Saturday, April 29, 2017


THE FLOWER turned out to be a fruit.

Visiting temples in Hanoi, the older son and I saw several times clumps of these yellow flowers occupying the central place for offerings.

Dedicated to Buddhism or Confucius, the temples drew steady streams of tourists and devotees. So as not to be the archetypal boorish foreigner, I restrained my curiosity until I had a chance to ask Wang, the young man guiding us around Hoa Lu.

The ancient capital of Hanoi has several 10th- and 11th-century temples in a citadel surrounded by limestone mountains and rice fields. In the Temple of Lê Đại Hành, Wang corrected my misconceptions about the citrus-colored “flowers”.

The Buddha’s Hand is a fruit but is not eaten, he explained. Favored as a temple offering, the fruit’s yellow extensions resemble cupped fingers and suggest the hands of the Buddha folded in prayer.

The Buddha’s Hand stands out in the sea of offerings laid out before venerated icons because it is the least ostentatious. Everything else glints and competes for attention.

Art saturates the Vietnamese landscape, from its temples to sidewalks. During stopovers, tourists stepping off buses for refreshments or “happy rooms (toilets)” watch as disabled women turn out paintings that are painstakingly made from stitches rather than brush strokes.

Just as unforgettable as those rooms full of women sewers creating handmade art is their silence. One question lingers: where are the women in Vietnamese history?

In the Temple of Lê Đại Hành at Hoa Lu, I finally came face-to-face with the gilded figure of Dương Vân Nga. After two days of looking up at Confucius, Ho Chi Minh and a host of heroes and sages—all males—it was a relief at first to behold the serene visage of a woman, all but missing in the interstices of Vietnamese history.

Vietnam’s only empress of two dynasties survived the vicissitudes of power through the oldest way women negotiated with men: sex.

Vân Nga married the first emperor of the Đinh Dynasty, and then married the general who plotted his downfall; deposed her son, the child-king; and replaced his rule with his own, the Early Lê Dynasty.

Bestowed a new title by her second emperor, the “Bright Empress of Great Victory” was reviled by Confucian scholars and historians for acts of frailty that violated the strict code of Confucian ethics. She endures today as a popular character in plays and novels.

The temple Vân Nga shares with her second emperor (a stone’s throw from the temple of her first) had few visitors on the day of our visit. It was an opportunity for me to bombard our guide with questions.

As well as to note that the Two-Time Empress was missing a bowl of Buddha’s Hand.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 30, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, April 22, 2017


WHAT would I carry for more than 1,400 miles?

A book, a letter, I guess. In Hanoi, we packed mementoes for family and friends. The lone souvenir that could not fit in our bags was a Mu Coi, the Vietnam pith helmet.

Copied from French colonizers by the Viet Minh and still worn by civilians, the hat, covered in jungle-green cloth, just lacks replica brain matter and bone to complete the kitsch.

Virtually the last thing I would carry for even a mile, the Mu Coi I cradled from the Nội Bài International Airport to the Mactan-Cebu International Airport.

In lounges, I placed the package on its own seat. It seemed that a head, not a hat, was outlined against the flimsy plastic.

In Singapore, the hat slid out of sight in the overhead bin. The plane steward leaped out of my way when I yelped and rushed back to retrieve it.

When the hat finally reached our friend, he admitted he wanted only a baseball cap with the red star, a souvenir that blankets the sidewalks of Hanoi in the thousands.

One of the oldest in Southeast Asia, the 4,000-year-old Vietnamese culture is diverse, complex and fascinating. Paradoxically, war seems to be at the center.

Colleagues—rational and skeptical—remembered crying at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

On April 30, 1975, when Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to or was liberated by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Vietnam War left about 58,000 American soldiers dead and 304,000 injured.

The Vietnam War is said to be the “only war the Americans lost”. The South Vietnamese, allies of the U.S., took the brunt of the Americans’ defeat: about four million dead or wounded, including 1.3 million civilians, in South Vietnam alone.

Even in the face of ignorance, historical amnesia, or the ashes of Cold War polarities, the relatively less macabre Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi is a remembrance of the human cost of aggression, whatever the cause.

Hanoi today is a far cry from war-time Vietnam, which, covered by at least 21 million bomb craters, looked like the moon. As Bella sautéed cat fish caught from the once “bomb-saturated” Red River—historians estimate American war planes dropped twice as many bombs in Vietnam as they did during World War II—she told us about her grandmother’s collection of frying pans.

Interrupting her automotive engineering studies overseas to take care of an ailing elder, Bella learned to cook from her mother, who learned from her own mother. Her grandmother’s generation made durable cooking implements from the planes that crashed in the countryside, she said.

Our family, who enjoyed Bella’s dinner, agreed that the only response to destruction is creation.

( 09173226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 23, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Making room

CAN we make room for one more?

In Hanoi, our family recently experienced what must be a visitor’s first, lasting impression of Vietnam: this country seems to have more motorcycles than people.

Two young men who acted as our guides debunked the impression. According to Mike and then Wang, Hanoi has about 7.5-8 million residents and 5 million motorbikes.

Crossing the streets in Hanoi Old Quarter, the business and tourism hub of the Vietnam capital, I was disconcerted to see slight-framed ladies in short skirts and high heels steer their scooters with the granite-steady composure of road veterans.

Add older folks cycling at a timeless, unhurried pace and ambulant women wearing a non la (palm leaf conical hat) and balancing on a pole baskets filled with produce or food darting across the street or halting to haggle and sell.

The situation calls for pandemonium.

Strangely enough, I only witnessed one road accident during nearly a week’s stay in Hanoi. On the outskirts, in a nearly empty road, the parties stood around, viewing the motorcycle felled in front of a car with the equanimity of farmers waiting for a water buffalo to rise up from its mud bath.

Except probably for the newly arrived who nervously imagine their bum whisked off by a speed demon summoned by a foot stepping off the curb, a system of coexistence imposes order on Hanoi streets.

In timeless Asian tradition, owners park motorcycles on the sidewalks. Ladies (the Vietnamese must be the leanest, fittest Asians) singlehandedly arrange motorbikes so these lean in the same direction like artfully arranged salad greens.

The same ladies charge from 7,000 to 10,000 VND for 24-hour parking, said Mai, who parks for free in front of a stoop owned by a friend. The more expensive logos or better-looking bikes cost more.

Pocketing the parking fees are the stall owners, who include the sidewalks in their enterprise. For over 1,000 years, the Old Quarter streets are the bases of guilds.

Once known as “36 Old Streets,” the Old Quarter has expanded to cover an area as neatly organized as a department store, devoted to silk, silver, lacquerware, leather, coffee, noodles, seafood, and other merchandise hardly catering to tourists, such as tombstones and funeral wreaths.

Efficient albeit self-serving, entrepreneurs leave sidewalk space to draw in souvenir hunters or the hungry.

Squatting on a plastic stool while a grandmother grills pork and bread on the sidewalk, this tourist encounters across the street assault the gaze of Ho Chi Minh silkscreened on a mass-marketed T-shirt, reproachful and redolent of a time before the dream of socialism became dissipated in a cloud of coffee steam and motorbike fumes.

( 0917 3226131)

*First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 16, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”