Our tour guide was incredible. I am not sure if other guides of similar tours use the same spiel as his, but I thought it was creative, interesting, and unique. We started the day at the ferry terminal, and the tour guide, who also fetched us from our homestay and drove the boat occasionally, started his spiel with philosophical ramblings about life. In the afternoon, after our last destination, the tour guide, still full of energy, ended his spiel with philosophical ramblings about death.
Love & Marriage at the An Hien Garden House
Our first destination was the An Hien Garden. Here, the tour guide talked about the beginning of life — in the form of love and marriage. Love, according to the tour guide, is an irresistible force. It was fitting to talk about love and marriage at the An Hien Garden House because the garden house is a family property. The garden house dates back to earlier than 1895 and has housed several generations of the same family. According to the guide, your eternal life is ensured through your children. For as long as you have children and your children have children, you will have eternal life.
The An Hien Garden House is also a perfect example of a well-preserved traditional Vietnamese garden house. The whole property may look simple, but it follows traditional feng shui design, with the entrance facing the Perfume River (for good luck) and the pool of water (to drive away bad spirits). The house is also of very traditional design, divided into three with the center allocated for the altar, the right side for men and the left side, where the kitchen is located, for women.
Moreover, the property is also a huge garden. I was reminded of one of my favorite books, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The An Hien Garden House may not be as grand as the gardens of Versailles but there was such complex philosophy behind the seemingly simple architecture and design of the house.
Entrance fee: 20,000VND (45.00PhP)
Thien Mu Pagoda
Our next stop was the Thien Mu Pagoda, one of the oldest and prettiest pagodas in Vietnam. There were more tourists here than at the An Hien Garden, and I learned that most tourists use the bus tour instead of the boat tour and they skip the An Hien Garden because there not enough parking space at the An Hien Garden. Anyway, our tour guide says the Vietnamese people come to the pagoda to seek advice from the monks who live here. Quite ironic as the country is communist and one of the cores of communism is that “religion is the opium of the people.” Here, the guide explained that while Vietnam does not adhere to one or particular religion, it does not oppress the practice of religion. I did not dwell so much on this, and this would be subject to a lengthier discussion, but I am happy to know that.
One of the reasons why I was excited to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda was because of its significance to Vietnam’s modern history. Prominently displayed inside the pagoda complex is the car used by the monk who emulated himself in Saigon in 1963 to protest the oppression of religious freedom. While I truly do not understand the value of self-emulation, I appreciate people who fight for what they believe is right. Unfortunately, while on our way to see the car, it started raining hard and the tour guide was calling us.
Hon Chen Temple
The day we visited the Hon Chen Temple is a day before a major feast day, so it was kinda busy. From afar, I said to myself that the people have dirtied the river banks so much because many colorful pieces were floating and hanging along the banks. I thought these were plastic. Nearer, I saw people holding basins full of fish and thought, “Ah, that is why the river banks were so dirty. They are selling fish along the river!”
That was very ignorant of me. There was a festival and the colorful pieces floating in the river were paper, and the people holding basins full of fish were not selling them but were actually releasing the fish back into the water as an offering. It was drizzling by the time we got off the boat (the only way to get to the Hon Chen Temple is by boat), it was drizzling. We hurried up to seek shelter but the temple, which is quite small in comparison to many other temples we’ve been to, was full of people praying and offering.
The temple could be underwhelming if you are looking for grandiosity. The temple, however, is different from all the other temples in Vietnam because the people who worship there are Cham descendants and they worship the Goddess of the Cham people. The most significant Champa remains are the My Son Ruins outside of Hue, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Cham people and culture were greatly influenced by Indian culture. It’s another different world to explore.
Entrance fee: 40,000VND (90.00PhP)
The Royal Tombs
After the temple, we once again rode the boat but got off a few minutes after and was charted by a bus to our first tomb — Minh Mang tomb. Because entrance fees were not included in our 150,000VND (338.00PhP), we can choose which tombs to visit. We decided to just visit Minh Mang’s tomb, after all, it was the grandest and most well-restored, according to our tour guide. The tombs represented the link between life and the after life, and is a good testament to unique Vietnamese beliefs. And, it was not just any kind of tomb because Minh Mang was a ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty, thus he was afforded a grand burial site. The tombs are also part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hue.
When the tour guide said “grand,” I was thinking one mausoleum like Uncle Ho’s. I did not expect that grand meant many pavilions and a national park surrounding the pavilions. Again, the layout of the tomb follows traditional Vietnamese beliefs and philosophy. The tour guide said legend has it that the body of King Minh Mang was never recovered because the soldiers who buried him were beheaded so that no one can know where the body is.
An interesting note — in one of the pavilions, a portion of texts recovered from King Minh Mang’s reign mentioned the much-disputed Spratlys Islands.
Entrance fee: 100,000VND (225PhP)
Death and the End
The tour proceeded to two more royal tombs, Khai Dihn’s and Tu Duc’s, but we no longer joined the group for the tour inside. Instead at Khai Dinh’s, we got some coffee and snacks and enjoyed the time watching other tourists haggle with taxi cabs. At Tu Duc’s, we walked around the beautiful gate and looked at souvenirs. The tour guide’s spiel ended with philosophical musings about death. I thought the whole tour was simple, but well thought of. I didn’t know how to thank the guide for a great day of touring a portion of the cultural city of Hue, so we just gave a tip. We arrived back at our homestay still daylight and still able to process all the philosophical musings on life and death, the Vietnamese way.