Ancient Ensemble of Hue, Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin, Anthony Bourdain, Buddhism, Dam Quang MInh, Hanoi New Music Ensemble, Hue Citadel, Kodo Drummers, Lan Huong, Perfume River, Sado Isalnd, Thien Mu Pagoda, Vu Nhat Tan
It has been eleven years since I visited the city of Huế, considered the Vatican of Vietnamese Buddhism. Despite the horrific battles fought here in 1968 during the Tết Offensive, a calm spirituality infuses the area. You glimpse this on the long highway road from Đà Nẵng. Sandwiched between busy shops and food stands are more Buddhist temples that I could count.
The language is different. The cuisine is different. The atmosphere is different.
Most outsiders don’t realize that the coastline of Việt Nam is vast. If compared to North America, the long S shape of Việt Nam would span from Vancouver in Canada to California’s border with México. At times a narrow country, especially in the middle section known in the past as Annam, fresh water is often mixing with salt water on this coastline, providing an impressive diet of delicious seafood and endless deltas of contact between land and sea. The emerald green of Việt Nam is an intoxicating shade that never leaves the mind’s eye, from rice country terraces to morning glory lotus ponds.
My wife Jan and I were in Huế as guests of the Đông Kinh Cở Nhạc/Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin. I’m working with them for the opening concert of the third season of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble on Tuesday October 24. We would also have the opportunity to meet the directors of the Kodo Drummers of Japan, who are based on Sado Island and are the foremost exponents of taiko drumming. New friends and partnerships were under discussion and Huế was a perfect meeting point.
Our first order of business was to attend a couple of joint concerts of the Đông Kinh Cở Nhạc/Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin with the Ancient Ensemble of Huế. The styles of music are completely different, startling after the distance of only a one hour flight. And though I won’t venture off into technical descriptions, I’m learning as much as I can about the extraordinary vocal production of Vietnamese singers.
Coming to Huế after over a decade allowed me to assess just how much my journey to the East has come into focus. I’m no longer struggling with the hottest weather, rather I’ve experienced the balmy heat to the point of genuine acceptance. The cuisine of Việt Nam becomes more fascinating each trip, a big reason being here is so rewarding. I’ve studied as much history and culture as I can, and every new insight brings a more complete picture into focus. My ability in Vietnamese is progressing, and I’m now approaching coherence with my pronunciation. Composers Tốn Thất Tiết and the late Nguyễn Thiên Đạo are not figures in a book, but are genuine friends. I see France through a Vietnamese lens and the refractions offer clues for better next steps in the 21st Century. And I come closer to comprehending what went wrong for the United States in Việt Nam, understanding that the Vietnamese had a lot to do with the fate of both France and the United States.
Two of my best guides in this endless journey are the directors of the Đông Kinh Cở Nhạc/Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin, Vũ Nhật Tân and Đàm Quang Minh. They insisted Jan and I accompany them to Huế. They wanted me to meet a part of Vietnamese musical history, Madame Thanh Tâm. A vibrant 75 years old, she remains an historical compass who has sung for the last Emperor of Việt Nam, Bảo Dại, South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm, General Võ Nguyễn Giáp, the Vietnamese “Napoleon Rouge” who defeated the French in 1954 at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ and finally Uncle Hồ Chí Minh. She remains friends since early grade school with Tốn Thất Tiết and we talked a great deal of our friendship with him together. And of course she still sings beautifully!
But for all the ins and outs of history, music, cuisine, Buddhism and culture, it’s the river that dominates Huế. Vũ Nhật Tân and Đàm Quang Minh mapped out a tour for us on our free morning, and every suggestion included traveling on the Sông Hương. Known in English as the River of Perfume, this large body of flowing water remains as a silent witness to the long history of the city.
Some days, its best to find a Dragon Boat and go up and down river!
During our first night in in Huế we attended a concert at Huế University of Ancient Ensembles from both Hà Nội and Huế. We seemed to be fated to meet a lot of people in this Eternal City of Việt Nam. It’s not the Vatican, but does hold the same status for Vietnamese Buddhism.
As we were ushered into the hall, Jan and I recognized a young woman who seemed familiar, but who we couldn’t place. As many of my friends at home are fans of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN series, we eventually recognized Lan Hương as a prominent member of a program devoted to Huế. She’s become a good friend in a short period of time, we look forward to staying in touch and she has graciously allowed me access to her extraordinary photos of her city.
Think of Lan Hương as a Vietnamese Ché Guevara. She’s embarked not on a Motorcycle Diary but a River Diary of the Sông Hương, and I urge you to find her blog and Facebook page and take a look for yourself at what this storytelling young woman tells us about her city.
I have generous amounts of source material for a couple of more posts about Huế in the near future. Suffice it to say this is a place that needs more than one post, more than a few days, and more admiration. The Royal Cuisine is legendary, and on its own will be getting its due in a future post!
There are certainly other cities and sacred sites in Asia, Kyoto in Japan, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Chiang Mai in Thailand, Luang Prabang in Laos. But Huế is different. The fierce battle here in 1968 destroyed much of the city and the horrific atrocities of war still make this a city of ghosts for many of the residents. This is where Walter Cronkite would pronounce his opposition to the Vietnam War, bringing Lyndon Johnson to the realization that he had truly lost the support of the American people if he’d lost Walter Cronkite. I’m old enough to remember watching the Cronkite story with my mom, and now that almost fifty years have passed Huế looks forward to its future.
And that embrace of culture in Huế? It comes from the endless murmuring of the River of Perfume, the Sông Hương, the Ganges of Việt Nam. The flowing water permeates the city, cools the intense heat with welcome breezes and invites one to accept its immense power over our lives.
And if you’re Lan Hương, you dive into the water and bathe in its welcoming ripples and waves, cleansing the past with the present as a future awaits the next morning.
Best, best, best,