by Mathilde Tuyết Trần – Lương Hương
The recent visit of US President Barrack Obama to Việt Nam has led to a dramatic increase in the number of visitors to the Ngọc Hoàng Pagoda in HCM City.
The number of bún chả (fresh rice vermicelli and grilled pork) eaters in Hà Nội has also sharply risen.
Located on Mai Thị Lựu Street in District 1, HCM City, the century-old Ngọc Hoàng (Jade Emperor) or Phước Hải Pagoda is recognised as a national cultural heritage. It was the first destination the US president visited right after his arrival in the city on May 24.
The small pagoda, which is usually thronged with visitors on weekends, appears to be even more overcrowded with people visiting at all times following the US president’s visit. Surprisingly, many of them visit not for spiritual purposes, but because they are curious about why Obama dropped by to see such a small pagoda on a narrow and small street which always witnesses traffic jams.
“I have heard that the pagoda attracts a lot of visitors, however, only after Obama came here did I make time to visit it. I want to know what is so special that it even attracted the US president. He has travelled thousands miles to visit the pagoda, so I see no reason why I, living right here, shouldn’t pay it a visit,” Hoàng Kim Bình in District 1 said.
Trần Thị Mai Hương, a street vendor near the pagoda, can very clearly see the massive increase in the number of visitors.
“Despite it not being a weekend, many people still flock to the pagoda, which is largely due to Obama’s visit,” she said.
I was also among the people curious about Ngọc Hoàng Pagoda. Since it was mid-summer, I tried to arrive at the pagoda early to escape the scorching heat later in the day, but my eagerness soon turned into disappointment.
Ngọc Hoàng Pagoda has a spectacular atmosphere and features many sophisticated religious structures, designs and Buddha statues, which makes it deserving of the title of national cultural heritage. However, its religious beauty appeared dimmed by the huge number of visitors that day.
It was just 10am but all the shrines within the small pagoda were already stuffed with all kinds of fruits and offerings, which would soon be cleared up to make room for new ones. It was a hot summer day but inside the pagoda it was even warmer because of the lamps, the candles and the dense incense smoke that kept spiraling up. The ceiling fans were not strong enough to alleviate the stuffy atmosphere caused by too many people gathered inside.
There were security cameras in every corner of Ngọc Hoàng Pagoda, capturing every movement of the visitors. There were also huge and sturdy strongboxes used for collection of money donations with guards standing beside them. Like the cameras, the guards also monitored the movement of the people.
I was told the pagoda is very holy and pilgrims are often blessed with what they wish for, especially children and money. Despite the crowd, each person patiently and quietly waited for their turn to confess what they longed for. I could hear many people saying they longed for a son, but “I like daughters,” just like US President Obama.
Also witnessing the “Obama effect” is the Hương Liên restaurant where the US president had bún chả for dinner with renowned US chef Anthony Bourdain.
Located on Lê Văn Hưu Street, the restaurant is renowned for the distinctive flavours of its grilled pork and also for its cleanliness, which has attracted many visitors who wish to try this specialty of the city.
“One set of Obama’s bún chả” was the new term coined after his visit. As soon as the customer orders one set of Obama’s bún chả, the restaurant staff immediately understands the customer’s order: fresh rice vermicelli with grilled pork, Hanoi beer and one sea crab spring roll.
Bún chả is often eaten during lunch, but after Obama’s visit, strangely, the restaurant is always crowded with customers right from the morning, which has even taken the restaurant manager by surprise.
Most customers are, however, not regulars. Many have paid a visit to the restaurant for the first time to taste the bún chả that the US president ate, to see where he and the renowned chef sat and to check-in on their social network with Obama’s bún chả.
While the taste of this Hà Nội specialty does not let customers down, they have to struggle to get a place in the restaurant.
On peak days, hundreds of people line up in front of the Hương Liên restaurant hoping to try Obama’s bún chả. Because of the blazing heat of the hot summer, everyone sweats profusely and many have to regrettably even leave the line following the announcement that the restaurant has run out of Obama’s bún chả just after one hour of opening.
“As soon as someone finishes his food and is about to leave, there is always someone else ready to take his place. It is just like a battle,” Nguyễn Thúy Hằng, who dropped by the restaurant unexpectedly, said.
“If you want a place, you must arrive before 11am,” she added.
The staff at the restaurant cannot cope with the sudden high demand due to the large number of customers. “I ordered an iced tea and crab spring rolls, but was not served because of the shortage of staff,” Hằng said.
The pagoda will look more beautiful if there is enough leisure time to contemplate its beauty and it is less crowded and noisy. Obama’s bún chả will taste much better if we are served faster and do not have to fight for a place. That is why I will visit the Hương Liên restaurant and the Ngọc Hoàng Pagoda after some days when the memory of Obama’s visit to Việt Nam has dimmed somewhat. VNS