Unknown & unseen

Many villages in Vietnam are far off the beaten track but well worth a visit.

By DON WILLS on September 12,2018 10:48 AM

Unknown & unseen

Chu Quyen communial house in Ba Vi district, Hanoi | Photos: NGUYEN XUAN CHINH

The many small villages scattered around Vietnam offer the adventurous tourist a fascinating insight into traditional Vietnamese life.

One, Dong Son village in Ham Rong ward, north-central Thanh Hoa province, lies on the south bank of the Ma River, surrounded by mountains on three sides. It is home to just over 300 families and is best known for the 1924 discovery of a number of unique bronze artefacts that historians believe are the precursors of the 7th century Dong Son Culture. The artefacts include giant ceremonial drums lavishly decorated with scenes of rituals and battles, daggers, armor, bowls, fish hooks, axes and tools dating back 1000 BC or earlier. The Dong Son Culture became the model for neighboring states for many years.

The village itself is a tranquil hamlet with many houses aged 100 or more years, made from stone blocks now discolored and covered with moss and with gray-tiled roofs.

The ancient Duc Thanh Ca Temple is one of several in the village but is the most impressive. The gray sandstone temple is surrounded by trees and out front are two fragrant lotus ponds.

In the middle of the village is the village square with a giant banyan tree, a well, and a communal house (“dinh”).

A woman in Cao Thon village in Hung Yen province dries incense
A woman in Cao Thon village in Hung Yen province dries incense

Another village most tourists have yet to discover is Cao Thon village in northern Hung Yen province, in the middle of the Red River Delta, where incense-making is the main industry. The incense trade has been handed down from generation to generation and its incense has medicinal qualities. Each household has its own formula for creating incense in different fragrances and can produce about 20,000 to 30,000 sticks a day.

Another village of interest in Hung Yen is Ban village, where a unique soy sauce is made.

Ban soy sauce is unique because it is made from large-grain sticky rice and small-grain soy beans, and is soaked in water from a special well. Making Ban soy sauce is something of an artform. The rice is washed carefully then soaked in water and cooked until it becomes sticky and is then spread on to a large, flat bamboo basket and dried until it turns yellow. The soy beans are roasted until they turn brown and are then soaked in a jar for a week. After the beans have fermented, a little salt is added and the mix is stirred thoroughly and then fermented some more in the sun.

Le Mat village, meanwhile, is just 7 km northeast of central Hanoi, in Long Bien district. It is known as “snake village”, as local people have been employed as snake catchers for generations.

Most of the snakes are cobras and some are quite large. When you choose a snake for your meal, a waiter brings two glasses to the table, one filled with the snake’s blood and the other a fluorescent green liquid - the bile. Both are in rice wine. There is also a small dish containing the snake’s heart. Using a variety of seasonings and lots of lemongrass, chefs present the meal as skewered chunks of snake meat, spring rolls, salad, soup, or rice porridge. Even the skin can be grilled and served.

There are roughly a hundred snake-farming households in Le Mat, employing nearly 400 people. Not long ago the business of snake breeding and snake meat production almost disappeared. From the 1960s to 1990s, snakes around Le Mat were bred for restaurants and pharmaceutical purposes. Then, in 1993, the government ratified an international convention on the protection of wildlife and imposed restrictions on the snake-breeding industry. Snake meat disappeared from menus. In 2007, aware of the negative repercussions on the local economy, authorities granted Le Mat “craft village” status and snake breeding and meat production were back in business.

The village holds a festival annually on the 23rd of the third lunar month, or April in the solar calendar.

Large villages in Vietnam are typically located near the banks of a river and include a sacred communal house, a pagoda, a temple and a shrine. In traditional Vietnamese society, people gathered together to form villages in rural areas and guilds in urban areas. These villages and guilds have been forming since the dawn of the nation. Organization gradually developed, with the villages or guilds steadily becoming more stable and closer together. Each has their own conventions, the purpose of which is to promote good customs within the population and organizations. There are tens of thousands of such conventions and they can be found at the Vietnam National Museum of History in Hanoi and other museums throughout the country.

Lowland villages in northern and central Vietnam have traditionally been packed close together and are surrounded by a bamboo hedge or sometimes an earthen wall. Other important sites include the school and the market. Ancient Kinh (Vietnamese) villages were usually comprised of mud-wall houses and surrounded by bamboo groves.

Northern Vietnamese villages have traditionally been placed along roads, waterways or on knolls or hillsides. They have tended to be relatively closed communities, both physically and socially. In the old days, villages paid taxes and provided workers to build dikes and soldiers to fight wars. In other respects they were independent and controlled many of their own affairs. Southern Vietnamese settlements and villages, particularly around the Mekong Delta, have traditionally been more separated and scattered and less tightly bound by a defined community structure. Most are strung out along roads or waterways and sometimes deep in the countryside.

There is often no running water or indoor toilets in villages. Extended families, from grandparents to infants, sleep under the same roof. The streets of many villages are little more than winding paths. The barking of numerous dogs and the clamor of many small children make the arrival of a stranger a well-known fact within a short time.

Every village has a dinh, or communal house or temple, with a lotus pond out front and a shady tree out back, and often a Buddhist pagoda or shrine. The dinh is where village elders meet and where a guardian spirit - called “thanh hoang” in Vietnamese and usually associated with a Vietnamese hero - resides. Festivals are held every year to celebrate the spirit.

The dinh is a combination of a temple and a community center. It is within the dinh that housewives offer prayers and offer food to the guardian spirit. At such times, the thanh hoang is asked for protection against various natural disasters and for goodwill towards the individual worshipper or the worshipper’s family.

The village market sells many fresh vegetables, nuts of all kinds, fresh fruit like bananas, oranges, grapefruit, and lemons, trays of meat exposed to both dust and flies, fish, tobacco, sugar and salt. These are intermixed with stalls filled with items of clothing, fabric and small hardware items. The entire market, large or small, is often crowded with people who come to look, to buy, or just to gossip. The women are the merchants and seem to dominate proceedings.

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