by Jim Goodman
Like its modernizing Southeast Asian neighbors, Vietnam faces the problem of how to preserve its traditional culture against the onslaught of globalization. Traditional culture, especially one rooted in ancient times like Vietnamese culture, is what gives a people its separate ethnic identity. Economic development, greater mobility and ever improving communications pose challenges to customs and practices long associated with simpler times and less complicated lives. To preserve traditions and the national heritage is to maintain a country’s distinct identity in the maelstrom of faster and faster globalization.
|traditional architecture in Đường Lâm
There’s a limit, though, to how much any government can do to preserve traditions, customs, culture or even architecture. Vietnam has its share of World Heritage sites, from natural ones like Hà Long Bay and Phong Nha caves to historical ones like the Chăm ruins of Mỹ Sơn, Huế Citadel and the old port of Hội An. Intangible Heritage traditions like Huế court music and cà tru singing have also won recognition. But not everything of cultural value can make it to the World Heritage list.
|temple to Phùng Hưng
Certainly Đường Lâm deserved the award. Comprising nine villages, it lies just north of Ba Vì Mountain, famous in Vietnamese mythology, bounded by rolling hills and streams to its south and flanked by sprawling fields of rice and sugar cane. Archaeologists have unearthed artifacts here over 2000 years old and the village layouts have remained virtually unchanged for centuries. Many of the houses are up to 400 years old, made of local laterite brick, which also covers some of the connecting lanes. Đường Lâm hosts a greater percentage of traditional Vietnamese house compounds than any other old village in the Red River Delta, which is one big reason it garnered the Ministry’s recognition.
|dragons on the pagoda, Chùa Mía
The communal house and temple honoring Phùng Hưng lie in the southwest quarter of Đường Lâm. Huge, leafy old trees stand in the rather large courtyard. The building is a modest, one-story structure with tiled roof. A statue of the hero sits in the rear sanctuary. The temple to Ngô Quyền is just a few minutes further on, slightly smaller, with his tomb nearby on the bank of the stream. A sculpture of him also sits in the rear sanctuary, dressed in yellow and red silk and wearing a huge golden crown.
|Quan Âm Thị Kính
The central altar honors the tutelary god Tản Viên, the mythological Ba Vì Mountain god. It is here that the village elders meet on issues of common concern to the villagers, like planning for the annual festival honoring both Tản Viên and Phùng Hưng. Smaller đìnhs exist in other villages within the commune, as does a Confucian temple and a Catholic church, making Đường Lâm a microcosm of most of Vietnam’s traditional belief systems.
|Đình Mông Phụ
The main construction material is laterite brick. The adjacent hills are full of laterite pebbles, rendering the land unfit for agriculture, but the stone is easy to mine and make into bricks, plastered with mud from the local ponds. One sees piles of it resting against compound walls on a tour through the village. Laterite bricks are one of Đường Lâm’s important products, sent to other villages, along with carpentry, knitted wear and molasses. The commune has also produced many scholars over the centuries and Đưừng Lâm teachers have found employment across the Delta.
|typical Đường Lâm house of laterite brick
The villagers are certainly aware of their decline in living standards. Two years ago 78 Đường Lâm villagers from 60 houses signed a petition asking the government to take back the national relic award. When nothing developed the villagers this year, this time over a hundred residents, signed a new petition and sent it to the People’s Committee of both Sơn Tây town and Hanoi, as well as the Bureau of Cultural Heritage, again requesting the government to take back the award. Then they could be free to build new houses or extend the ones they have according to their own requirements.
|Đường Lâm house compound
At first, Hanoi and Sơn Tây officials claimed the petitioners represented only a minority of Đường Lâm’s households. They claimed that, having gotten recognition as an official cultural relic, Đường Lâm was now a “national asset” and its residents had to follow the Heritage Law and preserve the commune’s status quo, because that was in the national interest. In the end, though, the government softened its stand and the two sides reached a compromise.
|Mông Phụ resident
In coming years then, Đường Lâm will become less congested as members of the extended family start moving to new houses on the commune’s outskirts. Within a generation cement houses of three and four stories will surround the relic area. But the people remaining there will have more living space per capita and enjoy a somewhat easier life. With the Heritage Law still in force Đường Lâm will continue to draw visitors, foreign and domestic, in search of cultural authenticity. The foreigners will gain insight into traditional rural Vietnamese culture. The Vietnamese will appreciate Đường Lâm as the kind of place their grandparents grew up in, while young couples looking for a traditional setting will keep coming here for wedding photos. The villagers will be happier because life will get more comfortable and the government will be pleased that it found a way to reconcile preserving the heritage of the past with satisfying the people’s desire for a better life in the present. And that’s certainly in the national interest.