Walked out to West Lake yesterday morning & visited two famous temples, one Taoist & one Buddhist. I’ve been to both before & in fact Tran Quoc–the Buddhist one–figures in my poem “What I Like about God,” which came out in the Georgia Review a couple of years ago. It is located on a narrow peninsula that juts out into West Lake. The present buildings are from the 19th century & are in fact getting some restoration now, but there has been a temple on the site for three-hundred years & a predecessor temple in another part of the city. In the pictures below it is the one with the tall brick stupa. Quán Thánh has one of the most architecturally perfect courtyards I’ve ever seen anywhere, though it is quite modest in size & the actual temple building at the end opposite the entrance gate is small, though beautifully proportioned. Perhaps the courtyard is so inviting because after going through the ornate gate, you descent several steps below the entrance level. Even though there are busy main thoroughfares on two sides, the traffic noise seems to fade as you go down the steps into the courtyard. After crossing the courtyard, you can stop to light incense before going up several steps to enter the temple with its initial alter & then, behind a screen, the sanctuary of the Protector of the North, who is represented by a three-ton bronze statue. The God of the North would have been very important, for China, Vietnam’s perpetual antagonist, has applied economic, cultural, political, military, & imperial pressure from that direction for 2500 years. The huge black figure sits with one finger raised in a sort of mudra, but to me it looks like he is saying to potential invaders, “Don’t even think about it.”
To get up to West Lake and the temples, I walked through the old French administrative quarter north of the oldest part of Hanoi and the Citadel, guarded by the Bac Mon (Northern) Gate, which the French breached with cannon fire in 1882, pretty much completing France’s colonial project in Vietnam. The Vietnamese commander of the Citadel hung himself in the guard tower of the gate, using his mandarin’s turban. The gate, as well as other parts of the old citadel, have recently been restored and archaeological efforts continue. A large hole made by a French cannonball has been left in the restored gate. The French were essentially bandits in Southeast Asia (to say nothing of Africa), but they lived well. Their broad tree-lined avenues contrast sharply with the narrow alleys of the Old Quarter.
One does not need to romanticize the old Imperial system of the Vietnamese emperors–some were better & some worse in following the Confucian mandate to care for their people–to feel the rapacity of the French. The French of course are long gone and the Vietnamese military now inhabits their old administrative buildings and much of the Citadel. The country prospers & when the country prospers the leaders retain the Mandate of Heaven, though the mandate is held, the old Confucian scholars would say, only as long as the virtues are upheld. Vietnamese modernity is an astonishing hybrid of old & new that continues to surprise me every time I return. It is a modernity quite distinct, I think, from that of the West & no one should expect that it will conform to Western forms & expectations.