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