by Luong Thu Huong
As one of the most beautiful ancient villages in Viet Nam, Dong Son offers visitors the chance to learn more about the country’s archaeology, it’s countryside, culture, history and architecture.
Tucked away in Ham Rong Ward, in the central province of Thanh Hoa, Dong Son is a small village of just over 300 families by historical Ham Rong Bridge, which is associated with the anti-American war when the Vietnamese air defence force shot down many US aircraft, and the Ma River. The river is connected closely with various legends like the Dragon-Horse God who created the river to save local people from droughts. Lying near the foot of Canh Tien Mountain, the village reflects the simplicity of many Vietnamese villages, with a vast area of fertile fields to the front of it and a busy wharf, which is always teeming with boats. It is also a typical design, as right in the middle of the village are a banyan tree, a well and a communal house, where the villagers get together on special occasions.
A trip to Dong Son Village is a trip into the past, as nearly everything echoes the ups and downs of history, like the moss-covered stone walls and the tiled or gravel paths that zig zag along the mountain side.
Some of the village’s most impressive features are the gates to its four hamlets, which are called Nhan (Humanity), Nghia (Righteousness), Tri (Wisdom), Dung (Bravery) respectively. Three of the gates to the lanes are solidly built from brick and beautifully decorated.
“Each hamlet used to house villagers from the same trade. For example, people living in ‘Righteousness’ Lane earned a living by writing or composing poems and the people living in ‘Bravery’ Lane had jobs as mandarins or soldiers,” explains Le Thi Thanh, the cultural official for Ham Rong Ward.
The gate to ‘Humanity’ Hamlet, built in 1930, remains almost intact. Engraved on the gate are three words: Cao Huynh Hang, which, according to the elderly in the village, means a high and wide gate.
After passing through the gate, which was badly damaged in 1951, visitors go onto Nhi Temple, which is dedicated to the village’s guardian, Trinh The Loi (1705-80), who established Dong Son. The temple is located on the highest point in the centre of the village. Despite not being very big or spectacular, it still has an ancient, supernatural aura about it. There are numerous mysterious legends surrounding the temple and many precious historical items are kept there, such as the stone dogs and horses.
Dong Son Village, while still scarred from the US’s war of destruction against North Viet Nam, has gradually restored itself. Its tranquillity and serenity have been preserved alongside the changes that have arisen from the modern era. Fortunately, during the period of rural development, even though there are now many high-rise buildings, there are still many traditional tiled brick houses in the village. Thirteen of them are at least one century old and are an invaluable treasure for future generations.
The most intact of all the ancient houses belongs to Luong Dinh Due who lives in ‘Righteousness’ Lane, which has long been a poplar destination with visitors.
While most of the houses nearby are more modern and mainly made of concrete, the entrance to Due’s house is built of brick, has a tiled roof and locks with a latch like in the old days. In order to enter the house, visitors have to pass through a large garden in which the owner has grown various kinds of plants and flowers such as ornamental areca trees, mangoes, star fruit, magnolia or cycad in hanging pots or on the ground. There is also an ornamental fish pond and bonsai are planted all around the garden, creating a very idyllic scene, similar to visiting a garden in Hue Imperial City. The fragrance from the flowers also arouses the senses of every visitor.
“I’m from the 17th generation of Luong Dac Bang people, a renowned clan in Thanh Hoa Province,” explains Due. “My old house was built over 200 years ago. It has five rooms and two outhouses. Now it only serves as a house to worship our ancestors or welcome guests as my family has moved to live in a new house nearby.”
Due’s house and garden offer a host of opportunities to admire the beauty of the Vietnamese traditional architecture. After several recent surveys on its design, tiles and building materials, the house was judged to be almost in its original form.
“The arrangement of the items on the altar accurately follows that of the ancient Vietnamese,” says Thanh. “Especially as Due’s family has kept many precious historical items, such as the large stemmed, wooden fruit bowls and porcelain plates.”
Even though it is over 200 years old, thanks to the family’s regular care and maintenance, Due’s old house is fairly sturdy. “The house has been repaired twice by the family themselves: once in 1926 and also in 2003. At present, all the wooden items are in a good condition,” says Due.
Notably, besides keeping its original features, they have also decorated the house’s surroundings to make it more attractive, just like in a traditional village. Thanks to their efforts, it was granted the status of “ancient house” by the local authority in 2006.
“In the future, we are intend to buy the house behind ours to expand the garden, and make our own wine to give to visitors”, he continues.
However, another 12 ancient houses in Dong Son Village are in just as good shape as Due’s.
“An old house, despite its precious historical value, cannot satisfy the modern lives of villagers,” says Thanh. “A number will disappear and some have already degraded really badly. The local authority have been making a big effort to encourage the villagers to preserve these heritages.”
Besides the ancient houses, Dong Son villagers also feel proud that their home is representative of a historical period, the Dong Son civilization (2,000BC – AD200). There are plenty of archeological sites, where thousands of artifacts have been discovered and excavated, the most remarkable of which are the bronze drums with designs vividly illustrating the old Vietnamese way of life.
Dong Son’s drums also highlight the creativity of the ancient Vietnamese in the early days when the country was being founded.
If the trip to Dong Son Village starts with Nhi Temple, it should end with a visit to Duc Thanh Ca or Nghe Temple. The tranquillity is the first thing that strikes visitors to one of the most renowned temples in the northern central provinces. Enveloping guests as they enter is the fragrance from an abundance of lotuses in two ponds in front of the temple.
“Tham Xung Ta Quoc, or Chang At Dai Vuong, who led the fight against the Tang invaders in the 7th century, is worshipped here,” says Thanh.
Presently, Nghe Temple still houses a tablet dictated by Tham Xung Ta Quoc as well as 31 royal edicts issued from King Le Than Tong (1620-1628) to King Khai Dinh (1916-1925) which are still in good condition. The temple is also a vivid demonstration of the Vietnamese talent of carving wood in flowery patterns or with supernatural creatures. It is a real pleasure to observe these masterpieces while slowly enjoying a cup of lotus tea and listening to the temple guard telling stories about the temple.
A day is not enough time to visit all the scenic places in Dong Son Village, as it is surrounded by so many other historical and cultural sites, such as Pham Thong Pagoda or Trung Communal House. It is really an ideal place for anyone who is interested in finding out more about Viet Nam’s history and culture. According to recent development plans, Dong Son Village needs restored to its original condition so that its value can be fully appreciated, creating an attractive destination for the Ham Rong historical zone in the future. — VNS