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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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Hidden Attractions in Mengla County

                                                        by Jim Goodman  

looking north from above Mengxing
       Most visitors to Xishuangbanna spend their time in and around the city and on day-trips to the Dai Park, the pagodas at Damenglong or various places west in Menghai County.  If they venture into Mengla County at all, it will be to Menglun, about 60 km east, just inside the county boundary.  The sprawling, fascinating Botanical Garden is just across the river from the town and is certainly worth the excursion.  The only other place in the county to see many travelers is Mengla city itself.  And these are people passing through on the way to or from northern Laos and may not even stay long enough to look at anything.
Dai girls in Manla
       Thanks to the new highway, the journey from Jinghong to Mengla only takes about three hours, as it skirts around the highest hills or tunnels through them.  Buses on the old road took nearly the whole day, having to climb a high mountain south of Mengxing, then up and down hills before the descent to Mengla plain.  Of course, it was a far more scenic route, with views of the hills to the north and lots of forest on the way.  The new route runs mainly through low hills full of rubber trees.
       As the view from the mountain pass just south of Mengxing indicates, the northern half of Mengla County is much hillier than the lower elevations of its southern districts.  Of the northern towns, Manla is basically a Dai village turned into an administrative center.  Xiangming, on a road branching west just south of Manla, is the prefecture’s only Autonomous Yi District, mainly inhabited by the Lalu branch of the Yi who migrated here from Jinggu County in Pu’er Prefecture in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty.  They also have settlements near Yiwu and north of Manla.  Some of them moved on into northern Laos, where they are known as the Lolo, the original name for the Yi.  About 57,000 Yi live in Xishuangbanna, comprising 5.6% of the population.
Longshi Jinuo village
        Their clothing style—side-fastened tunic, usually blue, black trousers and turbans--and housing type—timber posts, brick walls and tiled roofs--resembled that of the rural Han in their original homeland.  They were not as distinctly different as the Miao and the Yao settling in the county then as well, but coming in the area long before the Han had any significant presence, they probably impressed the Dai as very different kind of people.
        Xishuangbanna’s Yi do not share a couple of the most famous Yi characteristics common to bigger sub-groups in the province.  They do not celebrate the summer Torch Festival.  Villages do not have a bimaw, the Yi spiritual specialist who keeps the traditional books written with the unique Yi alphabet, covering myths, legends, pharmacopoeia, ritual rules, moral aphorisms, and so forth.  Like other Yi, though, they keep an ancestral altar in a corner of the dining and receiving room and make offerings at New Year and other occasions.
       In Xiangming the local government last decade revived the Baishijia Festival, honoring Jin Xian, an ancient martial hero.  When drafted into the army to fight a foreign invasion he promised his village he would return by the next lunar New Year.  As it turned out, he didn’t show up until the 8th day of the 2nd moon.  He was, however, laden with decorations in recognition of his valor in combat.  So the festival is held on that day to celebrate his return.  The revival was a typical government-sponsored event, dominated by songs and dances, but for once the traditional Yi costume was the fashion of the day.  From 2011 the festival has also been staged in Yiwu.
above the fog in Yiwu
       In the mountains west of Xiangming, aside from a few stray Miao settlements, the villages are mostly Jinuo, a mountain-dwelling people who only reside in three areas of Xishuangbanna; here in the Kongmingshan area, as well as Jinuoshan and Mengwang districts in Jinghong County.  The paved part of the road out of Xiangming ends after four kilometers and the dirt road begins climbing uphill several km further from the large Dai village of Manlin.   After passing thick forests full of flowering trees, interspersed with tea gardens, it reaches the new Miao village of Andong.  From here a road north goes to Xinfa, and then on to Longshi, through the heart of Jinuo territory.
tea gardens near Yiwu
       According to the prefecture maps, this is a designated Scenic Area.  Longshi lies on a spur with a clear view of the blunt peak of Kongmingshan directly west.  The Jinuo here do not ordinarily dress in their ethnic style and the characteristic stilted houses that still prevail in Jinuoshan are absent.  A few are modern style, but most are simple wooden structures with corrugated iron roofs and satellite dishes for their televisions.   And perhaps because of the television influence, only the older generation still uses the Jinuo language.  Everyone else converses in Chinese.  Like their cousins in Jinuoshan, they cultivate tea rather than rice.
Yao man in the Mengla market
Aini woman in Mengban
The prime center for tea production in the northern half of the county is Yiwu, in the hills south of Manla.  Vehicles have to turn off Route 213 in the valley and climb up to the city.  It’s a small town, mainly Han-inhabited, with Yi and Miao villages within walking distance.  Tea merchants dominate the commercial area, while tea gardens lie along roads in every direction out of the town.  A walk along the road north of the town in the early morning gives one a spectacular view of peaks above the low clouds of early morning, especially Kongmingshan.
the aerial ropeway walk
       The Yi who might be in town dress in modern clothes, but a few Miao may also be around, the women distinguished by their bulky, pleated skirt.  Around 12.000 Miao live in Xishuangbanna, mostly in eastern Memgla County, comprising 1.1% of the prefecture’s population.  Like the Yi, they came here in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty, migrating from Guangxi, but are a small fraction of the over one million Miao in Yunnan and the over seven million throughout China.  They are not congregated in any particular area in Banna, but scattered in the hills among other minorities.  
       Forced migration has been a theme of Miao history since ancient times.  They settled in remote hills and secluded valleys until expanding Han populations began encroaching on their territory.  Then they would revolt, drive out the Han and face massive military retaliation, forcing them to surrender their land and move south.  Originally from central China, and there are still Miao communities in Hunan, different sub-groups eventually settled in China’s southern provinces and over the border into Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
bridge over the Nanla River near Mengla
well pagoda in Mengla 
       Xishuangbanna’s 20,000 members of the Yao minority nationality also live mainly in eastern Mengla County, mostly from the Landian sub-group, who also reside in Jiangcheng, Luchun, Yuanyang and Jinping Counties.  Their women wear a tight pair of black pants to just below the knee, white leggings, a loose black jacket, a skein of bright magenta wool thread hanging down from the neck in front and silver ornaments in their hair buns.  They also shave off their eyebrows. 
pavilion at the Manlongdai bridge
       This Yao sub-group favored locations at lower altitudes than most other Yao and except for the Yiwu highlands established villages in remote valleys with nearby streams.  Traditionally the Landian Yao built one-story houses of wattle and thatch, with mud floors, and aligned them with the stream, facing upstream.  They are concentrated around Manla in the north and Yaoqu in the center
       A road along the Nanla River north of Mengla comes to a fork after 27 km at Nazhuo.  Another 11 km northeast lies Yaoqu, but it is a modern town and the Yao around here do not dress Yao-style nor live in traditional houses.  However, the fork turning northeast passes Naka, a typical Yao village along the Nanla River, where at least the females still wear traditional clothing.  They may also be seen at the market in Mengban, a few km upriver, along with Miao and Aini.
typical Manlongdai house/restaurant
Aini villages lie a couple of hours walk up into the hills directly east of Mengban.  Their stilted houses with attached, open-air balcony resemble those of Aini elsewhere in Banna.  But the women’s outfit is very different, without a skirt or lavish use of embroidery.  In this sub-group they wear a long black coat, with a bit of appliqué around the lapel, over calf-length black trousers.  The black headscarf features a row of silver studs in front, coins attached to the sides and silver chains with a pair of hoops at the ends dangling from each side.
       The road from Mengla to Nazhuo offers pleasant views of the river.  Parts of it are filled with half-submerged trees and thick forest flanks the eastern banks.  Fishermen ride rafts of lashed bamboo poles, about three meters long and half meter wide.  At bends in the river’s course the mountains to the east are visible.
temple compound near Manlongdai
       About ten km north of Mengla a side road turns west into a patch of virgin rain forest, one of the last surviving in the prefecture.  In most cases, people have to appreciate the wonders of such a forest from a ground-level viewpoint.  From 2007, another perspective became possible here.  An aerial ropeway adventure opened, offering a walk across planks mounted twelve meters up in the trees, flanked by heavily netted sides and a railing to hang onto while making the walk.  Only a few people are allowed on the walkway at a time, and it does sway a bit while used, but is perfectly safe.  The view is both up and down at magnificent tall and straight tree trunks, creepers, vines, epiphytes and a hundred shades of the color green.  The walkway ends in full view of a jungle waterfall.
the interior of Manlongdai's temple
       In Mengla City, most of the shops, restaurants, hotels and offices lie on the busy north-south road.  The residential areas are off to either side.  The little central park is busy mornings and evenings with local people practicing tai qi and other forms of exercise.  On the hill above it is the local Buddhist temple compound.  Just down the street is the Nanla Shopping Mall, with attractive buildings employing Dai architectural motifs, like pagodas on the roof, that include a supermarket, several boutiques, snack and drink shops and outdoor restaurants along the river.  A Dai-style pagoda well stands at the corner and a right turn here along Qingnianlu leads to the old neighborhood of Mansai, a collection of traditional Dai houses, a few of which double as evening restaurants.
       The latter are popular with visitors who stay overnight.  For afternoon meals, though, tourists and even Dai from other parts of the prefecture tend to head for Manlongdai, just several km north, an 800-year-old Dai village famous for its cuisine.  With scarcely any modern-style buildings around, just Dai-style stilted houses, diners can relish their meals in an authentic traditional setting.   Hosts serve them various locally grown vegetables, raw and cooked, steamed fish, boiled and grilled chicken, ground pork mixed with herbs and cooked in a bamboo tube, and Pu’er tea and rice liquor to wash it all down. 
Huilong Falls
       The village lies on the south side of a narrow stream, with the rice fields on the other side.  A modest wooden gate stands on one side of the bridge across the stream, while on the village side is a very ornate, red-painted gate doubling as a rest stop, decorated with carvings and a painted peacock below the roof apex.  Just beyond the north end of the village is the old monastery, with wooden walls and roof tiles, still the original building from centuries ago.
       Just two km away another Dai village, two centuries older than Manlongdai, has also retained its original temple compound buildings.  They’re a little dilapidated and they use a bit of corrugated iron here and there on the awnings above the ground floor.  Concrete pillars have replaced the wooden posts.  The interiors are quite well preserved, however, featuring lavishly painted altars, ceiling imagery and wall murals internal and external.
       In the jungle a short distance from Manlongdai is the most hidden of all of the county’s little-known attractions—Huilong Falls.  The waterfall plunges about a hundred meters from a tall cliff straight through the jungle.  To reach this serene and lovely site one has to find a guide to take one down a certain jungle path, then cross a creek and fight through the bushes, perhaps startling a porcupine on the way, bend under tree branches and crawl over boulders for about a half hour just to get into a position to see five of its nine cataracts. 
       Similar unexplored jungles still exist elsewhere in the county.  No doubt intrepid travelers In the future, driven by an insatiable appetite for unspoiled natural beauty, will discover new waterfalls, caves and scenic tucked-away ponds.  The list of Mengla County’s hidden attractions is bound to grow.     
in the heart of a tropical rain forest
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                              for more on Mengla County and its people, see my e-book
                                           Xishuangbanna:  The Tropics of Yunnan