Vietnam’s bright shining butterfly*

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butterfly.jpgCruise ship tours are, by their very nature, rushed affairs. There’s a fixed number of sights to be shepherded around in a short amount of time. There’s the obligatory stop for souvenir shopping. And then it’s all back to the ship in time for dinner, or departure.
That’s just how it was in Ho Chi Minh City. So much to see, you would not want to miss Saigon.
We had an excellent guide, with a sense of humour and an impeccable command of English. But the schedule gave him limited time in which to whisk his coach-load of Silver Shadow passengers from the History Museum, with exhibits chronicling invasions through the centuries, to the former Presidential Palace – now Reunification Hall – where the tanks which crashed through its gates to signify the end of the Vietnam War are still parked on the lawn.
We passed the site of the US Embassy from which helicopters evacuated senior officials in 1975. The original building has been demolished and replaced, but its original perimeter wall is still intact. Standing on the steps of Gustav Eiffel’s elaborate General Post Office, our guide pointed to the roof of the CIA headquarters building, from which the very last choppers departed.
There was a photo stop outside the Rex Hotel, scene of daily Press conferences during the war. It still has its rooftop bar but the ground floor has been replaced with an arcade of upmarket fashion boutiques; the same fate has befallen the Continental Hotel across the road, setting for much of the action in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.
A cyclo ride, with overweight visitors being propelled between buzzing motorbikes by whippet-thin Vietnamese, delivered us to the lacquer factory and souvenir shop where there was time to browse among the trays and coaster sets, elaborate screens and furnishings. Time also to lay siege to the credit card before setting off to the Binh Tay market in Cholon, or Chinatown, where we could only marvel at the multitude of silks and shawls, shoes and hats piled high on the stalls.
It was en route to Cholon that we passed by one of the most emotive sites in Saigon, which merited a cursory mention and an opportunity for only a drive-by photo-shoot – if you were on the right side of the bus.
The Xa Loi Pagoda is surrounded by food stalls. Built in 1956, it is one of 200 Buddhist shrines in Saigon, although this one is rather more revered than some because it claims to contain a relic of the Buddha.
It holds a far more significant place in history, however, because of the events of June 11, 1963.
On that day, 66-year-old Thich Quang Du arrived at the pagoda, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight in protest against the US-supported Diem regime. Next day, pictures of his self-immolation were on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Within six months, Premier Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu were assassinated in a military coup.
We moved on to the smoke-filled confines of the Thien Hau Temple and then back to the ship. Dinner, an evening of standards performed by the Artists of Silversea, and a flutter in the casino shook the sacrifice from our memories.
A couple of days later, along with another coach-load of Silver Shadow passengers, I am in Hué, the former capital of Vietnam. With the frantic journey along Highway 1 behind us there’s time to take things more slowly – and fortunately no sign of the rain which is an almost permanent feature of the city.
After exploring the dilapidated Imperial palace – modelled on Beijing’s Forbidden City and once home to the emperors’ concubines and eunuchs – we take a leisurely drive along the north bank of the Perfume River to another Buddhist pagoda, Thien Mu.
Rising seven storeys and with an altar at each level, it is also home to a pavilion containing a giant marble turtle and another housing a huge bell cast in 1710. All the sort of things you expect to find at your average temple.
Incongruously, among the monastery buildings behind the tower is an open-fronted garage sheltering a rusting Austin Cambridge. What could be so special about an anonymous vehicle which should have been consigned to the scrap heap years ago?
In fact this is the vehicle in which Thich Quang Du drove from his home in the monastery to that street corner in Saigon, back in 1963. I won’t say the vehicle in which he made his final journey because I’m sure he believed there would be other journeys after that day, but his fellow monks felt it was worthwhile preserving the car for posterity.
Turning away from the vehicle to stroll among a courtyard filled with impeccably-tended bonsai trees, my gaze fell on the only one bearing blossom. If I knew anything about gardening or horticulture I could probably tell you what it was called. All I can say is that it looked as if it was on fire; a mass of flame-red flowers.
At that moment, a shining, iridescent butterfly of the deepest indigo settled on the bush, its wings restlessly fluttering, its tongue penetrating the tiny flowers to release nectar from within.
A beautiful, beautiful sight. I would like to think that Thich Quang Du had been reincarnated and come home. Why else would the rain have stayed away for the day?
*With apologies to Neil Sheehan, author of A Bright Shining Lie, the best book written about the Vietnam War.

By | 2017-06-15T15:59:41+00:00 21 November 2012|Cruise Destinations|0 Comments

About the Author:

John Honeywell is a travel writer specialising in cruise ships and cruise travel. Winner of CLIA UK's Contribution to Cruise award 2017.

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