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VIETNAM | Tuesday, 29 April 2014 | Views [378]


There are a couple of different roads leading from Hoi An to Hue, but perhaps the most scenic is the one that goes by Marble Mountain and over Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass.  Marble Mountain is named for the beautiful white stone excavated from the site.  There are lots of marble statue factories lining the highway and the base of the hill that juts up fairly steeply from the surrounding beachfront areas.  The hill has a number of caves filled with Buddhist statuary with temples and shrines lining almost all the flat surfaces.  It is a veritable treasure trove of living sacred art.  Pilgrims, locals, and tourists all make their way up either via the staircases or the elevator to the main front temple, and from there are free to wander for hours at the dozens of statues, buildings, images and Buddhist saying plaques that cover the hill.  The 360 degree view from the summit takes in the beachfront, the peninsula with a huge white marble Kuan Yin overlooking the bay, the farmland behind the mountain and smaller karst-like hills nearby.  It is simply stunning.  The hill combines heaven and earth with the shrine on the summit and the numerous cave temples and shrines within.  Some of the caverns are quite large with four and five different temple/shrine sites, with multiple Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Kuan Yins.  The statuary ranges in size from about 20 ft to 2 inches, and all are actively worshipped with displays of incense and flower offerings and people praying in front of them.

The craftsmanship of the Marble Mt. artists is amazing.  The one factory we visited had overlife-sized marble statues of Buddhist, Hindu and Christian sacred figures as well as a few tables and other items. They were individually hand carved and while it looked like they were mass produced given the quantity on hand, they weren’t as when one looked they all had different features and looks.  It made me want to develop a statuary park in my backyard, but luckily they were way too expensive and heavy to transport.  I settled for a three inch nicely carved Kuan Yin as a reminder of the impressive artwork from this fabulous mountain/hill.

Hai Van Pass rises steadily from the seashore over the side of the surrounding mountain range.  The views on the way up showcase the entire bay of lush green hillsides, white sandy beaches and deep blue waters.  It is no wonder that both the French and American armies used top of the pass as a lookout point and many of the old bunkers are still visible for people to crawl around in.  Rather than military operations, today the summit is used for commercial purposes and vendor stalls line the street selling everything from bottled water to pearls.


Hue is one of the former capitals of Vietnam, and the center of the Nguyen monarchy who ruled a united North and South Vietnam for about a hundred years, starting with Emperor Gia Long, until the French took over in 1885. There were 13 kings during the Nguyen Dynasty, which lasted from 1802 to 1945 when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated to the communist government, although from about 1885, the kings were puppets of the French Indochina government. Much to the royalty’s dismay, the French were quick to remove most of the important artifacts from royal site, The Citadel, and take them Paris, where many still remain. The Citadel, which is partially a fortress and partially a royal residence, is quite large and was the site of massive destruction during the Vietnam (here referred to as ‘the American’) War.  The Citadel is on the right side of the Perfume River, which is also the side of many ancient temples and pagodas. The left side now houses a number of fancy hotels and the historic shopping district. The Nguyen rulers wanted to protect themselves, not only by isolating themselves from the populace on the opposite side of the river, but also by constructing a large, at least 30 ft. across moat around the entire royal complex. Inside the royal residence complex are sections for the King, the princes and male attendants, the King’s various wives and concubines, his children and his mother; each residence or official building has a distinct name some of which are reminiscent of Chinese names, such as the Hall of Mandarins, Forbidden Purple City and others that are distinctly Vietnamese such as  Dien Tho Residence. Most of the architecture and design of the buildings is heavily Chinese influenced and is based on an ancient Chinese royal court style.  The pictorial images are primarily Chinese influenced Northern Vietnamese, with flying horse-dragons in abundance.  There are elaborate gates with cut glass and stone reliefs of mythical animals and plants. Water elements are throughout the complex, which was built following feng shui techniques. Most of the complex was heavily bombed by American troops during the last war.  According to Lonely Planet: It was only in 1968 that attention shifted to Hue again, during the Tet Offensive.  While the Americans concentrated on holding Khe Sanh, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong (VC) forces seized Hue, an audacious assault that commanded headlines across the globe.

During the 3 ½ weeks that the North controlled the Citadel, more than 2500 people were summarily shot, clubbed to death or buried alive.  The North called them –ARVN soldiers, wealthy merchants, government workers, monks, priests and intellectuals – ‘lackeys’ who owed blood debts’.  The USA and South Vietnamese responded by leveling whole neighborhoods, battering the Citadel and even using napalm on the imperial palace.  According to remarks attributed to an American soldier involved in the assault, they had to ‘destroy the city in order to save it.’ Approximately 10,000 people died in Hue, including thousands of VC troops, 400 South Vietnamese soldiers and 150 US Marines – but most of those killed were civilians.” (164)

Today, the effects of the War are still visible; some of the standing buildings are being renovated, and many of the gates, inside as well as to the palace complex, have been repaired, but many of the former buildings are only recognizable from the outline of the stones sticking up from bare ground. The Citadel and surrounding neighborhoods were not the only sites that were damaged in the Hue region, the ancient library was demolished as well.  Today, only the entrance gateway is visible from the river.  Some of the temples faired considerably better including the Hon Chen and Thien Mu complexes. The first is dedicated to the goddess and is about a three-quarters of an hour by boat from the Citadel.  The complex is directly on a bend in the Perfume River.  The main temple is in two levels with local deities worshipped on the top level and more traditional Buddhist figures on the ground level.  Surrounding the main temple are shrines to the goddess each with pairs of horse guardians. The patio area is lined with blue and white glazed porcelain tiles with Chinese influenced designs.  The temple itself is in the form of a Chinese pagoda, as are most of the temples in the region.  There is one major exception, to this, there is a South India influenced temple that one can see from the river, but I was not able to visit it.

Perhaps the most famous temple in the Hue region is the Thien Mu pagoda, which is where Thich Nhat Hanh studied and where Thich Quang Duc was in residence prior to his immolation in 1967.  Quang Duc left from Thien Mu in a turquoise Austin, that is still on display, to go to the center of the city where he set himself aflame to protest the ruling Catholic Diem brothers persecution Buddhists and non-Catholics. This form of Buddhist protest continues today in the rural areas of Tibet against the policies of the Chinese government throughout the Tibetan Plateau.  The Thien Mu complex was originally founded by the governor of the province in 1601.  The most noticeable feature, the octagonal tower that is shines like a lighthouse from the river, was built in 1844.  Behind the tower is a large rectangular-shaped park with prayer halls and monks residences lining the sides. The park exudes a sense of peace and serenity with trees, flowers, chirping birds and the chirping of frogs in the lotus pond.

Both the Hon Chen and Thien Mu temple complexes are accessed via a boat ride down the Perfume River.  According to one myth the name was given to the river as it was a place full of fragrant trees.  Flowers from the trees would fall into the river and send up a pleasant scent.  Everyone who traveled on the river would be enchanted by the sweet smells of the trees. While there was no perfume-like aroma coming from the river while we were there, the landscapes on either side were enchanting.  The side with the temples varied between soft lush hills and somewhat flat farmland, while the other side had long stretches of farmland with a variety of crops, including fruit trees and a few people with Non La hats (the typical Vietnamese pointed reed head gear) weeding in the fields.  There was also a section on a hillside for the tombs of some of the former aristocracy and wealthy merchants.

The boats plying the river varied from highly decorative yellow flying dragon tourist boats to grey-brown dredges hauling up sand from the bottom to use for construction.  On the riverbanks, water buffalo meandered around adding a sense of timelessness to the movement of the current. Buildings come and go, but the fields and the river remain.

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