Saturday, September 22, 2018

West of Hanoi: a Journey through Time

                                       by Jim Goodman

quan họ performance at the Chùa Thầy festival
       In the summer of 2008 the administrative borders of municipal Hanoi expanded north to include the western districts of Vĩnh Phúc province and west to absorb the entire province of Ha Tây.  The city’s boundaries now reach into what is still the traditional countryside, characterized by ancient villages, renowned old temples, a former citadel and even the mountains associated with the origin of the Vietnamese people.
       Hà Đông, now a southwest urban district of Hanoi, used to be the capital of Hà Tây province.  Just beside it is the craft village of Vn Phúc, set up over a thousand years ago for silk production and still popular with both Vietnamese and foreign consumers.  By continuing along National Highway 6 travelers soon enter the countryside, cross the Đáy River, pass rocky hills and reach the Trăm Gian Pagoda. 
the bell tower at Trâm Gian Pagoda
       Originally constructed in 1185, the name means “100 compartments” and the complex is set on a small wooded hill with a couple dozen pines over 200 years old.  In the late 14th century the monk Nguyn Lữ lived here.  Said to be adept at controlling winds and rains and known as Saint Bối, a statue of him stands in the main hall, along with 152 others, that folks believe is his embalmed and lacquered body.  After his death, when Ming Chinese invaders in the early 15th century came to destroy the temple, Saint Bối caused a heavy rain that produced a meter-high flood that drowned the invaders.
Chùa Hang--the Cave Pagoda
       Another statue is of Đặng Tiến Đông, a general of the late 18th century Tây Sơn Dynasty, who was responsible for the temple’s renovation.  Other images are mainly monks and Buddhist arhats, in wood, terracotta and stone and low-relief plaques of the Ten Kings of Hell.  In front of the steps up to the main hall is the compound’s most attractive building—a two-story wooden bell tower.  Erected in 1649, it houses a bronze bell made in 1794, commissioned by Đặng Tiến Đông.
       A little to the east of Chùa Trăm Gian, inside Tử Trầm Mountain, is the interesting Chùa Hang (Cave Pagoda).  Besides its stalagmites and stalactites, the cave features many 17th century sculptures, still honored today with offerings of incense sticks and flowers, and smooth slabs above the images incised with prayers in Chinese characters.  At the beginning of the Anti-Colonial Resistance War in 1947, the Voice of Vietnam set up its first broadcasting station inside this cave.
Lý Nhân Tông,  Chùa Thầy
Từ Đạo Hạnh, Chùa Thầy
       More common routes into former Hà Tây province lead out of the city’s western suburbs, the lower road to Quốc Oai and the upper one to Sơn Tây.  From Quốc Oai a road turns north to Chùa Thầy, the Master’s Pagoda, one of the most beautiful temple compounds in the north, about 30 km from Hanoi.  Set amidst tall limestone crags and grottoes, next to the picturesque Long Trị (Dragon Pool), the compound dates back to the reign of Lý Nhân Tông (1072-1128), though it has been expanded and renovated many times since. 
covered bridge over Dragon Pool
devotees at prayers, Chùa Thầy
       Originally it was the home of a famous Buddhist bonze named Từ Đạo Hạnh, credited with being a miracle worker as well as a master of water puppets.  A splendid water puppet pavilion from the 17th century stands in the pond and festival performances take place here in the 3rd lunar month.  In response to prayers from Lý Nhân Tông, without an heir at the time, upon his death Từ Đạo Hạnh reincarnated as his son and next sovereign Lý Thần Tông, though the latter only reigned for ten years and died at age 23.  Statues of the bonze and his reincarnation as emperor are within the main temple.
water puppet pavilion, Chùa Thầy
       Flanking the pond in front are two attractive covered arched bridges, installed in 1602.  The smaller one leads to a Taoist nature-worshiping temple on an islet.  The larger one goes to a staircase up the tallest limestone crag to temples and grottoes perched near the top.  Most buildings date from the 17th-18th centuries, with tiled roofs and woodcarvings of dragons and other creatures below the apexes of roof corners.  Near the top is the Phật Tích Grotto, with a dragonhead carved over the entrance and tree roots clinging to the cliff side, where Từ Đạo Hạnh went to die.
on the dike in Quốc Oai district
       While the temple compound attracts Vietnamese worshipers and foreign tourists every day, it becomes especially crowded and interesting during Chùa Thầy’s annual festival, held the 5th-7th days of the third lunar month.  Besides the offerings in the temples, activity includes quan họ ̣ singers riding a boat in Dragon Pool.  Decorated for the occasion, the water puppet pavilion there plays host to morning and afternoon performances each of the three days.  The puppets are smaller than those used in Hanoi, and nearly all on individual rods.  But unlike water puppet shows in Hanoi and elsewhere, afterwards the performers do not emerge from the pavilion to acknowledge applause. 
roof corner, Tây Phương Pagoda
       A few km west of Chùa Thẩy is the old temple Tây Phương Pagoda.  It sits on a 50 meter-high hill that’s supposed to resemble a water buffalo and was first erected in the 8th century.  Nothing remains from that time except perhaps some of the 239 stone steps visitors have to climb up to the temple entrance.  According to an on-site inscription, the three-part pagoda there now dates from 1632.  Each of its three compartments has a double roof with specially crafted tiles, the corners embellished with terracotta carvings of mythical animals. 
       The wooden parts of the structure are also finely carved, but it’s the collection of statues inside that gives Tây Phương its superlative artistic reputation.  Most of them are lacquered red and gold, including a multi-armed Quan Âm.  But another set, of Buddhist holy men (arhats), while in more subdued colors, carved from the wood of the jackfruit tree and all made in 1633, is more impressive.  For their realistic and highly individual renditions, they are rated the best wooden sculptures in Vietnam.  They look like they could have been modeled on Vietnamese men living in the vicinity today.
carved arhat at Chùa Tây Phương
arhat La Hầu La Đa, Tây Phươmg Pagoda
       The area between the two roads leading west out of Hanoi comprises rich farmland, with dikes along the streams, occasional fishing ponds, fruit groves alongside villages and vast tracts of irrigated rice fields that yield two crops a year.  Some of the villages are Christian, some Buddhist, others mixed, with both a temple and a church.  Traditional village house architecture has been disappearing this century as the rise in rural incomes inspires folks to make new, more modern houses.  Many of these, oddly enough, replicate the narrow, three-or four-story “tube houses” of congested Hanoi, even tough they stand quite apart from each other.
noodle-making village, Quốc Oai district
       While domestic architecture has altered, the religious buildings retain the traditional designs, even with recent renovations and additions.  The đình—village communal house—is the most important.  It contains the shrine to the village’s patron deity and is where the village authorities meet to discuss local affairs, like arranging for upcoming festival programs, settling disputes, allocating land, etc.  Often flanking a pond, it features wide roofs supported by thick pillars and decorated roof corners, within a walled compound with a fancy entrance gate.
       The northern road west of Hanoi eventually reaches Sơn Tây after about 40 km.  Lying a little south of the Red River, it became important from 1822, when Emperor Minh Mạng ordered a citadel built here.  Constructed of locally produced laterite brick, it had crenellated walls five meters high and four meters thick, surrounded by moats, with four massive tower gates in the four cardinal directions and an 18-meter high flag tower beside a pool in the center.
village đình in former Hà Tây province
       In 1883 this citadel was the base of the Black Flags, named after the banners they marched behind, former soldiers of the Taiping Revolutionary forces that had ravaged southeast China for many years.  They had fled to Vietnam following the suppression of the Taiping and the Nguyễn government had employed them to put down tax revolts by ethnic minorities in the northwest.  They had also preyed on Red River commerce, including that of the French.  After a French sortie against them ended in ambush and annihilation in western Hanoi, the French organized a Tonkin Expeditionary Force of 9000 troops against the Black Flags in Sơn Tây.
       The defenders included 3000 well-trained Black Flag regulars, who did most of the fighting, along with 7000 Vietnamese soldiers and 1000 Chinese from Guangxi province.  The French campaign lasted from 11-17 December 1883 and the battle was ferocious.  The defenders repulsed a French frontal assault, but their nighttime counterattack failed.  French artillery finally pounded the walls enough to permit a successful storming, though most of the defenders escaped.  The capture of Sơn Tây was the turning point in the campaign to conquer northern Vietnam, which would only take a few years longer.
entry gate to the former Sơn Tây Citadel
       When the French captured other citadels in the north outside Hanoi they leveled them completely.  But not Sơn Tây.  Today the massive gates are gone, but some of the old walls and entrances still stand, embraced by 200-year-old trees.  The moats are yet in place, as is the flag tower inside the grounds.  Major renovation took place in 2009.
       After the French left the country Sơn Tây became an important Vietnamese People’s Army post and is still home to its Infantry Academy.  The Sơn Tây Prison held POWs during the American War, prompting Operation Ivory Coast in December 1970.  This was an aerial mission of 56 US Special Forces troops attempting to rescue the 60-odd Americans reportedly inside.  But after a successful landing and sweep of the prison, they discovered that the inmates had been moved elsewhere the previous summer.
the French attack on Sơn Tây Citadel
       A few km further west is Đường Lâm commune, where the historical vestiges go back much further.  It was the birthplace of two of the country’s ancient heroes—Phùng Hung and Ngô Quyền.  Phùng Hung was an 8th century lord who took advantage of turmoil in Tang China to wrest administrative control of northern Vietnam.  The Chinese did not recover control until after his death.  Ngô Quyền led the successful campaign for independence in 938.  Đường Lâm hosts temples to both.
       It also boasts one of the finest old đìnhs in the country and the ancient Buddhist temple Chùa Mía (Sugarcane Pagoda), so named for the shape of its tower.  In 1632, the same year as at Tây Phương, the temple was expanded and rebuilt.  Like at Tây Phương, it was also outfitted with many jackfruit wood statues, though except for an exquisite rendition of Quan Âm Thị Kinh, a character in a traditional chèo drama, they do not match the quality of the ones of Tây Phương. 
       Besides these attractions, the entire commune is a national heritage site with strict rules on preserving the traditional architecture.  Like the Sơn Tây Citadel, the houses and compound walls use mainly laterite brick.  Some are up to four hundred years old and a walk around Đường Lâm is an adventure into old village Vietnam.
restored flag tower at Sơn Tây Citadel
Chùa Mía (Sugarcane Pagoda), Đường :Lâm
       Beyond Đường Lâm, especially to the south, the landscape gets hillier with more forests.  To the southwest, in Ba Vì district, rises Tản Viên Mountain, 1296 meters tall and famous in Vietnam’s prehistory.  Vietnamese believe their progenitor was Lạc Long Quân, a Lord of the Seas, who subdued demons in the Delta area and introduced the people to wearing clothes and draining and clearing the Delta swamps to pursue agriculture. 
Tảm Viên Mountain, from a park at Ao Vua
       Then he retired to the seas until a Chinese army invaded and seized the lands.  Lạc Long Quân returned, captured the Chinese general’s wife Âu Cơ and took her to Tảm Viên Mountain.  When the general gave up and withdrew to China, Lạc Long Quân married Âu Cơ and after a year she produced a litter of one hundred eggs, which hatched into fully-grown men.  Half went with their father to the sea, half stayed at Tảm Viên.
       The oldest son became the first Hùng King.  After 18 generations of rulers there were two contenders for marrying the king’s daughter--Thủy Tinh the Water Spirit and Sơn Tinh the Mountain Spirit   In the staged contest Sơn Tinh won, but Thủy Tinh then sent a devastating flood across the land.  Sơn Tinh retreated to Tảm Viên, made the mountain higher and survived the flood.  Afterwards, when the waters receded, he settled his people on the land.  Metaphorically, the duel is interpreted as competition for a way of life and the victory of agriculture over fishing.
       A couple of manmade lakes and a natural pond called Ao Vua, allegedly Sơn Tinh’s bathing place, lie between the highway and Ba Vì Park.  Several guesthouses along their shores provide overnight accommodation, water parks and views of the mountains.  Others are at the base of the mountains.  Ba Vì is about 60 km from Hanoi and all the way back the countryside is contemporary evidence of Sơn Tinh’s triumph over the Water Spirit—dams, dikes, irrigation ditches and lush rice fields. 

working in the rice fields near Đường Lâm
                                                                            * * *   
The itinerary for Delta Touts Vietnam’s cultural-historical journey through the north includes a day spent west of Hanoi.  See 


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