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March 1993

A River Called Perfume

Hué is tamarind-shaded boulevards and French colonial mansions, Buddhist temples, American pop, and a past you can almost smell from the river that runs though it . . .

By Peter S. Crosby

The nuns scalp glistens as she bends down to write. "Hué," she prints. "Perfume River." Behind her, on a Saigon street, whining Honda 50s and industrial-strength bicycles surge past. The nun, wearing a washed-out tunic splattered with the makings of vegetarian cuisine, writes, "Thien Mu." Working in the cursive accents of Vietnamese script, she adds, "Pagoda."

"Quang Due." She whispers the name as she underlines it. A Buddhist monk, she says; a hero. "Thirty years ago Quang Due came here," she says, sliding the card my way. "If you go you will understand."

Hué is near the middle of Vietnam's S-shaped socialist republic, 90 kilometers south of what was euphemistically called the demilitarized zone during what is now known as the "War for Liberation." But Hué is decidedly southern. Splayed open like a honeydew melon by the bisecting Perfume River, Hué is tamarind-shaded boulevards and French colonial mansions painted ochre and pink. Here, women in flowing ao dai gowns and conical hats sit sidesaddle on the backs of mopeds. Old American pop music - Steppenwolf, The Temptations, Peter, Paul & Mary - drifts up from sidewalk cafes strung with Christmas lights. Hué drips with a laconic ease. Even the name sounds sexy:
"who ay."

When we cast off from Hué's grassy shoreline, and our barefoot captain turns his rent-a-sampan up the Perfume River, we're bound for the past: emperor's tombs, temples and, above all, the Thien Mu Pagoda. The history of once the imperial capital of Vietnam goes back a millennium. Yet now, because of the tidal wave of capitalism approaching Vietnam's beach, the future isn't far away.

Our sampan sedan is slung low, close to the water, its bow upturned and flat like a pig's snout. Other sampans drift towards the market stuffed with neatly bundled firewood, rusted scrap metal and bulky fishing nets, which squeeze the passengers out onto the curved reed roofs. But Thieu, our boatman, and his family are catching tourists rather than fish. Two picture frames full of happy snapshots attest to their growing business. Charging USS25 for a day tour, they make more in eight hours than an average Vietnamese makes in a month.

On the northern bank of Hué's broad, bloated river looms the Citadel, the palace compound of the Nguyen Dynasty, which lasted until the end of World War II. Its Chinese-style main gate, with its huge copper-plated doors, rises behind a grey fortification spiked with a gigantic pole. The Vietcong flag flew on that stanchion for 23 days during the surprisingly effective Tet Offensive in 1968, embarrassing the American forces holding the city. Most of the central structures of the Forbidden Purple City were destroyed during the ensuing door-to-door siege; the courtyards are now garden plots, the fields are rice paddies. Restoration work began two years ago, but bullet marks still riddle burned-out remains and punctuate the site with a ghastly pall.

"Have sampan, will travel" is more than a Vietnamese way to earn a living. Replete with a brazier for cooking, a cassette recorder and a water-god-calming animistic shrine, a sampan is often a home for a lifetime. Thieu's pajama-clad wife, Hanh, rocks their firstborn in a thatched basket hanging from the bowed ceiling, while we (myself and a handful of French teachers) sit on rainbow-coloured mats and apply sunscreen. A towering pagoda with wedding-cake tiers suddenly juts up from a hillock just west of Hué. Wide stairs lead right to the water's edge, to Thien Mu Pagoda. But our captain moves on; it will be better to slop here later, he tells us. "Quang Due?" I ask, to confirm the Saigon nun's directions. "Quang Due." Thieu repeats, nodding his head and pointing to the sky.

Beyond the pagoda, the river gets narrower and turns south. Our helmsman, perched on the cabin roof, steers with one foot dangling to the rudder. Silhouetted hills in the distance become greener, showing the growth lines of clear-cut timber. A tiny platform on bamboo stilts holds a sampan at bay in the mid-river horizon. As we approach, a sinewy man hauls m a line, which raises four poles from the water and lifts a net the size of a boxcar out of the water. A brown boy in a round tub paddles to the net to check for fish. None. Down goes the net. Minutes later, behind us, the net rises again.

Just above a junction in the river, about 12 kilometers from Hué, we pull up to a muddy shore. Makeshift huts with tables of coconuts, mystery foods wrapped in banana leaves, 555 cigarettes and bottles of imitation Pepsi lead to a well-trodden path. But only the perfect pink lotus flowers floating in a moat of milky-green water signal that we have reached the tomb of Minh Mang. He was the second of 13 Nguyen emperors; together, they ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. Seven of the elaborate royal compounds dot the land southwest of Hué. Statues of big-headed mandarins and baby elephants covered with a patina of white-and-green lichen escort us through an amber-bricked courtyard to a terraced pavilion. Inside, an upright slab of marble has been carved with the details of Minh Mang's 20 years of imperial duties. Beyond, three bridges arch over a pond and lead to a wooden temple; from here you can view the pine-shrouded burial mound. The sticky scent of magnolia and serenity is everywhere.

Guitar strumming and laughter from above draw us up a steep wooden staircase to the second tier. Two teenage girls in white blouses and blue jeans nurse sodas, while half a dozen boys in T-shirts swig glasses of beer on ice. "Len Xo," one loose-limbed youngster points. No, we are not Soviets. "American," I say. One of the girls offers a green crunchy fruit dipped in dried spices. Apple and chili peppers with sugar is the closest I can come to describing the taste, but my face is a giveaway. The laughter only stops when the thinly mustached guitar player sticks up his forefinger and says, "America, number one."

Lunch is served as we head back towards Hué. Rice crepes so thin the design on the Chinese porcelain plates shows through are stuffed with fried fish, chives and the ubiquitous Vietnamese shrimp sauce, nuc mam, 333 beer and juice from fresh coconuts is also served, along with pulpy grapefruits, or pamplemoose, as our chef says, in deference to the French.

Not much boat traffic in the mid-day heat. Yet after a while, we hear the distant honking of a horn. Then another. As we come to shore at a wooded slope, we hear the nasal twang of Vietnamese pop music blaring. Is this Thien Mu? I'm becoming impatient. Later, I am told. The racket swells as we trudge through trees with vines and spill out next to a huge wall. Here, a dirt cul-de-sac is crammed with a Japanese minibus, a 1960s DeSoto taxi, well-worn cyclos, mopeds and bicycles - all competing for turnaround space. Opposite, a line of booths with roofs of blue plastic sheeting offers conical hats, hand-embroidered T-shirts and yogurt. Wicker chairs and a vintage Hamilton blender invite the weary to relax at the Fruit Salad Cafe. We are at the tomb of Tu Due, the longest-ruling Nguyen monarch. A brick bridge entices me over to an intricately carved pavilion set out on a pond.

Tu Due, who built the complex so he could enjoy it while he was alive, is said to have rivaled Caligula in his lust and opulence: 104 wives plus concubines, thrice-daily gormandizing, even week-long poetry pageants. Now, giggling children in red bandannas - officially, young communists - pose for group pictures before the elegantly airy dock house. Up the grandiose stairway, walls covered with charcoal-coloured stucco lead to an arch of glossy orange tiles. Inside, a head-high baffle built to deflect evil spirits doesn't deter me from touching the cool marble chronicles around the imperial courtyard. Outside, a girl sells bright-green oranges, while a barefoot man hustles gritty woodblock prints. He calls to me: "Hello dollar?"

The burial mound is set off against a back wall. But Due was never buried here; we didn't trust his servants not to rob his grave. Pine trees poke out from the moss-covered slopes, but from the top the layout is comprehensible, harmonious even. Tu Due named the compound Khiem (modesty).

The afternoon breeze from the South China Sea smells of salt marsh and smoke as we slip back into the Perfume River's flow. Fields of cassava and clumps of purplish sugar cane alternate with rice paddies along the shore. A graveyard of curved-wall mausoleums holding tombstones adorned with ancestor portraits cap a riverside bluff. Then, a lone tower rises again on our horizon: Thien Mu Pagoda.

This time the landing is crowded with sampans. The lower steps are packed with men smoking and boys playing tag. A dented school bus used as municipal transport thunders by on the concrete road at the top, dodging minibuses and taxis parked in the way. A child in an "End the Embargo" T-shirt selling Wrigley's Doublemint gum sticks shouts at me: "Sir!" A photographer with a 20-year-old Contax camera poses a family dressed in their Sunday best. Today is the 15th day of die 7th lunar month - Vu Lan Festival - a celebration of filial piety for daughters. Upon every girl's lapel a tiny silk rose tells the score: red if both parents are alive, white if one or neither is alive. Girls in white ao dai rush past the pagoda to a sculptured waterfall on the left. Laughing and blushing, they climb onto the delicate rocks to take turns donning wraparound sunglasses and a Konica camera bag for a nervous photographer. The sillier the pose, the louder the cheers. When a gangly young monk, his hair reduced to a single ponytail in the middle of his head, waves the aspiring models down, their disappointment is more palpable than their embarrassment.

Single-storey pink buildings with red-tiled roofs flank the central courtyard behind the pagoda and create a summer camp atmosphere. A boy in a chocolate-coloured tunic and could-be-punk hair is dusting a robin's-egg-blue automobile, parked next to one of the pseudo-cottages. The 1948 Austin, with its rounded snout and split windscreen, comes with a sign, written in English: "Venerable Thich Quang Due rode in this car to Saigon on June 11, 1963." This, at least, is the right place for my quest..

Next door, a nun in a grey frock is filling scores of soup bowls with pho (thin rice noodles), and wiping her shaven head with a checkered towel. Flower-shaped cakes are being arranged by another nun into perfectly symmetrical stacks. Too busy here. Some of the girls are swarming to a bronze Buddha under glass, its snickering grin contagious. The Buddhas nearby, of the future and of the past, don't interest them.

"Thich Quang Due?" I ask a man selling lead-cast farmer figurines. He points his arm without a hand towards the peak of the pagoda. The orange, yellow, blue and white geometric flag of Mahayana Buddhism sways on a long bamboo pole atop the octagonal stack. In perfect English, he says, "Quang Due's self-immolation brings great honour to Buddhists."

"Self-immolation?" I repeat, as surprised by the language as the word. "You mean fire?" The man simply sweeps his stubbed forearm from his toes to his head.

The black-and-white photo on the wall near the car is instantaneously recognizable; it was on front pages around the world. Thich Quang Due was the first of several Buddhists to burn themselves to death in the riotous streets of 1960s Saigon. His protest against the harsh repression of his meditative sect by President Ngo Dinh Diem sparked widespread demonstrations. The unrest culminated in a military coup d'etat and the murder of the Catholic Diem six months later. The letter the 66-year-old martyr wrote, "respectfully seeking compassion and charity towards all religions," is on display, as are his begging bowl, spectacles and sandals.

Thien Mu was a hotbed of radical politics back then. But now, as I look out from the top floor of the 20-metre pagoda, eye-to-eye with clouds turning the colour of persimmons, it is only confounding to me. Below, on the river landing, several girls are lighting candles inside red paper lanterns folded in the shape of lotus leaves. Each flickering flame is a wish. As the girls ease them out into the darkening waters of the peaceful Perfume River, I see that the future is in nimble hands.

Peter S. Crosby is an American writer and photographer based in Tokyo.