The pagoda is tall and a pale yellow, 60 feet high, with seven stages, each dedicated to a Buddha that appeared in human form. Kem, our guide, is telling us the story of the emperor who was coming down the river and saw this lovely hillock. Climbing out of his boat, he scrambled to the top and found himself dazzled by the view of the gorgeous hills in the distance, the smell of pine from the nearby forest, the warmth of the sun.
As he’s sitting there, an old man came up to him and told him how the villagers gathered there every full moon to see the vision of a lady in a red shirt, blue trousers, and a yellow scarf. When they asked her why she came, she told them that—
--one day a great man would build a pagoda there.
Upon hearing this story, the emperor took a moment and thought to—
“Lucy!! Stop it!!”
--himself: “Wait a minute: I’m a great man.” And that was when he decided to—
“Lucy! Get down from there!
Damn it. I hand Jamie to Ellen, give Kem an apologetic look, and storm over to my two eldest. And when I say storm, think hurricane crossed with blizzard crossed with earthquake crossed with really pissed off 220-pound white guy who hasn’t had enough caffeine. We’ve been in Vietnam for 8 days, now, and the two of them have bickered like a couple of old ladies fighting over who left the toaster running and burned down the house. Seriously, they’re acting like their 9 and 6, in a third-world country, and bored out of their frigging minds.
Lucy is sitting on a stone wall, her back against a pillar, legs out in front of her. Will is standing ten feet away, telling her to get down.
“Lu-cy! “ He makes it a six syllable word.
“Wi-ll! Stop it! Mommy said I could.”
“Shut up!” I say, violating one of the two cardinal rules the Hanstedt family (the other of which is, “Don’t touch Daddy’s popcorn.”). Grabbing Will and Lucy by the roots of their hair, I drag them to the edge of the rock cliff on which the pagoda is perched. The Vietnamese vendors stare at us—children are sacred in Vietnam, revered more than any place I’ve ever been. The Australians and French, on the other hand, ignore us.
“See that?” I say to the kids, pointing to the twenty-foot drop.
“Can you fly?” I say.
They shake their heads.
“Can you behave?” I say.
“Are you sure?”
Lots of nods.
“Because I’m about to test every theory of gravity ever known to man, if the two of you can’t behave. Do you understand me?”
Lots and lots of nods.
“Good.” I let go of them—on the grass, mind you—and turn back to hear the rest of Kem’s story. I haven’t gone three feet when Will says, “But Da-ad—“
I’m not sure if it’s the multi-syllabic enunciation, the whiny tone, or just the fact that he’s stupid enough to say anything to say when I’m in this kind of mood, but I turn and give him a look that would freeze most NFL linebackers in their tracks.
He stares at me for a minute. Then his head goes down, his hands go into his pockets, and he lets his shoulders slump pretty much all the way to his knees. I continue to glare, and he shuffles off, kicking a pine cone.
Once Kem has finished narrating the story of the pagoda, she tells us we should take a look around.
“Don’t forget the Martin,” she says.
She tilts her head, looks at me through her sunglasses. “The Austin Martin. Behind the temple.” And then she explains: back in 1963, when the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, burned himself alive in protest of the South Vietnamese government’s policies restricting religious practices, he drove himself to the site in a blue Austin Martin. If you look at the famous photograph of the protest, you can see the car in the background, its hood raised. Anyhow, Duc was from the monastery behind the pagoda, and the famous car is kept there as a reminder of his sacrifice.
All of which seems a little creepy to me. I mean, what’s next? The bullet that shot Lincoln? Lyndon Johnson’s cancerous lungs? Strolling around, I decide to avoid the car and concentrate on the temples and the landscaped garden. This really is the most beautiful place we’ve been since leaving Hanoi—a ragged, chaotic, dusty, and wonderful city.
Wandering toward the buildings, I notice an information placard or two, but I’m not in the mood to read, so I just snap a couple pictures. Coming around a corner, I find Will kicking that same pine cone, concentrating hard on keeping his head down, determined to project misery with every bone in his body.
“Hey Will,” I say. “Come over here.” I gesture towards a huge bell suspended in a side-building. It’s half-again taller than me, and wide as an oak. It’s the sort of bell that, just looking at it, you know ways more than a fully armed tank.
He slumps over, climbs up the steps. The building housing the bell is open on four sides and we circle it, looking at the inscriptions on the outside. Will notices a fly that seems to be beating itself against the metal, but then we realize it’s just a husk caught in a web being vibrated by the wind.
We stare at the bell for a minute longer, then Will says, “Dad?”
“Can I look under it?”
I tell him sure. We get down on our knees and peer under the immense iron lip. Inside are more fly husks. There’s also lots of graffiti, mostly in Vietnamese, but some in English and some in French. One or two people have pasted yellow sticky notes way up toward the dome. We stay under there for a while, looking at the scrawls and enjoying the echoes, even when we whisper. Then we crawl out and meander toward the main buildings.
The nearest holds a huge drum, the size of a cement mixer, surrounded by a knee-high wooden fence. Clearly folks have climbed over it, though, as this, too, is covered with scratched names and dates. Next door is a small plaster building housing three gods, each painted in bright colors that have faded and blistered in the hot sun. The gods are all life sized, and each one rests a foot or knee on some sort of creature: a dog, a mountain lion, a turtle. We talk about what this might mean. The turtle, we know, symbolizes long life, but beyond that, we’re stumped.
Will scratches one arm, then laughs. “You know what Bugs Bunny calls turtles?”
“Toitles. Like that. He calls them toitles.”
He’s grinning, thinking about the Looney Tunes collection we have back at the flat in Hong Kong. It’s one of the few things we brought from the States for the kids, and once a month or so, Will or Lucy will hall them out and slide a disc into the computer. Then they’ll spend an hour cracking up over Bugs or Sylvester or Wil E. Coyote.
I laugh. “Toitle,” I say. “I can hear him saying that.”
Kem is standing outside the main temple, and you can tell she’s got a watch in her head set up right beside a nice little agenda that is already—just an hour into the day—being shredded.
“Ellen and Lucy and Jamie are inside,” she says with a pained smile. “Maybe just five more minutes, and then we go?”
I nod politely. Ellen and I bicker about pretty much everything from the color of our sheets to the right kind of lettuce for tacos, but one thing we agree on is that no tour guide anywhere is ever going to hurry us away from some amazing place. And this is an amazing place.
Will and I mount the steps. We slip out of our shoes, pad into the outer room. It’s one of the most beautiful temples I’ve seen: lots of hard, dark wood, clean and airy and bright, with wide open spaces and none of the usual grimy smoke stains on the walls. The inner temple is set off by a series of wide, framed doorways, all of which are open. At the threshold of one sits a small boy in a blue robe. His head is shaved except for one long, unimaginably dark lock growing from the center of his forehead and swept behind his ear. He’s at the monastery school, training to be a monk. When they just begin, they’re left with three locks of hair; that he has only one means he’s passed his exams and will be allowed to stay—a mixed blessing for his parents, who can’t afford to keep him at home, but likely get to see him only once a year.
Will’s about to enter the inner temple, but I put a hand on his shoulder—no one is in there except a thin monk in a brown robe.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to,” I say.
Will nods, and the two of us stand there for a long time, looking in. The walls are lined with dark wood and colored tiles, and the ceiling is high and slanted, dark-stained wood with two small skylights. Incense is burning on the altar, and it crosses the shafts of light in thin, woven strands. Ever two minutes or so, the skinny monk rises from where he’s reading a book, crosses to the alter, and picks up a thick wooden club wrapped in yellow clothe. Holding it backhand, he taps a huge brass bowl resting on the table. The bowl chimes like a bell, low and resonant. I don’t doubt they can hear it all the way across the river, but standing this close it sounds mellow and warm.
“Dad,” says Will in a whisper. I glance at him. He’s pointing toward a girl who’s kneeling on the far side of the altar, sticks of incense between her palms as she bows repeatedly. “We can go in.”
So we do.
The floor is tile and cool, and the smell of incense tickles the inside of my nose. I stand still for moment, enjoying the blue light, the rising smoke. Will goes straight to the bowl that the monk’s been striking. It’s silent now, but Will bends his ear to it anyway.
Then he grins. It’s a face-splitting grin, an ear-to-ear grin, the kind of grin I don’t get often from my serious little boy who’s less likely to tell a joke than he is to explain, over peanut butter and jelly, exactly how a metal detector works.
He gestures for me. I stroll over and he tells me to copy him. I lean down.
It’s there, soft but pure, clear as a—well, a bell: the low, resonating hum, hard as brass, grating as copper, but still somehow so warm it weaves through your skin and wraps around your insides.
Now it’s my turn to grin. This is, damn it, my favorite temple anywhere.
It takes a while to get out. We’re reluctant to leave that room, that bell, that incense, smoke drifting through shafts of light.
But finally we step onto the porch, slip on our shoes. The sun makes us squint. The crowds have thickened and we hear fragments of German, Chinese, Russian. I suddenly remember the Austin Martin, realize it’s probably just around the corner. How do I explain that one to Will? I think, and suddenly wonder where Kem is, if maybe she couldn’t steer us away from that particular icon, the image of a man being erased in a flowing curtain of flame and fuel and air and bone. But she’s nowhere to be found.
Crap, I think. I’m suddenly tired, the calm high from the temple gone.
We drift around the building, into cool shade. There’s a small garden there, with a few cabbages growing and what looks like an apple tree in the middle. Water has pooled around the base of the tree, and some one’s left an orange watering can by the fence.
Standing beside me, Will suddenly guffaws. I look at him.
“Hey,” he says. “You know what’s funny?”
“Bugs,” Will grins, looking at the small tree, a few wet strands of grass. “Bugs Bunny: he’s really just a man in a rabbit suit.”