I am pretty sure I was a kung fu fighter in a past life.
This revelation occurred to me in Hue, Vietnam during a city bus tour from hell.
It wasn’t my first time in Hue. I was here three years ago when I first toured the country and I hated it. Really, really hated it.
Nothing bad happened. No truly traumatic events unfolded. In fact, Hue itself is a rather pretty little city in Vietnam packed full of interesting architecture to go along with its rich history. There is less trash on and around the Perfume River than I have become accustomed to seeing in Vietnam’s riverbeds. Also, loads of delicious, cheap vegetarian restaurants. In other words, there was no reason for me to have such disdainful feelings for it.
But nonetheless, on my first visit to the old Imperial city, I took cyclo ride to the Citadel and then a slow boat tour down the river to the various sites around it, and it all really sucked.
It could have come down to the heat. Or the vague recollection of getting annoyed, or being annoying to, my travel companions at the time. Or, if I believed in such things, it could have been that the city seeps with bad juju from a bloody past.
As Vietnam’s former capital, Hue was the place where the Ngyuen Family Dynasty ruled the country for a hundred and fifty years before France showed up and took over. In the late 1880’s, the French invaded the Imperial City to stifle some of the power the lords retained and then in 1968, American forces virtually decimated the place during the Tet Offensive, killing 10,000 Vietnamese, predominately civilians, in order to “destroy the city in order to save it.” It’s also the spot where the infamous self-immolations occurred when Buddhist monks burned themselves to death in the antigovernment protests of the early 1960’s.
Basically, all of Vietnam’s historic woes went down bad and hard in and around Hue. So naturally my ex-history teacher/Vietnam war protestor mother really wanted to see the city. So I decided to go back and give it another shot.
Turns out, I still hate Hue.
My biggest mistake was that I decided to book us a cheaper version of the tour I had already been on (this time a full-sized bus tour that went to all the sights in just one, long day). Had I been smart, and more financially endowed, I should have arranged for a motorbike tour guide that could whiz us around the city and provide us personal commentary on the sights.
But I didn’t.
The bus turned up fifteen minutes early and then we started the ever-painful process of picking up every single tourist from their individual hotels all around Hue (none of which seem to ready on time).
When all 50+ tourists were finally on board, the tour guide, a perky young Vietnamese man, yelled the day’s agenda over the largely dismissive crowd, throwing in a few jokes along the way that nobody paid much attention to. When he mentioned that we’d be visiting a kung-fu show in between a couple of mausoleums, I immediately remembered the strange reaction I had when I first saw the show.
I laughed at the memory and then forgot about it.
From the get go of day, I knew that my troubled history with Hue was about the repeat itself.
I couldn’t hear the guide because the tour group was big, chatty and generally disrespectful. I had forgotten that the tour didn’t include entry fees to any of the sites and that these ended up being much more expensive than the tour itself. A Canadian guy in a blue Smurf tee-shirt kept trying to sneak into everything and gave our poor, poor tour guide grief every time he tracked him down and asked him to fork up the fees.
Of course, I was pissed off at my mom for retaining her persistent childlike wonder and optimism about everything in this damn world, no matter how shitty it is (which, on better days, is one of things I love most about her). I tried to hide my nerves from her but upon leaving the Citadel, my mom mentioned that I “don’t get as moody” as I used to, implying that in fact, I was currently being moody.
Again, the day was utterly, tragically hot.
I wasn’t the only one suffering. The entire bus full of tourists gradually shrank through the day as people became cranky and just plain downright exhausted. There were only sixteen of us who made it through the days activities. I was one of them, but not by choice. Had my mom said the word, I would have been out of there and back in out air-conditioned hotel room before 10 am.
So even though the kung fu show was never meant to be the highlight of the tour (as proven by the small print under the day’s itinerary on our tour leaflet: “Tour also includes: buffet lunch with 50 different local foods from Hue, air-con bus, and kung fu show), it far exceeded the value of any other historic site I saw that day.
The show itself was nothing elaborate. A simple stage, one large drum, and seven or eight fighters all in their late-teens or early twenties.
The fighters performed moves that I’ve seen played out before in various Jackie Chan-type movies. Not entirely special, but impressive in the fact that they all seemed genuinely dedicated and committed to their performances even though they most likely perform the same show multiple times a day, every day of the week.
But something about seeing the fighters in the live did something to me.
It took about two minutes for me to feel the same way I did three years ago. My chest began to tighten, eyes began to burn. The same lump formed in the back of my throat. All be damned, I was going to cry.
As I sat watching the events of the stage unfold, all I could do was blink though it like a maniac, forcing my eyeballs to absorb the excess moisture that was being produced by my tear ducts, all the while chanting to myself: Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.
Sure most of the other tourists in the audience had smiles on their faces and seemed generally impressed by the show. But no one looked close to tears. After all, this wasn’t Shakespeare. Who the hell reaches catharsis during a touristy, quarter-of-an-hour long kung fu show?
Well turns out, I do.
For all intensive purposes, I should point out here that I don’t often cry at external stimuli like this. Okay, maybe I do cry sometimes. But only during appropriately sad and moving moments, like when I finished Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or when Spike sacrificed his life to save Buffy, and simultaneously prevented the Apocalypse, because he loved her so much during the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But never during movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or any of the other fantastic (and many of the non-fantastic) kung-fu-esque movies out there.
So when I first forced back tears of emotion when I watched the show three years ago, I thought it was a fluke. But when it happened again, I realized there was something powerful about this particular breed of martial arts that resonated with something deep inside of me.
And that’s how on that hot midday in Central Vietnam, I concluded that must have some metmepsychosic connection to kung fu. In fact, I probably died a tragic martial art-y death in a former life; hence the tearful reaction and the reason why I never had any interest in taking it up as sport in my current life.
So, even though I didn’t like Hue any better than I did when I first visited it, I am happy that I went back.
The old Imperial city taught me a few lessons: always give something a second shot if the opportunity arises. Even if it fails you again, you can be sure that the first time wasn’t an accident and the thing didn’t really deserve a second chance but you are a good, decent person who is willing to try again. Also, small, unexpected things, like kung fu shows, can change your life in small, unexpected ways.
I am not sure what I am going to do with my brand new epiphany. Nothing, probably. Except write this post about it. Maybe think about it from time to time.
It’s just nice to know that: 1. I could have been really cool and kick-ass (literally speaking) in my past life and may potentially be able to harness some of this power in my current life should the occasion arise, and 2. My second trip to Hue wasn’t a complete and utter waste of time.