Through the large glass window, we watch the rain fall steadily on the narrow street outside L’Heritage Hotel in the old quarter of Hanoi. The riders on the motor scooters wear long plastic capes in neon colors that cover the rider and the scooter, merging the two into one. They look like mechanical centaurs as they swerve and honk in the seething river of traffic that flows past our hotel.
A Bad Start
Yesterday, when I booked our trip to Ninh Binh Provence, Hanoi was overcast but pleasant. I was congratulating myself for deciding to visit Hanoi in December when the weather is cool. The nice young lady promises me an incredible view when I upgrade the tour to include a hike up a steep mountain. A buffet lunch and tour guide are also included in the price of just $64 a person. However, this morning, we wake up to a steady down pour of rain. Now we wait in the lobby for our tour bus to collect us. It is already an hour late. We are off to a bad start.
Finally, our bus arrives and off we go. For an hour and a half, we cross and re-cross, circle and re-circle Hanoi collecting twenty-five other poor souls who have booked the same tour. Our tour guide is Tuan. He explains cheerfully that we will only travel for another twenty minutes before we stop to get a coffee at a rest stop. He has been collecting everyone’s “receipts” as they enter the bus. However, he is missing someone on his list. He calls out the name. No one answers. He calls out the name again. Again, no one answers. Five young men are loudly snoring in the back row of the bus. “Perhaps the missing person is one of the people sleeping,” someone suggests. He looks at Max, my ten-year-old son and demands”Wake him up!” Max’s eyes grow large as he looks around to see if Tuan is really talking to him. “Wake him up!” Tuan repeats. An awkward silence follows as everyone in the bus seems frozen in the horror.
I watch the clock on the front of the bus tick past twenty minutes, then an hour, then two hours. We have now been on the bus for three and a half hours and I have to pee. The landscape changes as limestone mountains spring up from the flat, green rice paddies, pointed and sharp, covered with green trees. The white mist from the rain swirls their curves, smoothing out their rough edges, giving them the appearance of a watercolor painting.
To pass the time and distract myself from my aching bladder, my mind escapes into a fantasy as I imagine Thich Nhat Hanh is my tour guide instead of Tuan. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was nominated in 1967 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize. Before I came to Vietnam, I read his books, The Dragon Prince and The Novice which are filled with the stories and legends of Vietnam. Instead of Tuan, I see an ancient man wearing a simple brown robe with a broad smile and a bald head. He begins his tale of ancient Vietnam…
The Legend of Âu Cơ
In the beginning, a beautiful fairy named Âu Cơ came to earth in the form of a white Lac bird. She was so overwhelmed by the beauty of this world that she tasted a bit of the sweet earth. Doing so, she lost her ability to fly and could not return home. She cried so many tears that her tears became a river that flowed to the sea. When her tears reached the ocean, the Dragon Prince, Lạc Long Quân, who lived in the ocean came to the shore to investigate. He took the form of a handsome prince. He discovered Âu Cơ who had taken the form of a beautiful woman. They fell in love. Soon, Âu Cơ laid 100 eggs. From those eggs burst forth 100 human children, the first 100 members of the Vietnamese race. Âu Cơ raised 50 of their children in her beloved mountains where Lạc Long Quân took 50 of their children to live near him on the ocean. We are entering Ninh Binh, the beloved mountains of Âu Cơ. Everywhere, you could see the fairy in her bird-form as hundreds of white birds dot the green rice fields and green mountains.
The Ancient Capital of Hoa Lư
We pull into a parking lot, the majority of the patrons squirming in their seats from the urge to urinate. My image of Thich Nhat Hanh disappears when Tuan abruptly announces, “We could not stop at the rest stop because of construction. We are now at the ancient capital of Hoa Lư. Now, get off the bus.” We walk towards the ancient capital crossing the gray stone bridge dotted with red flags toward the red roofed pagoda on the opposite shore.
We are approaching the ancient capital of Hoa Lư, established by the first emperor of Vietnam, Đinh Bộ Lĩnh, in the late 10th Century. When Đinh Bộ Lĩnh was a small child, his mother raised him among the common folk in a small village in the Gia Vien district of Ninh Binh province. Although his father was a great general, Đinh Bộ Lĩnh grew up connected to the simple peasants of the land. He became a fierce warrior at a very young age, unifying Vietnam by defeating the twelve warlords that divided the country. Đinh Bộ Lĩnh declared himself the first emperor of Vietnam and renamed the country Dai Co Viet. He built the capital in Hoa Lư. After his death, he was renamed Dinh Tien Hoang.
“Get in two straight lines,” Tuan barks. I wait like the schoolgirl Madelaine for Tuan to bestow some wisdom upon us. “The sign says pigs, because the new emperor needed pigs,” Tuan tells us. “Pigs?” I ask. “Pigs as in ‘con lợn (the Vietnamese word for pig)?'” “No, piiiigs,” he draws out the length of the word for emphasis. “Oh. Do you mean ‘peace?'” I ask. “Yes, piiiiigs,” Tuan responds, “now follow me in two straight lines.” He marches us around to the back of the building on a path that only accommodates a single file. Finally, we catch a glimpse of the bathrooms and several of us break formation.
Overcoming 500 Obstacles
After lunch at a sad, cold buffet, we board the bus again to complete the second half of our tour. Tuan announces that everyone except the “Hilton family” (that’s us) will be proceeding to the Tam Cốc River for a 90 minute boat ride. The rain has started again and the other tourists look gloomily out of the window. “The Hilton family will climb the Hang Múa Mountain.” The idea of climbing up 500 stairs to the top of a mountain in the cold rain seems very unappealing to me. Max turns to me with a big smile on his face and says, “How did we get so lucky that we get to climb a mountain instead of going on a stupid boat ride?” Okay, so I guess we are climbing the mountain. Tuan then announces that he will not be coming with us. I guess we are lucky after all.
Once the others are off the bus, the driver turns onto a raised narrow dirt road that perches like a balance beam between the green square rice paddies. We drive towards another set of sharp craggy limestone mountains that suddenly jut skyward from the flat valley floor. From the parking lot, my family seems so small in the shadows of the giant mountains. I can see white stairs that run zigzag up the front of the mountain directly in front of us. Here are the 500 stairs, the 500 obstacles that must be overcome before you reach the top. The white mist of the rain floats in and around the mountain, giving the landscape a surreal and magical appearance. Múa means “dance” in Vietnamese because dance performances used to be held in the cave at the foot of the mountain. On top of the mountain is the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy, Quán Âm.
Serenity in the Face of Unjust Accusations
We begin our ascent of the white marble stairs that form a walkway resembling a mini Great Wall of China. At the base, the Dragon Prince winds down the mountain towards the bottom, as if he is leaving Âu Cơ in a rush to get back to his beloved sea. As I walk up the mountain, I find Thich Nhat Hanh at my side again. He tells me another story.
A beautiful young girl called Quán Âm from a small village feels so drawn to the teachings of Buddha that she wants to become a monk. Her father, however, wants her to marry. She follows her father’s wishes and marries a local man. One night, as her husband lays sleeping, she notices a hair growing out of one her husband’s moles. She takes a knife to cut the hair when her husband awakes. Seeing the knife he accuses her of trying to kill him. The young woman disguises herself as a boy and flees to a monastery. She does very well in the monastery and is very devoted to its practices. She falls victim to yet another false accusation when another young woman accuses her of “fathering” a child out of wedlock. Rather than reveal her true gender, Quán Âm leaves the monastery and raises the child. Eventually, those around her learn of her true identity and realize the injustice that Quán Âm has endured in these false accusations.
“Surely anyone who has lived on Earth has had to experience injustice of one kind or another. If we allow hatred and revenge to dictate our response, then our suffering will only go on and on. How do we find a way out? How can we free ourselves? A person who feels injured by another typically harbors thoughts of revenge, wanting to punish the offender. But the Buddha taught that hatred is never removed by adding more hatred. The only stream that can wash away the pain of unjust acts is the sweet water of loving-kindness and compassion. Without loving-kindness and compassion, hatred and vengeance will continue to accumulate from one year, and one lifetime, to the next.” The Novice by Thich Nhat Hanh
There are only a few other travelers scattered along the stairs. The air is thick with the heavy mist of rain. The fog balances on the tip of the mountain, neither descending or rising, just balancing. With each segment of the steep path, I breath more heavily, my heart pounding in my ears. I am determined to keep going without pausing. Finally, we reach the top. I stand there, elated by the pure physical exertion it took to reach the top. Feeling my lungs gasp for air, my heart beat, my legs ache, I feel alive. On top of the mountain, Quán Âm looks down on the beauty of the landscape with a calm serenity.
I take in the view, the river below dotted with tiny boats, the surrounding mountains, the green rice patties, the tall slender pagoda on the far peak. It is a magical and majestic sight. This is the Vietnam of my dreams. The place where mountain joins the sea connected by the lifeline of the river. To be in this place is to understand why the Vietnamese people believe their very existence sprang from the union of mountain and sea, of fairy and dragon. We descend the mountain, elated, inspired, invigorated. By the time we join the others for our boat ride on the Tam Cốc River, the rain has stopped. Our boats are piloted by young girls who paddle the oars with their feet. We wind down the river of Âu Cơ’s tears, past white birds, green fields and sharp mountains. I see Thich Nhat Hahn standing on the bank of the river. We smile and nod understandingly at each other before he turns into a golden turtle and slides into the river. But that is a different story……..
Life is an adventure, not a destination. With a little luck and a little imagination, you can discover a world filled with magic.