Saturday, June 22, 2013


                                                        by Jim Goodman

    Most people traveling to Quảng Ninh only seem to know about Hạ Long Bay and Cát Bà Island.  But of Quảng Ninh's historic temples, mountain monasteries, ethnic minorities, border trade posts and even the ports and islands of the rest of its coastline virtually no advertising exists, no photos posted to entice a visitor.  Hạ Long Bay gets it all, for no trip to the north is complete without a journey there.  But Quảng Ninh has other attractions, also in beautiful surroundings, perhaps even more enjoyable, with an atmosphere far less commercial, and personal encounters more natural.
Bái Tử Long Bay
    The nearest such place is right next door to the east, called Bái Tử Long Bay.  In addition to the kind of islets and big boulders jutting out of the water like Hạ Long, Bái Tử Long also contains, at its eastern end, the large island of Vân Đồn.  An ancient port here, probably at contemporary Cái Róng, was Vietnam's original maritime connection to the outside world.  In use off and on during the last centuries of Chinese rule, it was reconstituted as a port and administrative district in 1149 under King Lý Anh Tông. 
    Cái Róng has a couple big empty beaches and a lovely harbor studded with rocky islets and jammed with fishing boats.  But as a destination in Bái Tử Long it is less popular than Quan Lạn, a long and narrow island in the southern part of the bay.  It has big, clean beaches at both ends, an 18th century đình in good condition and a grand festival every summer that commemorates the island's role in Vietnam's defeat of the third, and final, Mongol invasion in 1288.
Ngọc Vừng
    While it’s possible to get there from Cái Róng harbor the usual way is by taking the ferry from Hòn Gai, a lovely, four-hour journey of 55 kilometers that begins in the northeastern part of picturesque Hạ Long Bay.  Boats of all types ply the waters:  fishing vessels from one-man sampans to big trawlers, ferries and tour boats, long barges carrying industrial goods, like the coal from Cẩm Phả, and, further out, huge international commercial liners.
    The Quan Lạn ferry makes two short stops en route, at Tháng Lợi and Ngọc Vừng.  Both are small island towns with batches of houseboats floating off shore.  From the latter it’s a short ride to the pier at the southern tip of Quan Lạn Island and another two kilometers to Quan Lạn town.  Of the island’s two main settlements, this is the larger one, with several modest guesthouses and small restaurants and a market near the đình. 
horseshoe crab
    The smaller settlement, Minh Châu, lies near the northern tip of the island, with its own pier and harbor.  It is close to a military camp as well as the island’s only real industrial unit—a silicon extraction plant that turns part of the beach into glass.   Most of the islanders are farmers, for the land is mostly flat.  Fishing is more of a supplementary occupation.  Islanders cannot compete anyway with the big trawlers.  But they do manage to catch the usual run of fish, prawns, squids and clams, plus a load of horseshoe cabs every day.
    This creature, at least double the size of an ordinary sea crab, looks like a live miniature ancient tank.  Vendors only sell them in pairs, explaining that they cannot separate married couples.  Since females have eggs, giving them more edible parts than males, without this excuse vendors could only sell the female crabs.  The entire species would then soon die out.
    The town’s few restaurants usually open only during the day.  It’s best to inform the guest house in advance you want to eat there at night, so that the staff has time to buy the ingredients before the shops all close.  This is, after all, a remote area, with electricity only in the evenings and no nightlife or entertainment to speak of, other than television and bia hơi.
Quan Lạn festival procession
    Visitors don’t come here looking for a lively disco scene anyway.  They come for the beach, the peace and quiet, the fresh air and seafood and the friendly people.  This is a place to relax, eat well and sleep well.  Even the fishing activity here is rather subdued compared to other islands.  The tidal changes leave great sections of exposed mud flats at low tide.  At times ferry passengers going to Hòn Gai have to cram onto small, motorized rafts on a scary ride across the shallows out to where the ferry is anchored.  Hence the fishing boats are never close to shore, where they could be something to watch.
    For someone wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of urban life Quan Lạn Island offers an environment that is the exact opposite.  Yet for a few days each year the island fills with visitors as its residents make their annual commemoration of Quan Lạn’s part in the nation’s finest hour—its defeat of the third Mongol invasion in 1288. 
Trần Khánh Dư in Quan Lạn's chèo drama
village boat races
    Just three years earlier the Mongols had been ignominiously driven out of Vietnam.  With every place they captured they found the people had left and taken all their food with them.  Forced to forage the Mongols suffered so many losses they had to retreat to China.  This time they sent half of their roughly half million troops by land across the border passes and half by sea.  And to solve their food problem the Mongols hired a pirate captain to follow them with 150 ships laden with supplies.
    Trần Khánh Dư led the Vietnamese navy against the Mongol fleet when it reached Hạ Long Bay but was defeated.  The Mongols sailed upriver into the delta heartland while their land forces occupied Thăng Long and then awaited their supplies.  Atoning for his defeat, Trần Khánh Dư had ships built to replace his losses and then, basing himself at Quan Lạn, prepared to engage the pirate fleet.  When it entered the bay the Vietnamese ships pounced on them and sank all but one, which escaped back in the direction it came.  The victors allowed a few captives to go to the Mongol headquarters to reveal what happened. 
    As a result the Mongols were stuck trying to forage again and soon had to leave Vietnam.  And their navy, which had easily swept past the Vietnamese before, was trapped on stakes in the Bạch Đằng River and completely destroyed.
13th century style dragon boat
    Quan Lạn marks this event the 15th through 18th days of the 6th lunar month.  The đình sponsors the festival and hosts the rituals honoring Lý Anh Tông, Trần Khánh Dư and Phạm Công Chinh, one of his officers who hailed from this island.  Teams from the northern and southern parts of the island hold processions on separate days.  A stage goes up in the square between the đình and the waterfront and hosts folk songs and shows one night and a chèo drama about Trần Khánh Dư the final afternoon.
    The main attractions, though, are the boat races.  The first involves five long boats, built in the 13th century style, rowing across a stretch of the bay in front of the đình.   Crews from both parts of Quan Lạn and three neighboring islands compete.  The race the final day is between two teams, one from the island’s military camp, one from the civilians.  They set out from the dock by the đình, round stakes in the water a few hundred meters from shore and return.  Spectators watch from the shore or from boats sitting out in the bay.  When the race is over most of them will take their special tour boats back to Quảng Ninh, just a few staying one more night.
    The next day Quan Lạn life reverts to normal, to its unhurried, quiet and relaxing atmosphere.  Except for the motors on the boats and the evening electricity, it is hard to imagine it was much different even back before the Mongols came.
dragon boat race
                                                                   *  *  *

Monday, June 10, 2013


                                                            by Jim Goodman

riverside houses by the abandoned wells
    At first glance Heijing is just a charming little town along a clean but shallow river in the mountainous middle of Chuxiong Prefecture, in central Yunnan.  Terraced fields step up the slopes on both sides.  The blue-grey humps of higher mountains loom to the north.  Smooth red sandstone lines the Longchuan River banks and is the main building material in the town.  It’s not spectacular, but anyway pretty.  Only after entering the town does one begin to get an idea why the provincial government has begun promoting it as Yunnan’s latest undiscovered tourist spot.  Until 1949 Heijing was one of the most important cities in Yunnan and its residents among the province’s wealthiest.
    The evidence is at once apparent in the fancy sculpted gate and monuments at the southern entrance.  Down the road past this gate and off the lanes in the upper part of town across the river stand many fancy, capacious Qing Dynasty houses.  Some have long been unoccupied and are badly in need of restoration, including the magnificent Wu family mansion, with five stories and 99 rooms.  Others vanished with the shrinkage of Heijing, for they were home to a species of businessman that became extinct within the founding of New China and the reorganization of the nation’s commerce—the wealthy salt trader.  Those black holes in the riverbank are abandoned salt wells.  Heijing once had eight functioning salt wells and supplied most of northern Yunnan, including Kunming.  Now only one remains operative, while most of the salt used in Yunnan today comes from the eastern provinces.
roof carvings on a salt merchant's house
    The town’s name is a contraction of Heiniujing—Black Buffalo Well.  It was named after the black buffalo that discovered the well 2000 years ago when taken for grazing in the area by a local Yi girl.  Later on the buffalo fell into this well and, according to legend, metamorphosed into a huge boulder still there at the bottom.
    This was the first salt well in the vicinity.  Serious production only began in the Tang Dynasty.  It peaked during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, when the government organized and supervised the salt trade and regulated its distribution. By the end of the Qing Dynasty salt tax collection constituted 47% of the provincial revenue.
    Heijing produced its salt from wells that were up to 80 meters deep.  Seven or eight men turned a huge wheel, to which was attached a wide pail two meters long to scoop up the brine.  The work crew them boiled the brine in big cauldrons until only a residue remained.  This they pounded and cleaned, laid out blocks of it on the riverbank to dry and then cut these into cakes for transport.   
decorative Heijing house roof
    Caravans of pack mules or porters conveyed the salt from Heijing to various destinations in central Yunnan.  Six sentry stations were erected in the vicinity to watch for smuggling which, given the nature and importance of the commodity, was always rampant.  Porters themselves chipped off bits of the salt cakes they were carrying and sold them later.  Arrested smugglers had their salt confiscated, but were jailed for only two nights.
    In order to acquire the right to participate in this lucrative trade an aspiring Heijing salt producer first had to purchase a license from the provincial government.  Government agents established quotas for the registered producers, allocated the brine and collected the tax on the spot.  But producers devised various schemes to obtain more brine, produce past their quota and sell the surplus on the black market.  Even without cheating, though, licensed producers could grow wealthy just meeting the government demands.
housepost base
    By the end of the Qing Dynasty 84 families were in possession of such a license.  They were the richest folks in town, with multi-story houses and large household staffs. They employed artisans from Dali to make their furniture and outfit their homes with decorative plaques and door panels, screened windows, arched roof supports, painted tiles under the courtyard eaves, dragon-headed water basins and sculpted lion heads on the bases of the house posts.  
entrance to a salt merchant's mansion
     That anyone at all got fabulously wealthy dealing salt may seem extraordinary at first.  Nowadays salt is easily available, sells for 1.5 yuan (7.5 baht) per kg and as a preservative has largely been replaced by refrigeration.  Rice costs an average 1.8 yuan (9 baht) per kg.  But before 1949 salt was worth much more than rice.  One liang, known to Westerners as the Chinese silver dollar, bought 1.8 kg of salt or 7-8 kg of rice.

    With no competition and a constant heavy demand, Heijing’s salt trade generated wealth for everybody in town, not just the 84 license holders.  Porters only had to work 3-4 hours per day to make a good living.  Itinerant merchants made frequent stops and the town hummed with prosperity.  Even the vegetable vendors wore ornaments of gold and jade.
    But it was the rich who defined the public life of the city and patronized religion.  Before 1949 the town and its environs boasted fifty temples and mosques, plus one Christian church.  Contemporary Heijing has but four:  Zhetian Buddhist Temple in the lower town, Zhenjuechan Buddhist Temple high up on the west bank hill, Feilaisi, dedicated to the Chinese trinity of faiths—Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism and just above the upper town, and the Wenchan Confucian Temple in the centre of the upper town.
Zhenjuechan Buddhist temple
     Above the upper town’s cobbled streets and two-story shop-houses two tall columns mark the boundary between burial plots of those who died normal deaths and those who died violently, accidentally, or without having married.  High above this lies a smaller cemetery called the Monk’s Tomb.  Here is the grave of a former warlord who abandoned his military career to become a monk.  After he died a former officer of his built this special tomb and erected six statues of monk-guards to protect his soul.  This site is one of the few extant examples of this old custom.
    To the Wenchan Temple, with its own ceremonial gate, pond, elephant-headed roof struts and old dormitories, the salt traders sent their sons to study.  For a small town, Heijing had a high number of accomplished scholars who passed the final round of examinations in the imperial court.  Their descendants today proudly keep the commemorative boards issued to them by the court in Beijing.
carved doors of a wealthy house owner
    Besides the reverence for education the salt traders cultivated a sense of Confucian ethics.  They honored virtuous wives, defined as those who embodied Confucian principles when they became widows, as did the Qing court, especially in the years of the Dowager Empress Ci Xi.  The Memorial Gateway for the Chaste and Dutiful Women at the head of the lower town was erected during her time to honor several such Heijing ladies.  Even today the Confucian tradition is still influential, for Heijing’s older generation is known for its conservatism.
    That may explain the subdued contemporary nightlife, for there’s little to do after dark.  But in its heyday nightlife in Heijing sparkled with parties and public spectacles hosted by the rich.  The main street was lined with opium dens and mah-jong parlors, where the porters tended to spend the greater part of their time and wages.  Food vendors worked the residential lanes where the salt traders lived.  From the upper stories of their high-walled houses the customers lowered a tray by rope, the vendors filled it with various dishes, the household hoisted it up and then lowered down the money. 
Wenchan Confucian temple
    Aside from the opium addicts, most Heijing residents spent the evening watching one of the public opera performances sponsored by a rich family.  For ten months of the year at least one opera, often more, was performed nearly every night by professional Beijing and Yunnan Opera troupes whom the salt traders paid to come to Heijing.
    Life in old Heijing was easy and good.  The salt traders devoted much of their wealth and leisure to the pursuit of culture.  In doing so they enriched not only their own lives but also those of all the town’s residents.  When they disappeared as a class no one took their place.  Heijing shrank and took on the character of an ordinary small town in Yunnan.  Evocative relics remain, from the memorial gates and vacant mansions to the carvings on the posts and doors, and even the ancient salt wells.  With a little imagination the visitor can conjure a vision of Heijing in its prime, when houses were works of art, scholars were venerated, high culture was glorified and salt was king.

the Monk's Tomb
                                                                      • • •

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


                                                   by Jim Goodman

Liẽu Hạnh, Phủ Tây Hồ
    In the third lunar month the festival schedule for northern Vietnam kicks off with a ten-day program at Phủ Giầy temple, Vũ Bạn village, near Nam Định city. It includes traditional chèo drama in the evenings and several other events.  But the main feature is the continuous hầu bóng dance performances in honor of the deity honored in the temple—Liễu Hạnh, the top-ranking member in the pantheon of Holy Mothers.  She is the focus of a cult developed in Vietnam’s feudal period, a cult that has survived every challenge from royal disdain to the secular influences of modern times, a truly indigenous cult that has no counterpart anywhere in Asia.
    The 16th century was a chaotic time to live in the Red River Delta.  A civil war between the Mạc family who had usurped the throne and the Lê family who sought their own restoration periodically raged across the countryside. Armies trampled the crops, confiscated the food, took away the young men for their armies and conscripted others for building their fortifications.  Buddha, Quan Âm, Taoist gods and the village guardian spirits seemed to have all become helpless.   The people began craving new deities to aid them in these chaotic and dangerous times.
bà đông with flaming incense
    The most prominent and enduring of the people’s new spiritual allies was Liẽu Hạnh.  According to legends she was the daughter of the Taoist Jade Emperor.  At a heavenly banquet hosted by her father, in a fit of anger she broke a jade cup containing an elixir of immortality.  As punishment, her father sent her down to earth, to be born in a poor family in Ý Yên district, Hà Nam province. She grew up, got married, bore a son at 18, died at 21 and returned to Heaven.
     Having enjoyed her stint as a mortal she beseeched her father to let her return.  So she was reborn as Liễu Hạnh in Nam Định province, one of the major battlegrounds in the war at that time between the Mạc and the Lê-Trịnh armies.  She grew up beautiful and intelligent and married a poor student who was the reincarnation of the husband she had in her first spell on earth.  She is said to have traveled widely throughout the north, something women rarely did in those days, and to have composed poems in the company of Confucian scholars.
young bà đông
    After her death she was entombed in Phủ Giầy, Nam Định.  But she is said to have been reborn once more, this time in Sòng Sơn district, Thanh Hoá, and to have visited many places in that province and Nghệ An.  At the end of her third incarnation she returned to permanent residence in Heaven, but periodically made secret journeys to Earth to reward the virtuous and punish the wicked.  It was the latter trait that distinguished her from the principal Buddhist deity Quan Âm, who never brought harm to anyone.
    Another, obviously Buddhist version portrays Liễu Hạnh as a rebel who refuses to return to her celestial abode after her 21 years exile on Earth.  She travels around the country stirring up passions everywhere, arousing royal ire and eventually the Buddha’s intervention.  He persuades her to change her behavior and follow the Way of the Buddha.  As a result, she becomes a Buddhist goddess as well, associated with births and fertility.
    Thus Liễu Hạnh became connected with all the religious belief-systems prevailing in the country.   A member of a celestial Taoist family, she was also a Buddhist deity.  Born into poverty she grew up intelligent enough to impress Confucian scholars.  And as the most important Holy Mother, she was part of a pantheon that included deities from the northern ethnic minorities and the ancient Chăm goddess Po Nagar.
The cult of Liễu Hạnh and the Holy Mothers never became a religion.  Even now it has no organization, no order of priests or anything similar, no missionaries trying to spread the faith.  Access to Liễu Hạnh is via a medium, usually but not always female, who becomes one in much the same way shamans come to take on their roles in pre-industrial societies.  An inexplicable illness strikes the person.  No medicine or remedy works.  Then someone already a medium comes to inform the afflicted person the illness comes from the spirits, who are demanding that person become a medium.  Agreement leads to instant recovery and a new commitment for life.

Temples to Liễu Hạnh started going up in Thanh Hoá at the end of the 16th century.  The restored Lê government, distrusting any new religious cult, ordered them demolished.  Epidemics and other natural disasters ensued, causing the superstitious, as well as members of the Lê Court, to believe they were the wrath of the offended Liễu Hạnh.  The Court ordered the temples rebuilt and later erected the Tây Hồ Palace, on a finger of land jutting out into West Lake, as Liễu Hạnh’s place of worship in the capital itself.
ông đông performance
keeping it up with rice liqauor breaks
    To contact the Holy Mothers the medium goes into trance, real or simulated, and dances before their altar, changing costumes to incarnate different members of the pantheon. The performance known as hâu bong, which means “service to the spirits [of the deities, in this case the Holy Mothers].”  Vietnamese also refer to it as lên dông, “falling into trance,” while the medium carrying out the performance is called ba dông, if a woman, or ông dông if male.  Attendants sit to the side and provide the elaborate, colorful costumes and props for each skit.  (Sets of these costumes are sold on Hanoi’s Hàng Quạt.)  The dancer maintains energy for the hours-long performance by periodically drinking a cup of rice-spirits, smoking cigarettes and chewing betel.  Musicians on two-string lute and small drums sit to the side, accompanying a singer whose soft, lilting, melodious tunes greatly enhance the entertainment aspect of the medium’s performance.
Holy Mothers images
    The choreography for each skit is similar, though the performance depends on the nature of the deity being incarnated as well as the personality of the dancer, variations which are easily apparent when, as at Phủ Giầy’s festival, several dancers perform at the same time, each before a separate altar.  The most popular prop is a pair of flaming bundles of incense, which the dancer twirls in circles.  Halberds, swords and umbrellas are among other props used.  The dancer also periodically hands out to the crowd of devotees the items piled up at the altar as offerings to the temple.  These include fruits, soft drinks, cans of beer, crackers, cookies, cigarettes and crisp, clean currency notes of 1000, 5000 or 10.000 đồng and one U.S. dollar.  Sometimes the medium distributes the money by flinging the notes into the air above the devotees’ heads.  Other times attendants pass them around.
different props for different goddesses
    Besides the show at Phủ Giầy, hầu bóng performances take place at many smaller temples, both inside Hanoi and in the countryside, the third lunar month because that is Liễu Hạnh’s birth and death month.  Hầu bọng performances are part of several festivals in the eighth lunar month, too.  And anytime a devotee wants to call upon Liễu Hạnh for a favor and is ready to sponsor the performance, and many still do, including the nouveaux riches, a hầu bóng dancer is ready to perform.  It could happen anytime anywhere. 
    So the next time you are out wandering through the back streets of Hanoi, or any big northern city, and you happen to hear some enchanting music coming out of a little temple, take a look inside.  You might be witnessing a four hundred-year-old custom, persisting into contemporary times, just as popular, authentically Vietnamese and downright entertaining as it has always been.


distributing rewards to the devotees