Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Visiting Temples in Hanoi During Tet (Part 2)

Following our trip to Phu Tay Ho, we continued around West Lake to our next destination: Van Nien Pagoda.

What I find most beautiful about this temple, which is set behind a lantern-strewn stone wall and wooden gate on the western shore of the lake, is the Buddha statue sitting in the shade of a giant tree. The image of the statue is reminiscent of the historical Buddha meditating beneath a Bodhi Tree.

This pagoda is often empty, and the stillness and quiet found in the large back courtyard is worth seeking in Hanoi.

There are several interesting buildings here that are open to visitors, though one of them, as well as what appeared to be a living quarters, were presumably only for the use of the monks who live on and maintain the premises. I have no idea what architectural styles some of the buildings follow, but two of the larger ones, which happen to face each other across the courtyard, have high, narrow windows along the outer wall of what could almost be a boat.

There are also quite a number of flowering plants here, though once Tet is firmly past its time I expect many of them to disappear.

The inside of the pagoda’s main building was incredibly bright and colorful. Tall, lacquered guardian deities flanked a large prayer structure in which numerous bodhisattvas sat or stood. Offerings, especially for Tet, were plentiful and included stacks of fruits, flower bouquets, canned beer and soft drinks, porcelain bottles of sake, boxes of tea and candies, as well as votive prayers and various objects to be burned for the use in the afterlife.

Next door to the room pictured above were more altars and offerings, including this giant mountain of ginger, limes, red chilies, tree branches, dried flowers, garlic bulbs, and other items (see photo below).

Outside the pagoda was a wooden prayer house inscribed with Chinese lettering on its sides. In front of it stood a tall cast-iron urn in which paper offerings were burned.

I picked up the long wooden fire-poker and tested the depth of the ashes. They must have gone a meter deep, and when I put the poker down my hand was covered with black ash. I wasn’t expecting that. Good thing I was wearing jeans and have a washing machine at home…

As you can see, the urn was decorated with carved dragons like the one pictured below. I’m not exactly sure what it represents, or why its right foot is raised in the air (maybe that foot gets hot with a fire underneath it), but maybe I can ask one of the monks the next time I visit.

From Van Nien Pagoda it was only a five-minute drive (the way I drive, which is carefully) to Chua Tao Sach. There had recently been a large fire here, but I couldn’t see much evidence of anything having been burned down. With Tet on hand, too, the temple was made more colorful by all kinds of flowers and potted kumquat trees.

This temple, too, was quiet and uncrowded. After Phu Tay Ho, it was a relief to find that we had the temple grounds mostly to ourselves. We enjoyed being able to explore the temple freely and devote more time to peaceful contemplation of the various interesting things we found here.

There were a number of tastefully designed dioramas, including one resembling a watery cave in which the Buddha sits meditating and two beautiful women stand guard at the cave’s entrance. Where this bizarre rock formation came from is anyone’s guess, but it was impressive.

Tao Sach Temple also boats a reclining Buddha in the entrance of the temple’s main prayer hall. It’s sandwiched between two giant, colorfully painted urns.

The elaborate woodwork of the building’s doors and roof is also worth checking out.

Beyond the compound’s main building, in a patch of rubble (perhaps where the recent fire had been) between a small cemetery and the monk’s herb garden, I found an interesting, makeshift-like structure for people to burn various paper offerings.

I suppose it’s not much to look at, but I must admit that I enjoyed the smell of whatever was inside smoldering – sandalwood incense, possibly, among other things – and thought there was something vaguely wabi-sabi about the open brick altar.

I get easily distracted in Vietnam because there’s just so much activity everywhere. So when I saw some fuzzy puppies lying nearby, I pulled away the Styrofoam they were gnawing on, sopping with dog saliva, and tried to play with them. They bounded after each other, totally forgetting about me in an instant.

Back near the entrance, in a kind of storage area and mini-library within the temple, a young woman was selling medicinal alcohol made in the highland town of Tay Nguyen.

She let us sample some, as I thought a bottle might make a good gift later, but it was pretty vile stuff: vodka mixed with Chinese medicinal herbs, which I thought tasted a lot like licorice, only more bitter.

On our way out I snapped a photo of one of the old women volunteering for the temple. She busted me taking her picture, and told me there was nothing beautiful about her or Vietnam to bother photographing. Before I could disagree with her a middle-aged Vietnamese woman walked by and said, “Vietnam is a very beautiful country. Why do you think it’s not beautiful?” I thought at first she was accusing me of having said this, and I awkwardly nodded and said she was right. I then wished the old woman a Happy Tet (the middle-aged woman had stomped off under a cloud), and she beamed at me and waved goodbye.

After so much temple hopping, it was time to refuel with strong coffee. We ended up driving back along the road skirting the west side of the lake and stopping at – where else? – a Trung Nguyen Café.

The café has two floors, with large windows overlooking West Lake. It’s a very casual but comfortable place, especially at night, and they have a fairly extensive menu of coffees, teas, ice cream, and small snacks.

We ordered coffee made from filters, and were served pre-made coffee with filters full of dried-up, long-ago-used grounds.

It was a poor trick, but we drank our coffee anyway and it was fine. I guess the view of the lake made up for it.

We returned to my apartment right in time to catch the sun going down over Truc Bach Lake. It was an even better view than we had at the café.

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