We’ve visited two pagodas so far in Hue, and the two are as different as night and day. In the old SAT verbal analogy game, the comparison would be something like Bao Quoc Pagoda is to Tu Dam Pagoda as Grace Episcopal Church in Keswick (or any other small, chapel-like church) is to Notre Dame or Cologne cathedral, though even that fails to capture the true difference. I’ll walk you through the two, and maybe after the photos, any explanation I can offer will make a bit more sense. If the lighting looks a bit different in some of the photos from Bao Quoc, it’s because they may have been taken on any one of the three visits I’ve made there, which sort of tells you which pagoda I prefer.
Both pagodas are in the same neighborhood, on side streets off the street Dien Bien Phu. Entry to Bao Quoc is up a long stairway into a bare courtyard. Here’s a close-up of the ornate scrollwork at the top of the building. If you can’t see the detail of the symbol at the top, here it is on something else in a shot I took in one of the courtyards to the side of the main building. Yes, it’s a swastika or variation thereof. You may have heard that Hitler had to get it from somewhere. Since 1940, Bao Quoc has been a school for training Buddhist monks, and it really does seem more like a school than a “church.” There is a room with a small altar, though the husband commented that the many-armed figure seemed more closely connected with Hinduism than with Buddhism. And though we saw several signs of human habitation, on the first visit we didn’t see anyone else there. On subsequent visits we saw monks (some were young monks—are they called “novices”?) walking around or sitting at a table talking. On the first visit, we only saw shoes in front of doorways, and a cat with one set of shoes We saw robes hanging to air or to dry. Apart from people, I saw some designs I want to remember in terms of my quilting. Off the main courtyard there are some smaller places with statues and pools of water. There’s also what appears to be a tomb area. There are lots of trees and many, many peaceful places to sit. I felt a peace or serenity at Bao Quoc that I don’t often feel, and it was very, very nice.
Tu Dam pagoda is further up Dien Bien Phu from Bao Quoc, and you notice right upon entering the grounds that it’s a different sort of pagoda. From this view of this large tower, which is under some sort of renovation, there is a gift shop at your back. Because I actually have what I call my “Vatican church-key,” a bottle-opener key ring I purchased from a nun at a gift shop on the roof of St. Peter’s in Rome, I am hardly one to pass judgment on a gift shop at a house of worship. I’ll just note that it was there (and that I have on my wrist as I type a bracelet that I purchased there at the end of our visit).
Here are the steps up into what looks to be the main worship area. We entered through the side, accompanied by a woman who accosted us in the courtyard where the first tower was and led us to believe she was some sort of guide. She had us remove our shoes and then led us through a side door into the huge main room. She offered us incense to light and add to a small altar. The fact that she then asked for $1 US from each of us and put this in her pocket rather than in some collection jar let us know that she was your basic local huckster rather than some sort of official pagoda guide. Along one wall of the room were several very ornate altars. On the side of the room opposite the altars there was a bell in an alcove to one side and a drum in an alcove to the other, an arrangement we have seen elsewhere including on the roof galleries of the Ngo Mon Gate into the Imperial City. There are some pleasant areas outside the huge main building, and they are expanding the buildings on the pagoda grounds. According to the guidebook, Tu Dam Pagoda’s chief importance is as a center for supporting Buddhism. Maybe the glitz helps in that regard, but it certainly didn’t have the spiritual feel for me that Bao Quoc Pagoda did. If I had to choose between the two in terms of a spiritual “home” or place just to sit and ponder, Bao Quoc would win hands down.
This weekend (March 28-29) is a big celebration at Hue University. Hue was liberated from the Americans on March 26, 1975. In addition, this week marks the anniversary of the founding of some sort of student union, perhaps even the Communist Party one. Classes are cancelled on Saturday, meaning the husband gets a three-day weekend. We may attend some of the celebration festivities on Saturday, though we may also go across the river to a shoe-maker since the sons are interested in getting tailored suits if they can also get some tailored shows or sandals to go with the suits. Sunday we may bicycle to some tombs south of the city with a shopkeeper we have become friends with.
We have just a bit more than a week left here in Hue, and it will be hard to leave. Our life here has a very nice routine. While it would get old eventually (hotels are like that), it has only just started to feel a bit “old.” Hue is a very nice small city. Although there are times I would like to have a t-shirt emblazoned with “No, I do not wish to purchase your goods or services” in Vietnamese, I do like it here a lot. It has been a luxury to have had a month in which to get the feel of Hue, to see things somewhat at leisure. We will not have this luxury in the rest of our trip, but I think the relaxed pace we have had here has left us rested and ready for the next, faster parts of the trip.