Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Living in a National Relic—Đường Lâm, Vietnam

                                                           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
    Since the introduction of the reform era at the end of the 80s, the Vietnamese have simultaneously improved their lives and revived aspects of their traditional culture that had long been dormant or even suppressed.  They celebrate their festivals again, renovate their temples and communal houses, produce exquisite handicrafts in the specialty villages and patronize traditional music, dance and theater.  The government has in recent years abetted this revival by providing funds for renovating historic temples and buildings, sponsoring arts and crafts and subsidizing a few festivals. 
    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
     So the government has its own list and has gone about declaring as national relics innumerable old buildings, temples and communal houses.  These receive subsidies for renovation and are supposed to follow strict rules imposed by the Bureau of Cultural Heritage.  In addition, the government declared Hanoi’s Old Quarter a national relic, while it still harbored several traditional tube-houses and old communal houses.  In 2005 the Ministry of Culture and Information recognized Đường Lâm commune, 45 km west of Hanoi, in Sơn Tây district, 5 km past the town, as a national relic, the first ancient village to be thus designated.
    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.
Ngê Quyền
    Đường Lâm also has a special resonance for Vietnamese because it was the birthplace of two of the country’s ancient national heroes—Phùng Hưng from the 8th century and Ngô Quyền from the 10th century.  In mid-8th century Tang China, then ruling Vietnam as its province of Giaochi, the An Lushan rebellion shook the empire to its foundations and left its authority weakened everywhere, especially faraway areas like Vietnam. 
    Into this power vacuum stepped Phùng Hưng, from a rich and influential family related to Vietnam’s ancient kings, before the Chinese conquest.  He raised an army and marched on the capital, defeated the Chinese garrison and effectively ruled the country in a fair and benevolent way for the next several years.  After his death the local people deified him.  The Tang Dynasty eventually recovered in the early 9th century and reasserted its control over the Vietnamese, but never again to the exploitative extent it had done previously.  The Vietnamese had witnessed the fading of Chinese power and the assertiveness of a domestic hero and from then on pressed the Chinese for greater autonomy and recognition as a separate people.  
dragons on the pagoda, Chùa Mía
     The Tang Dynasty collapsed in 907 and it was not until 960 that the Song Dynasty, the next relatively durable one, took control.  The Vietnamese began preparing for their opportunity.  Revolts broke out during the dynastic struggles in China, culminating in the seizure of the Chinese administrative capital in 938 by another Đường Lâm-born hero--Ngô Quyền.  When the Chinese sent a naval invasion against Ngô Quyền he anticipated their move and had stakes planted in the Bạch Đằng River, the main water route to the Red River Delta heartland.  When the Chinese vessels appeared he sent his forces, in smaller boats and with full knowledge of the location of the stakes, to engage and slow down the enemy.  When the tide fell the Chinese found their ships impaled and the Vietnamese then burnt and destroyed them.  With this victory the Vietnamese regained their independence.
    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
  At the northern end of Đường Lâm is Chùa Mía, one of the most attractive Buddhist temple compounds in the north.  Already several centuries old when it was rebuilt and expanded in 1632, it features a twelve-tier pagoda in the courtyard, with dragons crawling up its four sides and what looks like trisuls in between.  The shape resembles a stalk of sugar cane, and in fact the temple’s name translates as Sugarcane Pagoda.  A giant old banyan towers beside it.  In the rear sanctuary stands a collection of painted clay sculptures depicting scenes from Buddhist mythology, including an exquisite rendition of Quan Âm Thị Kính, heroine of a popular traditional chèo drama.
    The heart of Đường Lâm is Mông Phụ village, home to an impressive, classical-style đình, or communal house, originally built in the Lê Dynasty.  A pair of white gates, topped by sculpted lions, marks the entrance to a spacious courtyard, with two smaller flanking buildings and the đình itself, with its very wide, tiled roof and its upturned corners festooned with sculptures of the four mythical animals—dragon, phoenix, lion and turtle.  Resting on a slightly elevated platform, its massive roof is supported by thick wooden pillars, while carved dragons embellish the posts, brackets and tympani in the interior. 
    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
    Mông Phụ village is the largest in the commune and comprises most of the preserved national relic area.  Whether on foot or on motorbike it makes for fascinating exploration, a real picture of traditional village life.  The houses are generally single story, in a compound enclosed by a wall, with a garden, well, and usually with a small building comprising a kitchen and storeroom and a larger building with the bedroom and family ancestral altar. 
    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.
    When the government notified Đường Lâm residents that their commune was now a national relic, they felt quite flattered, pleased to have official recognition of their cultural importance and confident the award, and the increase in tourism, would bring them benefits.  However, they had not reckoned with the new rules and restrictions they would have to deal with as a result.  Renovation and restoration of public buildings and temples proceeded at once, but the Ministry chose only eight private houses to finance renovation.  As for the remainder of the families, under the Heritage Law now in effect for them, they were not permitted to change, expand or even repair their houses without government authorization and supervision, virtually impossible to procure.  Their dilemma is identical to that of families in Hanoi’s Old Quarter still living in houses that have been classified as national relics. 
typical Đường Lâm house of laterite brick
    So, as a result of being recognized as a national relic, most Đường Lâm residents found themselves living under increasingly uncomfortable constrictions.  Money from the ticket booths erected in the wake of the award only seemed to go to public buildings or the handful of private homes, whose owners then benefitted from home-stay tourist customers.  Most villagers did not benefit at all from the award.  On the contrary, their lives got steadily worse.  The population increases every year, babies grow up and require more living space, but villagers are not permitted to add a story or even an extra room to their houses.  As a result, small children sleep with their parents, big children sleep on the ground, for space is too limited for many beds.  When it rains hard enough the roof may leak and the mats on the ground get damp, endangering the sleepers’ health.
    In many of these preserved traditional houses three generations share a room of just ten square meters and half of them sleep on the ground.  For craft workers the single room house is also their workshop and all the tools and materials have to be cleared away to make space for sleeping at night.  With not enough space for a proper kitchen, the families do their cooking at the doorway.  Wandering visitors, marveling at the authentic traditional rural architecture, are largely unaware of the hardships of everyday life in these preserved old houses, for they rarely venture inside the compound walls or examine the cramped living quarters.
    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
   The request was unprecedented.  No one representing a national relic had ever tried to have the recognition canceled.  Đường Lâm had not applied for the status of national relic; the government had selected the commune and then imposed the usual regulations for such sites.  To agree to take back the award was something the government found impossible to do.  It would entail a tremendous loss of prestige and call into question the whole notion of preserving anything traditional, if it got in the way of improving people’s lives.  If the government has the responsibility of preserving the national heritage, it also is supposed to be taking measures to raise the people’s standard of living. 
    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
    The area included in the national relic site includes both the villages and the adjacent fields, ponds and farms; basically, the commune and its immediate environment.  But the preserved area, subject to the regulations of the Heritage Law, comprises Mông Phụ village and temples and đìnhs outside Mông Phụ.  Residents here must continue to follow those regulations.  But families may now construct a new house, multi-story if they want, on land within the commune’s territory but outside the existing settled area.  Admission prices at the entry gates (̣which actually do not stand at every possible entrance to the commune) will go up from 20,000 đồng to 40,000 đồng (just under $2).  The additional money will be used to repair or renovate an additional set of old houses in the preserved area, beyond the original selection of the most ancient eight.
    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.
public well
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