About four kilometres to the west of the Imperial City at Huế was the second point of historical interest we visited on our day-long cruise excursion in the Vietnamese city. The Pagoda of the Celestial Lady (known in Vietnamese as Chùa Thiên Mụ) was a little over five minutes of driving time in the coach following the road running along the northern bank of the Perfume River. About fifty metres before the pagoda area was a reasonably large car park to handle a fair number of tourist buses and there was a scattering of shops and stalls in the area, a café and toilets, as well as quite a few locals resting up in hammocks strung between the trees, something we noticed quite a lot of in Vietnam.
Steep steps led up to the impressive seven-tier tower that marked the entrance to the pagoda complex but there weren’t too many of them so it should be climbable by most people. Each tier of the octagonal tower is three metres high and dedicated to a different Buddha. The pagoda was originally constructed in 1601 after the governor of the area heard of the prophecy of the Celestial Lady who foretold the building’s construction by a great lord. Over the intervening centuries the pagoda underwent expansion by different rulers but suffered considerable damage during a cyclone in the early years of the twentieth century.
In the area immediately surrounding the tower was a building containing a stone turtle with a stele on its back.
Beyond the tower there was a walled section with another stele out in front and decorated openings allowing people to pass through to the gardens and buddhist temple beyond.
As you’d expect from a place like this the area was very peaceful. The walls and trees obscured any sight of the city beyond and served to muffle any sounds of vehicles.
It was possible to go into the main hall of the temple if shoes were removed and there was a place set outside for the burning of incense, neither of which activity we engaged in; the former because it was a little crowded with everyone jostling for a view and the latter because I don’t do well around incense. I have a history of fainting when I smell it which I’ve always taken to be nature’s way of telling me to step away from the whole religion thing.
We only had a short period of time at the Pagoda Of The Celestial Lady but in fairness there wasn’t a huge amount to see. If you’re in Huế then it’s an easy place to find and visit and it’s free to enter but if you are pressed for time then it doesn’t have the range of things to see that might make you think it’s worthwhile diverting from where you are to take a look around. On the other hand, as a restful spot to seek out your inner calm there’s nothing to fault it at all.
One thing the pagoda also has, though, is some relatively recent historical significance.
From 1955 to 1963 Ngo Dinh Diem declared himself the president of South Vietnam following elections where more people voted than were registered to do so. That would probably get him some support today from political leaders in the UK and USA. He didn’t need to worry about an international backlash as he was a staunch anti-communist so could rely on American aid anyway. Diem was also Catholic and imposed his views on the country banning divorce and abortion, closing brothels, tightening adultery laws – that would probably also get him some support today from political leaders – but he also started to restrict buddhist practices in a country with a long tradition of them and his hard line against anyone who opposed him saw some of his foreign support wane. Weird to think that these days we’ve probably got political leaders who’d look at that sort of religious discrimination and ruthless approach to enemies as something to admire once again. Anyhoo…
Diem’s intransigence to Buddhist demands for equal treatment led to increasing numbers of protests – many in and around Huế – to the extent that anti-communist nationalist members of the ruling body and military began to talk about the need for a coup and stability after clearing with America first that it wouldn’t do anything to interfere or retribute. It still ticked their “Don’t Like The Commies” box so they said yes and another strong reason for that also ties in with the pagoda. In 1963 a protesting Buddhist monk – Thích Quảng Đức – was driven to a busy intersection in Saigon and set himself on fire.
The self-immolation photograph was seen all around the world and had a profound effect on the US president at the time, Kennedy, making the decision to back the coup an easier one to make. Hồ Chí Minh and the North Vietnamese leadership saw the backing of the coup as a further advancement of America’s imperialist desires in the region and, well, we all know what that led to within a few years. You can still see the car that drove Thích Quảng Đức to his symbolic suicide at the Pagoda of the Celestial Temple so if one of the key events leading up to the Vietnam War interests you then it’s worth visiting for that reason alone.