Letter from Hue, Vietnam – April 2013

View of city of Hue from hotel

View of Hue from our hotel.

Just around bedtime, last Monday, we were holed up in our beautiful 4star hotel after an exhausting day of exploring the old Forbidden City that lies at the heart of this large provincial town. Having had visions of cycling through wide, peaceful, tree-lined streets, we hired bikes for the day.

Uh uh! Traffic was just as abysmally bad as at Hanoi with millions of motorcycles, and cars, other bicycles, trucks and people all going wherever they chose, luckily though at about 40kph. It took us quite some time to get into something like the right Zen headspace and just relax and let them all flow around you.

Hue used to be the political epicentre of Vietnam, the place of dynastic kings, until Ho Chi Minh rose to power in 1945. Thenceforth government wielded power from Hanoi. And indeed it seems like a place that Time has passed by and in doing so has imbued the place with a rich, fantastic and melancholy beauty.

The walled fortress, citadels and Forbidden City complex is incredibly vast, filled with gardens, canals, artificial lakes with lotuses and fringed with graceful trees, temples, all kinds of buildings such as the rich carmine red and gold interior end throne room, the theatre, the luxurious residence of the Queen Mother and much much more… Anyway we took loads of photos, which you can see when we get back!

The Royal Palace complex with its surrounding fortress walls and citadels lie on the banks of the beautiful, wide, swirling, moss green waters of the Perfume River, above which scores of dragonflies hover in the warm, heavy, humid air.

River with boat before palace

Perfume River, Hue

Above the citadel at the entrance an enormous Vietnamese flag of the yellow star in red background waves. The banks of the river on our side are flanked with beautiful public gardens with trees and modern and ancient sculptures and many fine French colonial style buildings.

2013-04-14 16.35.04

There were always secret little archways leading into gardens,

Archway in Forbidden City, Hue

Archway in Forbidden City, Hue

Courtyard with archway.

One of the many little courtyards in the Forbidden City.

stone dragons winding their ways down staircases, roofs and sitting at the bases of steps

Staircase with stone dragons

Dragon stairs, Forbidden City, Hue

Stone dragon on a wall

A rampant dragon perched atop a wall.

and more buildings, to house all the eunuchs, concubines, royal family, mandarins and other officials.

Palace pavilion with artificial ponds

Dowager Queens pleasure pavilion, Forbidden City, Hue

Altar of worship.

Dowager Queen’s altar of worship.

It suggests an atmosphere heavy with suppressed intrigues and whisperings but also a sense of being a beautiful placid world far removed from the real world of working people outside whose taxes paid for it.

Residences with gardens in Forbidden City, Hue

Residential quarters in Forbidden City, Hue

Ceramic flower shaped tile in wall.

Ceramic tile in wall doing double duty as a peep-hole?

Artificial lakes with waterlilies

Artificial lakes with waterlilies.

Much of it was in ruins and dereliction,

Ruins of stone wall with trees

Bombed wall at Forbidden City, Hue.

especially since the bloody Americans (and sadly I guess we also) bombed the place. However the Vietnamese are busily restoring it with the help of German government funding and have already done some beautiful work, such as the red and gold lacquering on the wooden pillars, walls and casements of a long hall.

Restored open doors of a hallway in the Forbidden City

Part of a restored hallway in the Forbidden City

And I think the Vietnamese have the last laugh, since near the exit was this fenced compound where all these military tanks that stormed the fall of Saigon in 1975 along with a number of captured US bomber planes were proudly displayed for the benefit of the public. So hah!

US Military helicopter

An impounded US military helicopter

Love, Megan, John and Veronique


Krishnamurti and the Distance From the Face of the Earth

Why is Truth a pathless land (as Krishnamurti says), when every human, every living thing has to make a way? I wonder if he knows what he means by Truth.

*Is Truth what happens; what is?
The great thing about Truth is, no-one can really know what it is for sure so anyone can make up whatever rhubarb they like about it.  And Krishnamurti was a master of the art of Rhubarb.  For someone who professed to have no answers and no advice, this singularly useless individual had done a Hell of a lot of talking and writing in his lifetime.  Volumes of his transcripts and writings fill the dusty stacks of some large public libraries and that is by no means all of them.

An ex-lover of mine used to go to Kings Cross (in the 1980s) on the 2nd Saturday of every month and, dragging me with him, would stand for what seemed hours watching film of the great man – who refused to call himself a guru – talk non-stop in a kind of convoluted cerebral monologue laced with an affectation of endless, if somewhat detached love of life before crowds of attentive people.

Again and again I would strain to work out any sense of what he said, but the essence of what he said was invariably the same.  In amongst all the metaphors flowering in his great meadow of Life was the same old equation:

What is rhubarb = What is not rhubarb and vice versa

and ‘Stop trying to work out what I mean, you lot of inferior listeners!  If you are intelligent enough to understand what rhubarb I am about to say, then you will see my point’

What he did not cover was the exotic caramel-nut sweet, languorous, straw-like scent of the palm tree rustling in this dull, rainy cool afternoon and wondering what sunny tropical island it would have come from.

The day – early afternoon now – is grey and the colours under their light dusting of drizzle are fresh and vivid hues of green and yellow. The black asphalt road shines a silver sheen of damp and the air pulses with a hot, white light.  Crimson rosellas screech delightedly in the Bottle-brush trees waving gently in the breeze.  A cloud has shifted, revealing a patch of china blue sky.  Summer has remitted its debt of sun, but only for a moment.  It starts to sprinkle again and so the ephemeral moment of the present moves on.

‘A profoundly sick society…’ – says Krishnamurti. But human society is what it is, has been for all this time.  There are lots of pious pronouncements from detached saints, gurus and anti-gurus prescribing ways of changing things.  But they miss the point.  Railing against the ‘sickness’ of society – of the endless folly and empty materialism of the world can be just another excuse for refusing to accept humanity, of refusing to engage with life and this, our only world.  You have to forgive at least a part of it.  And those who feel so cleft from the face of the earth, must find a way to live on it.


*27/12/10 – personal journal entry


That chime in the air

With a kind of sting

I feel I am no longer young

Alone today with rain

Draining gently into cold blue-white

Crystals of miles of pipe

And the gusts of cold wind

Driving it spattering over bitumen road

These days many cairns of memories

Hail my steps

Before I know which

Corner I should turn and why

They cluster like rings on my fingers

And wind about my flying years

Before they fall like dying leaves

Into blackness and mulch

Then all over again

Another spring arrives

And like an idiot once more

I dare to think

My thoughts are crowned

Like the May Queen

– Megan Payne

The Swan – A very short story


Tundra Swan

There once was a lone cygnet, a child of a pair of wild swans, who had to share the river with a lot of ducklings.  Naturally the ducklings made fun of him as he was clearly different from all the rest of them.  The parent ducklings, who were always around, made sure however that the ducklings curbed this teasing and minded their manners, as good parents do.

But the cygnet, for his part, considered himself vastly superior to the ducklings who waggled up to the banks in their customary group and who all talked about things that struck him as pretty dull and trivial.  So he didn’t want to join their circle of friendship anyway.

Alone and rejecting all company, the cygnet was beset with fantasies of how wonderful he was and how one day this belief that he was destined for greatness would be vindicated.  The river bank seemed so little, so muddy and ordinary and so unlike the majestic, blue, sun-dappled lake that he would one day find and be lord and master over it entirely.

One day as the duckling’s parents were sunning themselves in their usual indolent way on the grassy ledge just above the riverbank, two men with long black sticks appeared on the other side.  The cygnet saw them raise their sticks towards the ducks and then suddenly and unbelievably a loud burst of thunder and lightning came from them and two ducks dropped dead like stones and lay bleeding on the ground.

Pandemonium ensued as the alarmed ducks quacked frantically to their ducklings to follow them as they fled for cover amongst the shady undergrowth beneath the nearby thicket of trees.  Only four orphan ducklings were left behind flailing around in circles, cheeping dismally.  Their parents had died and that was why no-one had called for them.  They waddled towards their dead parents and tried to wake them with little cries.  But nothing could revive them and the men came, picked up the dead ducks and slung them into a rough, hessian bag.

‘Good shots there, hey?’  said one.  ‘Yep, good specimens too!’, said the other ‘We’ll eat well tonight!’.

‘It’s a pity we can’t touch the swans’ said the first, eyeing the little cygnet’s mother who was watching the scene with quiet concern from a bank of reeds on the edge of the river a little further away.

‘Yeah, I haven’t had swan since my grandfather died!’ said the second ‘but they’re protected by her Majesty the Queen and I wouldn’t want to cop the fine.  Grandfather never let a thing like that worry him though!’

So saying, they walked away with their brace of ducks, leaving the motherless ducklings sorrowing in their wake.  When it was safe to come out again the ducks adopted the motherless ducklings and looked after them as if they were their own and after a while, life on the riverbank went pretty well back to being normal and peaceful again.

He never said so, but the incident and the conversation had made a strong impression on the little cygnet.  The revelation swans were protected by her Majesty the Queen meant that he was indeed as special as he had always imagined that he was.  The common ducks would always have to fear men with sticks, but the cygnet not so.  The cygnet now imagined that he was of noble blood and must surely belong somewhere else.  Maybe he was not even the child of his parents!

Because of this feeling of separateness and superiority, he wasn’t too upset when he woke up one morning and found that marauding foxes had attacked, killed and devoured his parents.  It was simply a sign that he was to move to that wonderful lake that he had so often pictured in his mind.

So he packed up his things and said an airy goodbye to the common duck colony and the ordinary, muddy riverbank and sailed confidently downstream, around a bend in the river and was soon out of sight of his old home forever.  He was older now, with a long, serpentine neck that could make short work of unwary fishes and large, strong, webbed feet that made light of water currents.  And his baby fuzz had given way to raiment of resplendent, snowy white feathers.  Admiring his reflection in the calm, reflective parts of the river, he felt that very soon, that brilliant destiny he always knew was his would come to be.

After a few weeks of paddling downstream and many adventures, he took a tributary in the river, turned down it and there was the lake!  It was large and on that perfectly clear day, was a wondrous sapphire blue rippled by the strong breezes that played upon the waters.  The dazzling sunlight danced on it, with triumphant, silent chimes and swifts wove their arabesques around the edges.

As he paddled towards the sandy shore of the marvelous lake, he saw a woman with dark brown curly shoulder-length hair and dressed in a T-shirt and loose-fit blue jeans standing uncertainly.  In her hands was a packet of stale white bread.  As he saw this the swan (he was cygnet no longer) half rose from the water, cried a long harsh cry and flapped his powerful wings.  Bread, made by the kings of the earth was so much superior to common fishes and boring insects!  It was a noble food and as he was of noble blood he was entitled to it, so he thought.

The woman still stood there as he advanced with his great powerful legs, hissing ferociously at her and flapping his wings.  Soon he had reached her and he pecked her hands viciously to get at the bread, his birthright and his due.  He was a big bird, who from feet to beak reached up fairly to her chest.  Alarmed, the woman shrieked and hastily dropped the bread still in its plastic and ran towards her husband (who was busy taking a picture), while the swan greedily devoured the bread.

‘God, what a horrible creature that bloody huge swan is!’ the woman said to her husband.  ‘Did you see how aggressively he came and attacked me?  Honestly he’s more like a monster than a bird.  I can’t understand what people see in these ugly, nasty creatures!’  So saying, the woman turned her back on the swan and holding hands with her newly wedded husband, they walked away…