Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Nature and Man in Ninh Bình

                                                                         by Jim Goodman

limestone hill and pagoda on the way in to Hoa Lư
       In 938 Vietnamese forces expelled the Chinese, vanquished a naval counter-attack and re-claimed independence.  Their leader Ngô Quyn established the former ancient capital of Cổ Loa as the new state’s capital and founded a new dynasty.  Unfortunately, he died in 944, igniting a power struggle among a dozen or more princes that lasted 24 years. The fledgling state’s sovereignty remained intact, as China was involved in its own succession crisis, but stability proved elusive.
       Finally, in 968 Đinh Bộ Lĩnh emerged victorious and founded a new dynasty.  He also moved the capital to his own hometown at Hoa Lư, about 90 km south in present-day Ninh Bình province.  Just outside of the flat Red River Delta plains, surrounded by protective limestone hills, it was a more secure location than Cổ Loa.  In reaction to the anarchy and violence common to the land since Ngô Quyn’s death, Đinh B Lĩnh ruled with a firm hand, laying down laws and strictly upholding them.  He is said to have kept a cauldron and a caged tiger at his court, vowing that anyone who broke the law would be boiled in the cauldron and eaten by the tiger.
temple to Đinh Bộ Lĩnh in Hoa Lư
       A Court eunuch assassinated both Đinh Bộ Lĩnh and his eldest son in 979, leaving a six-year-old as heir.  Seeking to reassert control, Song Dynasty China launched an expedition against Vietnam.  The Court and Queen Mother then offered the throne to Lê Hoàn, the state’s top general and then acting Regent.  He married the widow and founded a new dynasty, but one of his opponents fled to the Chăm state of Indrapura and persuaded its king to mount an expedition to install him in power.  The Chăm navy got nearly all the way to Hoa Lư when a sudden storm destroyed the entire fleet.  The Vietnamese pretender and many Chăm warriors drowned.  Only the king’s ship got away and returned home. 
       Lê Hoàn then took his army north and repelled the Chinese invasion.  Following that, in 982 he mounted a campaign against the Chăm.  In their very first engagement the Vietnamese forces defeated the Chăm, killed the king and marched on Indrapura.  The new king fled and the Vietnamese looted the temples and palaces of their treasures and razed the city to the ground.  They also captured and took back to Hoa Lư 100 palace maids and an Indian monk.
rice planting in Tràng An Scenic Area
Chăm raids resumed several years later until 990, when Lê Hoàn led another punitive expedition.  After that the southern frontier was relatively quiet.   Lê Hoàn ruled 25 years and stability returned to the land at last.  In the ensuing power struggle after his death in 1005, the eventual winner Lý Công Uẩn in 1010, with security assured both north and south, moved the capital to Hanoi. 
       Hoa Lư reverted to a village and its palaces and other ancient buildings disappeared.  Over a thousand years later it has become a major tourist destination, mainly because it lies adjacent to one of the most scenic areas in the country, known today as ‘Hạ Long Bay on Land’ for the limestone pillars and steep hills that jut up from the rice paddies.  This becomes evident right after the turn-off to the ancient city a little north of Ninh Bình.  A stately, multi-tiered pagoda stands in the saddle of a limestone hill typical of the area.  As a reminder of contemporary symbolism, though, a little further down the road another hill features a concrete hammer and sickle on its ridge. 
rowing with the feet
       No attempt has been made to recreate Hoa Lư’s ancient city, other than the entry gate and a few pavilions, but at the south end stand temples to the founders of the two dynasties that ruled here.  Both compounds were reconstructed in the 17th century.  The temple to Đinh Bộ Lĩnh is a little larger and includes a pond in the courtyard.  That to Lê Hoàn stands nearby.  Đinh Bộ Lĩnh’s tomb lies high up the Mả Yên Hill opposite his temple.  Lê Hoàn’s tomb is at the foot of this hill. .
       One has a good view of Hoa Lư and its surroundings from up Mã Yên Hill, but it’s just a foretaste of the more spectacular views further south. The entire karst landscape area, from Hoa Lư through the Tam Cốc area south and as far west as the massive Bái Đính Buddhist temple, comprises the Tràng An Scenic Area.  In 2014 it won admission to the list of World Heritage Sites.  
boats on the Ngô Đồng River
entering the first of the Tam Cốc caves
       Just before the entry gate, a road bends around Hoa Lư and turns south.  Whether traveling by car, motorbike or bicycle, this is one of the most enchanting rides in the province.  To the east everything is flat, but in all other directions limestone hills, not particularly high, at most a few hundred meters, but steeply sided and in often arresting shapes, dominate the landscape. 
exiting a Tam Cốc cave
       The most popular way to enjoy this scenery is by taking a boat trip on the Ngô Đồng River.  The area is called Tam Cốc, which means Three Caves, and refers to the three caves in the hills through which the journey passes.  Because its such a popular tourist adventure, passengers can find themselves besieged by local people in small boats, which they sometimes row with their feet, trying to sell them snacks for the ride or a drink for their pilot. They also hawk embroidered napkins, pillowcases, tablecloths and t-shirts, produced by the village next to the docks (where there’s a better selection at cheaper prices).   
taking cattle to graze
       This kind of harassment only characterizes the first part of the journey, however.  It ceases when the boats begin to enter the first of the caves.  From then on passengers can relish the scenery without distraction.  The boats glide into caves at the foot of tall, sheer cliffs for lengths of 127, 70 and 40 meters, and emerge through low exits that may require passengers to duck their heads. Altogether the ride takes two to three hours.
       But the river journey is not the only way to appreciate the surroundings.  One can also rent a bicycle or motorbike and explore sites not accessible by boat, as well as follow roads deeper into the hills.  Besides different perspectives on the multitude of oddly shaped hills, the spaces in between feature hamlets, temples, rice fields and groves.  Farmers may be planting or cropping rice, taking their cattle along the dikes to their grazing grounds, or standing in small boats that they pole along the river.  It’s rural scenery and serenity at its best.
Tràng An countryside oagoda
       A few km north of the boat landing a road leads west to Đền Thái Vi, a small but attractive temple, built in 1258 during the reign of Trần Thái Tông to celebrate Vietnam’s defeat of the first Mongol invasion.  A two-tiered gate stands at the entrance, flanked by a stone horse on each side.  The temple itself is a rather modest single-story stone building at the end of the pathway.  But on its right stands am elegant, two-story pavilion with thick wooden pillars and curved, tiled roofs.  It is one of the oldest extant wooden buildings in the country.
Tràng An limestone scenery 
       The limestone hills of Tràng An also include a few impressive caves.  Local people have traditionally believed these spots to be sacred.  They set up religious shrines inside, such as at the small cave on the way in to Hoa Lư, or turn them into Buddhist temples, like Chùa Bích Động, a few km west of the boat landing.  The temple compound dates its origin to 1428, the year Lê Lợi restored native rule after 20 years of Chinese occupation and founded the Lê Dynasty.  Two wandering monks discovered the caves here, at the base of a large hill flanking a long stretch of flat rice fields.  Stone steps, passing buildings mostly commissioned by the Trịnh Lords in the 18th century, lead to three separate caves and their array of Buddha images and small shrines in the walls.
Thái Vi Temple 
       Other Buddhist monuments lie scattered throughout the Tràng An Scenic Area.  These include the massive Bái Đình Temple, sited on a mound to the southwest and enlarged with new buildings earlier this century to become the biggest Buddhist compound in Vietnam.  Smaller temples, some embedded in the hillside, grace every village, while pagodas stand beside ponds and up in the hills.
       On the other side of Highway 1A, however, south and east of Ninh Bình city, the land is devoid of hills and completely flat, intersected with canals along the rice fields.  Rather than pagodas, the steeples of Catholic churches dominate the landscape.  This is one of the most heavily Catholic areas in the north and has been ever since the Portuguese missionary Alexander de Rhodes first preached here in 1627.   
entrance to CHùa Bích Động cave temple
       Nearly all the village churches look like they were plucked from the French countryside and set up in Ninh Bình province.  A couple look like smaller, more modest versions of Notre Dame in Paris.  The outstanding exception is Phát Diệm Cathedral in Kim Sơn village, 30 km south of Ninh Bình city.  Built in the late 19th century, it combines European and Sino-Vietnamese elements in a unique style and has become popular with Vietnamese tourists, mostly non-Catholic.
       Besides the cathedral compound, Kim Sơn also features another architectural gem—an 18th century covered wooden bridge.  Supported by two pairs of thick pillars, fenced on each side and with a tiled roof, it spans the stream near the churches and is one of a handful of such bridges in the country.  Kim Sơn would be worth a visit just for this beautiful old bridge, but of course it is Phát Diệm Cathedral that is the main draw.    
French-style Catholic church east of Ninh Bình
       It’s in the shape of a basic Gothic church, but the tiered roofs of its cupolas, with upturned corners, suggest local pagodas grafted onto the building.  Trầm Luc, also known as Father Six, designed it and oversaw its construction.  The stone blocks of the buildings came from quarries in Thanh Hóa province, 200 km distant.  To install the enormous, two-ton bronze bell in the tower behind the pond and in front of the cathedral, workers built an earthen ramp to lug it to the top.  Afterwards they packed the earth around the base of the church, raising the ground level by one meter and offering some protection against floods.  Carvers also added low-relief sculptures of Christian imagery on the exterior walls.
Phát Diêm Cathedral belltower
       Inside the cathedral 52 ironwood pillars, one meter thick, some of them eleven meters high, support the vault.  The lacquered and gilded granite altar, made from a single stone, sits at the rear.   The wall behind it displays the portraits of around thirty missionaries, mostly European, but the side walls contain not only angels and saints, but also such distinctly Oriental images like dragons, turtles and phoenixes.  
       Behind the cathedral stand a couple more churches.  These lean even more heavily to the native style, seemingly modeled on the compound gates of Nguyễn Dynasty temples and communal houses.  Only the crosses on top and the statues make it clear these are churches and not Buddhist temples.
Phát Diêm Cathedral
       After 1945, when the Việt Minh stepped up the campaign against French colonialism, the Vietnamese Catholic Church was a powerful political force, virtually free of French administrative control.  Phát Diệm’s bishop at the time was an avowed anti-French nationalist, but also opposed to the communists.  Hoping to take advantage of the latter sentiment, French authorities allowed the bishop to maintain an armed militia of 2000 men to guard against Việt Minh infiltration.
       In December 1951 the Việt Minh assaulted the village and captured it with suspicious ease.  Though French paratroops arrived to repel them, the guerrillas escaped with a large cache of weapons.  Grahame Greene reported the battle for Life magazine, observing it from the bell tower of the cathedral.  He later wrote it up again in his novel The Quiet American. 
subsidiary church in the Phát Diêm compound
       With the end of the war and the division of the country in 1954, French missionaries spread the word that the Blessed Virgin was moving south and persuaded the district’s Catholics to do the same.  The cathedral, abandoned by its priests and congregation, shut down.  In August 1972 an American bombing raid destroyed its western wall, two former convents and a school. Over time, local residents painstakingly repaired everything, such that no traces of the bombing remain.
       Nowadays, with a more relaxed policy on religious expression, Phãt Diệm Cathedral is active again.  In fact, all the churches in the district are thriving and fill with devotees every Sunday service.  But for the throngs of non-Catholic Vietnamese tourists who come to admire it, it’s not so much a religious edifice that makes the impression, but the fact that here is one foreign institution—a church—that reflects the dominance of native Vietnamese style over the European.

covered bridge in Kim Sơn
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