internet searching if she is new to you.
Trying to describe Hạ Long is difficult. The essence of words, reduced to aphorism, helps me translate the emotion I feel remembering Hạ Long Bay, and comforts my memory in its absence.
As you can imagine after seeing the moonrise photo above, we slept peacefully, dreaming on Hạ Long Bay. As we woke up gently, the boat pulled anchor and we glided serenely towards the next destination, a tour of one of the many caves in Hạ Long Bay.
Viewing Cắc-Cớ Cavern
Heaven and Earth brought forth this rocky mass, its face cut by a deep crevasse
cracks dark mouth shagged with moss, pines rocking in wind rush.
Here sweet water spatters down and the path into the cleft is dark.
Praise whoever sculpted stone then left it bare for all to see.
Though this poem by Hồ Xuân Hưởng isn’t about a particular cave in Hạ Long Bay (this is a cavern closer to Hà Nội and known as a burial ground), she does impart the sense of wonder viewing any deep cave inspires.
There are five major caves on Hạ Long Bay, and they can often be touristed. But don’t let this deter you, you’ve come a long way not to participate fully. The crowds will abate, if you figure out a good tempo for yourself.
Once this short excursion is over, you’ll board and begin to return to land. Fortunately it’s another hour and you can take one long last look at “that which cannot be explained” – Hồ Chí Minh’s description of Hạ Long Bay.
I’ll yield my last thoughts about Hạ Long Bay to Hồ Xuân Hưởng.
Spring Watching Pavilion
A gentle spring evening arrives airily, unclouded by worldly dust.
Three times the bell tolls echoes like a wave.
We see heaven upside-down in sad puddles.
Love’s vast sea cannot be emptied. And springs of grace flow easily everywhere.
Where is nirvana?
Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten.