In my first few days in Vietnam I trudged around more Buddhist temples than I really needed, not because they lacked interest but because I lacked sleep.
In Hanoi I somnambulated my way round the Temple of Literature and up the parade-ground to the Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum. We declined en masse the a two-kilometre walk to the Botanical Gardens and cut to the chase by walking across to the unique and evocative One-Pillar Temple, a place of pilgrimage for couples in hope of sons.
In the royal capital of Huế we trudged to the Imperial Citadel, where we gazed at the citadel itself, the site of the Purple Forbidden City (which has virtually ceased to exist) and the Palace of Supreme Harmony. 80% of Hue was flattened by the Americans in 1968, and what remains of the Citadel is pockmarked with bullet holes. It’s another place that’s full of powerful resonances, but they don’t stand out in the midst of a crowded itinerary. (The 1968 event is portrayed in the movie Full Metal Jacket (1987), much of which was filmed at Beckton Gas Works.)
But at the Thiên Mụ Pagoda amid a succession of shrines was a poignant surprise – the 1959 Austin car that drove the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức to his self-immolation in June 1963.
The Thiên Mụ Pagoda is significant in the religious conflicts within Vietnam at the time of transition from colonial rule, but it’s very difficult to appreciate in a tourist convoy.
That unexpected link to something familiar and British, however, brought into sudden sharp focus an event that at the time it happened seemed a very long way aw