There is a Japan beyond the hectic city life of Tokyo, the technology, and the stereotypes of geishas and men in suits. We often speak of looking at the bigger picture, and rightly so. In Japan, this means venturing beyond the comforts of the cities, exploring the rural hinterland, and having the luxury of time to do so.
The sun peaked over the horizon, and in a matter of minutes, the darkness which had cloaked me for hours vanished, replaced with a warm, orange glow. Though a good sized crowd was gathered at the summit, you could have heard a pin drop, such was the silent reverence for the place. © Shutterstock
“Huế Tinh Yeu Cua Toi” (“Huế My Love”) is one of the many songs written about the beautiful city of Huế. Young and old, from the north to the south, all Vietnamese are as familiar with this song as we are with the national anthem. Visiting the city, you’re almost certain to hear one of the many Huế songs playing in coffee shops around town. This beautiful place has inspired countless artists, poets and songwriters for generations.
Huế is located in Central Vietnam, about 1,400 kilometres north of Ho Chi Minh City and about 600 kilometres south of the capital, Hanoi. Between 1802 and 1945, the Nguyen dynasty, the last ruling family of Vietnam, made Huế its imperial capital. The Imperial City still stands today, and the emperor’s palace and tombs are considered some of the country’s most well-known tourist attractions.
I first came to Huế in 1995. I was struck by the majestic ancient architecture and the elegant poetic landscape, much like those found in calligraphy paintings. Tall tiled-roof temples are nestled serenely amid pine tree forests. In the early mornings, young monks sweep the monastery grounds. It’s such a simple daily routine, but it always takes my breath away. As I often say, it truly is a Kodak moment.
With a population of under 400,000, Huế is a huge contrast to the bustling, crowded Ho Chi Minh City. The people of Huế still carry out age-old traditions that have changed little over the last few hundred years. You can observe people going about their daily lives along the famous Perfume River (Song Huong), which runs through the city.
Take a late-afternoon boat cruise to experience a soothing sunset lover Vietnam’s most iconic structure, the Thien Mu Pagoda. Built in 1601 and surrounded by pine trees, it sits on top of a hill at the northern bank of the Perfume River. With seven tiers, it’s the tallest of its kind in the country.
I have lived in the Thien Mu monastery many times. The essence of peace exuded by the monks and novices here inspired me to document their everyday lives through photography. The quiet and meditative environment helped me to live in the present and allowed me to capture the beauty of simple moments that I had often taken for granted.
It was at Thien Mu monastery that I learned to appreciate the art of drinking tea. Sitting at the tea table, one should not talk or let the mind wander – the tea ceremony is also a form of meditation used in many temples in Vietnam. Holding a cup of tea in the hand, one must first feel the warmth of the cup, while the nose should be aware of the aroma of the tea, and the eyes should focus on the colour of the liquid in the cup. This is the highest form of tea drinking; it is only now that one can experience the true sweetness of tea.