Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Tonkin, mon amour – of art and history and war

You know what other amazing things there are to do in Hanoi? Museums and historic sites! I'm a geek, I know. But honestly, you have to spend some time in them, they're full of incredible insights into the country.

So, first? The Hanoi Opera House (Nhà hát lớn Hà Nội,). Built by the French, it is modelled – unsurprisingly – on the old Paris opera house, and is one of the musts of any historic tour of the city. Just standing in front of it, looking at its forms... this place sure talks loads about that one specific part of Vietnam's history.

Then, there's this very traditional house at 87 Ma May (87 Phố Mã Mây). From the late 19th century, it's one of those narrow buildings I had talked about before, where the house just stretches on and on all the way to the street behind. The second floor had a nice family altar, and the bedroom one of those big, firm Chinese beds with huge sturdy legs and a thick frame. 

Now, those two you can do in really brief visits. But the next one demands at least a couple of hours to be fully appreciated: the National Museum of Vietnamese History (Viện Bảo tàng Lịch sử Việt Nam). Not only is the building unique, with an unusual architecture in the deep ochre colour you find in other historical sites, it's simply full of fascinating artifacts, like ancient drums with geometric patterns, animals and dancers (and lovers!); numerous pieces, including wooden beams, with beautiful Chinese calligraphy; Hindu figures full of movement and life; paintings and sculptures that at first glance seem Chinese, but then you notice there's something different about the use of colour or the lines; mother of pearl inlays and even quartz lingams, something that is extremely unusual.

A different building, also part of the museum, holds the intense recent history of the country. Here you can see everything related to overthrowing the different powers that sought control of these parts... a harrowing and lengthy series of processes...

We also visited the Vietnamese Women's Museum (Bảo tàng Phụ nữ Việt Nam). It's wonderful to see a whole museum dedicated to women, and covering everything from wedding rituals, Taoist manuals and textiles, to a more sobering look at women's participation during the Vietnam war, doing everything the men did, being spies, generals, couriers, you name it. Strong women, facing really hard times.   

One night, in the mood for something lighter, we saw a water puppetry (múa rối nước) performance, which is something I'd recommend anybody do. It takes place in a stage filled with water, and puppeteers handle the puppets from behind. Personally, I was mesmerized. And we were very lucky to have visited temples and museums before watching the play, and to have lived in Asia for quite a while now, because all the different stories made much more sense thanks to all the context we had. There was the turtle of the lake bringing a sword, there were dragon boat races, lions playing with balls... Just awesome.

Ah, yes. And the Ho Chi Ming Mausoleum (Lăng Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh). This one, we failed. We didn't realize the day we planned to go it was closed. Darn. So we were just left with seeing it from afar, yet respectfully (those guards are very zealous custodians). 

But what we did see, and enjoyed greatly, was the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts (Viện Bảo tàng Mỹ thuật Việt Nam). You must be thinking that nobody's got enough time to see so many museums. But we did. And I'm so happy we went to this one (actually, I should thank the habib, my museum-locator!). And at this one, we saw beautiful art, including Avalokiteshvara (that is, the Buddha of Infinite Compassion) sculptures. What caught our attention was not the multiple arms (that always fascinates one, of course), but the bases – these Buddhas were being held up by mythical beasts rising from the clouds. I had never seen anything like that! Most of the contemporary pieces weren't really worth it, but a few I did love. 

We're almost done, ok? Another place we visited was the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (Hoàng thành Thăng Long). This place served as a seat of government for about 800 hundred years, and it's a major complex that begins with a very Chinese gate. There are exhibition halls inside, and many, many buildings, but frankly we were somewhat exhausted by the heat and humidity at that point, and were content with just wandering around after enjoying the gate. 

Finally, the Vietnam Military History Museum. Funnily, what we saw at the National Museum of Vietnamese History had given us a pretty complete picture of the country's military history, so we could skip many of the explanations and head to what you come for: the Flag Tower of Hanoi (Cột cờ Hà Nội), a military post built before the French, and the many planes and military vehicles and bombs... So horrific, to imagine one of those things flying over you and dropping death and destruction on your village... Terrifying.

Sorry for the long and lengthy post. But really, great place for educating yourself. And isn't it wonderful to visit a country and leave with a fuller understanding of it, and not just with food pics?

Friday, August 10, 2018

Tonkin, mon amour – the temples

So, Hanoi's architecture was something that fascinated me, as you could probably tell from my previous post on the city. But another important aspect, and which I also loved, was Hanoi's temples. And let me simply start with an iconic one, Tháp Rùa (which means Turtle Tower, 塔𪛇), in the Middle of Hoan Kiem Lake (Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, or Lake of the Returned Sword, 湖還劍). 

Now, OK, I'm cheating a bit, because this is a 19th century tower to commemorate a legend about the Vietnamese defeating the Chinese in the 15th century. But there used to be a temple where it stands, OK? And frankly, standing there, in the middle of the lake, it gave it such a special and mystical air...

By the north end of that same like lies Ngoc Son Temple (Đền Ngọc Sơn, 玉山, or Temple of the Jade Mountain), famous for its gorgeous and very Vietnamese crimson bridge. This was the very first Vietnamese temple I entered, and I was fascinated by the differences in the details with China's temples. Because, of course, being Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian, the inspiration is Chinese. But as in Japan or Korea, it's the details that make the whole difference.

Now, I'm definitely no expert. And I haven't been to every single temple in China nor have I memorized all their characteristics. But what caught my eye, for example, was the incense burners with lion or dragon faces spewing forth clouds; or the tall and elegant phoenix sculptures, or the ubiquitous use as offering of a weird fruit (vegetable?) that looks as if it had a bunch of fingers growing out of it. 

Turtles being such a sacred animal, the temple had a stuffed one too. Huge. And bonsai trees. And placid views of the lake. Nice place, this temple.

Our walking around the city also brought us to this other jewel. Alas, I have no name for it. It's simply a temple inside a business building at 102 Hàng Bạc and, due to the nature of Hanoi buildings (remember how many of them are super narrow), it ends up being a very labyrinthine, bunched up hidden space you can only reach through a narrow set of stairs, with no sign at all. Incredible. 

And then, there's what is supposedly the oldest temple in the city, the Bach Ma Temple (Đền Bạch Mã, or White Horse Temple). We had to wait a bit for this one, as we arrived during lunch time. Because you should know, temples, museums and everything closes for a couple of hours around noon. But we used the time to explore more alleys, streets, have a bowl of deliciousness as one does in Hanoi, and come back energized to see the temple.

And there, see? The incense burner, again, clouds coming out of the dragon faces. Loved the clouds. Loved the concept. And also, more phoenix statues (I prefer the "chubby" ones at Ngoc Son Temple, by the way). And something that sort of reminded me of Guangdong Province in China – the patterns on the top of the side shrines, but still, the colours, the specific shapes... I don't think I had seen that before.

Of course, French rule had to bring with it Catholicism, right? And with it, St. Joseph's Cathedral (Nhà thờ Chính tòa Thánh Giuse), which sits in a nice square surrounded by cafés. Actually, this was where one of our walking tours of the city ended, and it was just perfect, because there was a Cộng Cà Phê in an old building and it was the perfect place to relax, chill, and enjoy the views.

On another tour of a different part of the city we also came across another Catholic church. No idea what it was called, but it was nice to see it painted a deep ochre, like most of the historical buildings around it. A nice touch of colour.

Another hard to find place? Hai Bà Trưng Temple. In your map, it looks really easy to enter, just by a lake. But if you don't approach from the right street, you find yourself in a maze of narrow alleys, constantly doubting your direction. In theory founded in the 12th century, this is part of a series of temples dedicated to the Trưng sisters, who combated the Chinese domination at the beginning of our era. When we went there, it was very quiet. And you can see plenty of female figures, as it would befit a temple like this.

OK, I guess by now you're getting a bit tired of temples. But hey, all in all we spent a whole week in Hanoi. So of course we had to see a lot, right? Now, when we got to this one below we were already very tired, with all the heat, humidity, and intermittent showers. But I myself still enjoyed it quite a bit. It's the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu, 文廟). It's a thousand years old, served as a Confucian place for scholarship and instruction, and provided me with plenty more curious things to look at and appreciate.

For example, I noticed how the decoration above some of the roofs was covered in tiles with blue tinges, another thing I did not remember seeing in China, and which gave them a very distinct character. Oh, and the Dharma wheel as motif, especially in one of the towers. Now, that's Buddhist, but it was clear that Buddhism and Confucianism and Taoism were not being kept orthodoxically separate around here.

And there were two other details I loved. First, the tiles of the roofs. I'm not sure what shape they had, like some leaf perhaps? The habibi thought they looked like lotus leaves... Anyhow, they gave such different patterns when viewed from various angles. So beautiful. And also, the profuse use of cloud motifs on roof endings, on some steps and platforms... I don't know, they were so nicely done, and this play of images, as if the building were in the sky? I liked that.

Then, there's the temples around the massive West Lake (Hồ Tây). First, you have the Trấn Quốc Pagoda (or Chùa Trấn Quốc, 鎭國寺), Hanoi's oldest pagoda and Buddhist temple, some 1400 years old. Unfortunately, it just so happened that it was one of those lunch-time closing times, so all we could do was look at it from the outside. Which was plenty, since the pagoda by the water offered some beautiful views.

And, since it's close nearby, there's another really small and quaint temple on a tiny island, Cau Nhi Temple (Đền Cẩu Nhi), which you can only access via a bridge.

To the south of these, also close to the lake, is fantastic Quan Thanh Temple (Đền Quán Thánh). Some thousand years old of Taoist spirituality. Actually, we didn't really intend to visit this one, since we had already seen temples aplenty. But you know, we were in the area, the weather was fine (it was near sunset time), it was open... And it was one of our best experiences.

As before, I kept noticing the subtle but significant differences in style, like this decoration at the top centre of the temple. Covered with more of the blue-tinged tiles I had seen before (you know, as if someone had broken a ceramic vase and had used the random pieces to decorate?), a Cthulhu-like being loomed above. Really, what kind of mythical beast was it? So unlike any other creatures I had seen, and then on top of that – blue. And once again the incense burners with lion-like mouths breathing clouds. And a new item – a delicate and elaborate work of wood depicting some dramatic scenes and hanging by the entrance. Sure, we had scene similar works by Chaozou masters in China, but hanging? Also, gold cloud shapes on red lacquered pillars, and Chinese characters done in mother pearl. Beautiful.

That would have been more than enough, but it just so happened that, when exiting the main hall, there was a martial arts lesson going on. A master training students in Vietnamese martial arts, both bare-handed and with weapons (sword). The master looked really severe, and his students were remarkably good. What an unexpected treat!

Finally (did you just breathe a sigh of relief?) – the ubiquitous smaller temples that don't make it to any guidebooks. Because Hanoi is full of them! Maybe this is what mainland China was like before the cultural revolution? filled with shrines and family-sized temples in every neighbourhood? So charming!

So, there, a "brief" sample of spiritual Hanoi. So colourful and interesting.