Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Ho Chi Minh Complex: Where hero worship and art meet

The Ho Chi Minh (HCM) Complex lies alongside Ba Dinh Square. In 1945, President Ho Chi Minh read the Proclamation of Independence here at this humongous square. It is flanked by the Assembly Hall on one side and the HCM Mausoleum on the other.

The new Assembly Hall
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum
The HCM Complex consists of the Presidential Palace, HCM's House on Stilts, the HCM Mausoleum and the HCM Museum. There's also a pagoda - One Pillar Pagoda - within the complex. 

The HCM Mausoleum overlooks Ba Dinh Square and houses the embalmed body of HCM. It is an impressive collonaded monument in grey marble and granite designed to reflect the stature of the renowned statesman resting here. At the time I visited the complex, the mausoleum was closed for maintenance so I missed seeing it from the inside. 

The Presidential Palace was built by the French in the early 1900s for the the Governor of Indochina. As a symbolic gesture, HCM refused to live in the palace when he became president of independent Vietnam. The palace itself is out of bounds for visitors though one can tour the grounds which are lush green, calm and peaceful. 

A view of the Presidential Palace from the outside
A smaller, more traditional wooden home was built for him on the grounds of the Presidential Palace - today known as HCM's House on Stilts. The house is surrounded by fruit trees, bamboo, carp ponds and smaller buildings which were used as his residence, offices, meeting rooms and garages.

Ho Chi Minh's house on stilts with the bedroom on the first floor
and a meeting space on the ground floor
The large carp pond within the premises
Roots of the cypress tree grow out of the water creating
interesting patterns
Other buildings housing HCM's residential and official areas
HCM's garage with his cars. Mainly of Soviet make.

The One Pillar Pagoda was first built in 1049 AD in the middle of a lotus pond based on a dream the then king had. He dreamt that a celestial being handed him a son while seated on a lotus flower. The king did have a son later and he built the pagoda in gratitude. It was built on top of a single pillar signifying the lotus stem and the pagoda itself as the flower. The original pagoda was destroyed by the French during the Indochina War. It was rebuilt later in its current form. In summer the pond is supposed to be covered with lotus blossoms. The pagoda is very popular and has tourists and pilgrims visiting it all year around. Due to the excessive crowds the day I visited, I didn't climb up to see the main shrine.

The area had some construction going on and at one end in a makeshift (tin sheets as walls and roof) set-up there was an elaborate shrine. No information indicated why this shrine was placed here.

The HCM Museum is  dedicated to the Vietnamese people's struggles, the revolution and to HCM's ideology. The exhibits are objects and photographs from real life as well as artistic renditions of the revolution and socialist ideology. The museum was conceptualised in the 1970s with the support of the erstwhile Soviet Union which gives you an idea why the exhibits are the way they are. It's unique, surreal and something else, altogether. Even if you don't normally like museums, you will enjoy this one. :)

Lotus iconography at the entrance
The impressive lobby on the upper floor
The larger than life sculpture of HCM

Metallic sculpture of a lotus pond signifies the flower's
importance in Vietnam

Another view of the lobby. In the foreground in white 
is an art installation.

Note: The lotus is Vietnam's national flower. It is considered auspicious and symbolises purity. The Vietnamese have special regard for it as it grows in the mud but is untainted by the dirt. The flower can be seen in iconography everywhere, as you must have realised from the photographs above. You can also see it sold at florists and outside places of worship. In summer, the ponds and lakes across Vietnam are supposed to be in full bloom and an attraction in themselves.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Sword handling turtles

Ho Hoan Kiem is a picturesque lake located near the shopping district of Ha Noi. It has a very interesting legend behind it. 

Emperor Lê Lợi who ruled Vietnam in the 13th century was said to have a very powerful and magical sword which was given to him by one of the Gods to fight the Chinese Ming dynasty. One day when the emperor was boating on the lake, a giant turtle rose up and took the sword away from him. Searching for both turtle and sword proved futile. Emperor Lê Lợi  was convinced that the sword had returned to the Gods. The water body was then renamed Ho Hoan Kiem i.e. Lake of the Returned Sword. 

In the midst of the lake is a structure very European in architecture. It's origins are strange but today it's known as Thap Rua i.e. Turtle/ Tortoise Tower in honour of the turtle in the legend. The tower has probably stood the test of time as no one is allowed on it except for maintenance purposes.

The Turtle Tower standing like a silent sentinel
in the midst of the lake
A species of soft-shelled turtles are inhabitants of the lake though they are sighted very rarely. People gaze into the waters hoping to catch sight of the sacred ones which is considered incredible good fortune. I did too but it wasn't to be my lucky day.

On another island closer to the shore is a temple reached by a red wooden bridge. The Ngoc Son Temple (The Temple of the Jade Mountain) has been dedicated to various figures since it was built but today it is dedicated to three figures - a 13th century Vietnamese military general, a Confucian master and a literary figure. 

The temple has three gates before the bridge and a fourth one after crossing the bridge. The gates have auspicious letterings, signs and symbols on them. 

Gates 1 & 2 of the temple

Gate 3: The top & side panels with auspicious
sculptures & messages on it 
Gate 3: the other side, facing the temple
Inside the shrine besides the altar and offerings to it, there are many interesting artefacts - ancient weapons, sculptures of auspicious birds & animals, intricately shaped bells, huge porcelain vases and decorative flowers. 

Large bells with intricate forms on it
Worship continues here to this day
In a chamber to one side of the main shrine, there is a glass encased body of a giant tortoise that used to live in the lake. The description next to it says it was preserved in 1968. The tortoise then weighed 200 Kgs, it was 2m in length and 1.2m in width. Wow!

A view of the lake from the temple premises
Hoan Kiem has pretty landscaping, walkways and park benches around it making it an a hub for people to rest, relax and enjoy quality time with family and friends. Even late into the night, the area is a buzzing with life. Somewhat akin to Marine Drive in Mumbai or India Gate in Delhi (minus the persistent hawkers). 

A quaint souvenir store outside the temple that seemed
to blend into the temple environs.

A view of the bridge to the temple
Night-time view of the lake. Visible is the red bridge
and in the distance the lit-up Turtle Tower
A detailed description of the Ngoc Son Temple can be found here

The Vietnamese have dedicated the same temples to different saints and prominent figures over time which I found quite complicated to follow. Ngoc Son itself has been the site of various dedications, this avatar is its fourth.

Thanks to this trip to Hanoi, I also realised there is a difference between a temple (Den in Vietnamese) and a Pagoda. The former can be a community place of worship or dedicated to special people - holy monks, ancestors, national heroes etc. while the latter is Buddhist and dedicated to the Buddha(s). 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Art across 4 Kms

The mosaic wall as seen from across the road

Hanoi boasts of a gorgeous 4 Km long ceramic mosaic wall along the Red River dyke. This mural was created in 2010 to mark the 1,000 year celebrations of the city when it was established as the capital 'Thang Long'. The designs in the mural incorporate aspects of Vietnamese culture, history and current vistas of the city as you will see below. 

The concept involved many Vietnamese and a few international artists who came together to create different designs on the wall. The project was sponsored by various corporates, trusts and organisations, each getting a mention in the mural. The mosaic is structured into two tiers and took three years to complete. 

I didn't get to see the entire stretch as it's long-ish walk interrupted by traffic signals and large junctions. But it's worth at least driving past to see the wall in its entirety. 

The mosaic wall holds the record in the Guinness Book as the largest ceramic mosaic in the world which has also been incorporated into the design of the mural.

Top, left is the One Pillar Pagoda & right below is one of 
Hanoi's many skyscrapers representing its modern face.

Quintessential Vietnam: the ubiquitous two-wheeler, propaganda art
style poster & the mosaic wall in the backdrop.

The B&W ceramic designs stand out in the 
midst of all the colour.
Top is the Guiness Book logo while below is the depiction of
the ancient & modern names of the city along with
the corresponding years.
To see the wall before the mural existed, read the post by Hanoi Ceramic Mosaic Mural.