That time came alive for us, more alive than the huge edifices and intricate artwork the tombs could resurrect, when we shared a meal at the home of a 60 year old historian and his wife.
Phong An Is married to the granddaughter of the youngest daughter of the last Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai. Her grandfather was a high mandarin in the imperial court, important enough for the emperor to allow this marriage to his daughter. Phong An has dedicated his life since the communist takeover of his country to preserving and collecting artifacts from his wife’s family: photos, personal items like clothing and jewelry, tobacco pipes, and documents pertaining to the imperial family and its activities. He has written several books about Vietnam during the monarchical period. Since there was no way he could have denied his connection with the “old ways,” he lost his university position as a professor of history when the communists became the country’s rulers. He and his wife were allowed for some reason we never grasped to retain their large property and home in the city. Recently he has been given a position under the government working on what he called “preservation and restoration of the intangible heritage of the country.” It must not be very well paid, because now he supplements that income by hosting visitors to a tour of his home, his library and a selection of the many documents and photos he has preserved, and a home-cooked typical Vietnamese meal. What a compromise this elegant and proud man has had to make with the new order of his country. However, even though the rains were cascading down in heavy storms preventing our visiting his gardens, Mr. An welcomed us graciously into his home and showed us his proud possessions. He had a good command of English but his carefully chosen words and expressions testified to his thoughtfulness and intelligence. He was slender as though the changes in his life had reduced him to a physical exclamation point, an insistent reminder of the importance and elegance of those imperial days. He bore himself with dignity and interacted with us as though he believed it was important that we foreigners understood the truth of what he was remembering and imparting. Perhaps the strangest thing about the evening was our delicious meal, fixed by the granddaughter of the emperor and served to us by his great granddaughter, the young Me Lin. This pretty girl of about 21 was eager to try her English and to talk to us of her studies at the university. Her English was certainly not as fluent as her father’s, but she could make herself understood. She is studying music at school and hoping to help preserve and perform ancient Vietnamese music as well as modern musical styles. Mr. An absented himself during the meal of many courses and his wife only emerged from her kitchen at the end of the visit. It was obvious that her part of this “tourist treat” was much more labor intensive than his, but she also was dignified and gracious to us though she spoke almost no English at all. The food she prepared for us was copious, varied, tasty and authentic. There was no way we could eat it all; she had prepared enough for 20 tourists rather than just us four! It was an awkward situation in several ways, not least in the fantasy that we were just guests in this gentleman’s home. Our visit had obviously been paid for through our tour agent and we had no idea 45
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