Sunday, 11 October 2015

Unexpected treasures

A paradise on the southern edge of the Red River delta

I have been travelling around north east Vietnam visiting craft villages, battle grounds, lands of legends and descending dragons to learn more about the beating heart of this beautiful land.

On my list was the ancient capital of Hao Lu in Ninh Binh province, about 100 km south east of Hanoi. Hoa Lu was the capital of ancient Vietnam when Dinh Bo Lien ended the 3rd, 300 year Chinese domination of that region at the first battle of Bach Dang in 968. It remained as the capital until 1010.

I hoped to find some ruins, a museum, perhaps or, maybe, a map or plan showing the location of the ancient buildings, but there was nothing of particular note.  There is, however, a small, ancient temple in which there is a shrine to the victorious emperor who named the new land Dai Co Viet – The Great Viet. I must say that, as temples go, this was a real gem. The ancient, lacquered ironwood pillars have acquired a soft rusty hue with the passage of time and there were some pieces of alter furniture I have never seen anywhere before. Ancient ritual oozed from every crevice.

My mood changed because of this little temple. Suddenly, the whole area came to life for me.

The ancient capital was located on flat ground surrounded by a ring of the pointy mountains that distinguish the An Trang landscape and I could feel Vietnam working its magic on my imagination. A little way from this temple, passing through an impressive three arch gate, I entered another world; a village of small holdings, sleeping water buffalo and a burial ground where many of the older graves are half submerged in the ancient way.  This watery garden reflects the sky and the mountains giving it an ethereal mood and it made me realise that, apart from temples and the old capital, this region is made remarkable by its gardens. The lily and lotus ponds, the wildlife, flowers and, most of all its silence, broken only by forest birds can transport you into a contemplative state. IT’s a world away from busy Hanoi.

The next day, I sat on the steps to a lily pond in the enclave of a small temple in Tam Coc village for an hour. The steps were overhung by two old Frangipani trees that threw dappled light on the stone and the limpid waters of the pool. While I sat there, escaping the heat of mid afternoon, all I could hear was the pup-pup of tiny fish breaking the water surface to catch invisible insects. Nothing else. Nothing else at all.

I watched a little brown crab scatter sideways across the submerged step below me and then a large, round, chestnut snail made its graceful way from left to right and slipped over the edge into the gloom of the dappled waters. A young woman came down to the water to wash her spoon and to invite me in to the temple for some tea – sent by the men to see what I was up to I suppose!  I lingered a little longer and finally the spell was broken by a nosey goat that came by, bleating and fussing as it went. 

I went in search of history, monuments and relics and found, instead, a paradise of wild flowers, birds, slow boats, limpid pools in sacred caves and breathtaking beauty and serenity. What a lovely surprise.