Culture Culture

04/02/2019 - 07:59

Beauties of the past

One late-winter day, I went to Tu Hien estuary. Standing at Truong Ha Bridge looking down, the small estuary is like an open hand. The thumb is spread out. From the palm lines, the river flows into the sea.

Tu Hien estuary, also called Ong or Bien estuary is the estuary connecting Cau Hai lagoon with Bien Dong (Eastern Sea). This is one of the two main estuaries of the Tam Giang - Cau Hai lagoon system. Tu Hien Estuary is located between Vinh Hien and Loc Binh communes, Phu Loc district.

Hue’s old estuary. Photo: Thanh Hoang

According to history books, this old estuary belonged to the country of Champa, also called O Long in the Ly Dynasty. In the Tran dynasty, King Nhan Tong arranged marriage between his daughter, Princess Huyen Tran, and the Champa King, called Che Man. He brought the princess here and changed the name to Tu Dung. “Tu” means to think about, to remember, and “dung” means facial features, beauty. The meaning of the phrase is the appearance of a beautiful woman.

By using Tu Dung to name this estuary, the Vietnamese people at the time wanted to record the marriage between the Champa King and the Vietnamese princess, but on the other hand, to commemorate the princess’s well-known sacrifice of her personal happiness for the expansion of the realm.

I thought about the beautiful women who were born or came to live in the ancient Hue capital. I went upstream and met the Di-gan girl named Huong wildly stepping out of the old forests from Hoang Phu’s words. Going along the Huong ‘s flow, I strolled leisurely, following the ancient footsteps and admiring the silhouettes of past beauties.

I met the Mother Goddess of the land when I stepped on the jade temple where the gentle mountain cliff welcomed the sorrowful troubles of the people who visited. When a god accidentally dropped a jade tea cup from the sky, it was the birth place of a beautiful folk tale, in which beautiful goddesses gathered there, floating on the clouds, beautiful and looming, blessing good fortunes for the people. So that till now, generations of people still look up with full of belief and visiting the temple is also a way to purify their souls which can be clouded by earthly dust.

It is Hon Chen Temple, where the Cham people worshiped the Goddess PoNagar. Then, the Vietnamese who followed Thien Tien Thanh Giao continued to worship her with the name Goddess Thien Y A Na. Then Mother Lieu Hanh, Van Huong Thanh Mau also came here to gather. Gorgeous golden goddesses sat smiling majestically on their high seats looking down and giving a mysterious enchanted look.

It is strange that beautiful women from the distant past, accidentally or intentionally, all had wandered here and taken the river as a refuge and shelter. So, the wild Huong from the other side of the mountains, once reaching this turning point had let out a soft “yes” like the writer mentioned above had discovered. Was it because the Huong also looked up to the Goddesses and became ashamed of her wildness, which was not characteristic of a girl of the ancient capital? So, she softly curved her body, to be good, to be gentle and to flow leisurely into the small city like the summer moon patiently waiting for her.

I realized, later on, that this city carries a beautiful femininity.

In the summer afternoons, I would often ride my bike on the road towards Thien Mu, watching the beautiful road stretching gently next to the quiet river. Perhaps, in the increasingly fast-paced life of Hue, this road still retains the slow, gentle breath of the land. The road is wide enough for the buses carrying tourists back and forth up to the pagodas and tombs, but not too big, causing overwhelming feelings. Along with the grassy bank that is green in all four seasons, the scenery can make a passerby imagine he was a student of the past, travelling to the capital for the exams with the hope of making a name for himself, but extremely poetic and extremely leisurely.

From that green road, I thought about the beautiful girls of today in this land.

Unlike other lands where girls can be identified with specific names or features, Hue girls appear as a mysterious and vague mist, from appearance to personality.  Those who pass by Hue and fall in love with Hue girls will leave without a clear image, but instead, a vague wistfulness.

Wistfulness is because of the gentle voice. Hue girls are so strange. With strangers, they never show themselves completely. If you ask, “near or far?”, the answer will be “It’s not far yet not near”. If you ask them if they agree or not, the answer will be “Either way is fine”. If you asked them if they’re satisfied or not, the answer will be “Perhaps, but I am not sure”. The questioner will never get a definite answer.

People from other places who do not know it yet, who do not have the patience will never be able to open the door to the soul of a girl born in this ancient land. Therefore, people call Hue girls difficult. But it is not that difficulty to understand, if the remote visitor pays attention to the way the girl tilts her conical hat to cover her face, or adjust her clothes, he will realize the answer embedded in her gestures. 

Hue’s girls communicate more with their gestures and eyes rather than with words.

Hue’s girls, who appear on magazine covers and billboards to promote the image of Hue, radiate elegance mixed with a genteel air. All of the elegance is contained in the bright and deep eyes, as if the jade eyes were hiding a sky of the Huong River.

The beauty is as if from the past, from the sky, water, trees and grass. But how can we understand those beautiful eyes if we did not observe the lifestyle of the girls in the past?

On the land from more than 700 years ago, Princess Huyen Tran moved across the river (to exchange) for Chau O Chau Ly. Though she was not born here, she became the first woman to put her name into history books. As a female, how could she have made such important contributions to her country if she did not have the wisdom to put aside her sadness of the heart.

The heart of a girl had solved a major problem of the country. Therefore, her descendants later know how to appreciate her sacrifice by learning to lead their lives appropriately. 

Also, in the old land of Hoa Chau, the daughter of Gia Dinh land followed her father, who was the minister of the ceremony, to the palace. Since then, she became the queen, specifying every ritual in the way of behaving, of living as well as creating the standard for dignity and morality in the palace.

She was Queen Tu Du, who had the beauty of virtue of goodness and convergence in the old palace, adding a cultural style typical for the girls of the ancient capital. The clever and astute daughter of the South when coming to the imperial capital had become gentle yet so strong at the same time, setting the example for generations after.

Heaven and earth harmonize for the beautiful appearance; and the predecessors left legacies of virtues for Hue girls. Perhaps this is why Hue girls have always kept unique characteristics: beautiful but not showing, gentle but uncompromising, intelligent but cleverly hidden. All of these features create a portrait which is gentle but deep at the same time.

Time is like water passing under the bridge. People came and passed as white clouds flew by, but the beauty of the thousand years remained. People of the old time then came to Hue because of the gentle voice. People of today who come to Hue still get mesmerized by the ao dai in the gentle breeze. In those sunny middays, walking on Le Loi Street, flowers flying in the wind, our souls will suddenly be compassionate like a child meeting himself again in the sky of innocence.

In the leisure of spring, imitating the ancient people, I also made a trip upstream the flowing water, from Tu Dung estuary to the place of the jade tea cup. I allowed myself to have a moment to remember the beautiful women who had brought their beauty and talent here, to give birth to the next generations of beauties who carry the eternal images of the gods.

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