On the Red River

By | Category: Travel destinations

the inside of the cathedral at Phat Diem. Image © D Dasovitch

Our pandaw cruise from Halong Bay to the Red River had now brought us to the fertile Red River Delta, second only to the Mekong as  top rice growing area in the country and known as ‘The cradle of the Vietnam people.’ As well as being the most fertile area this is also the area with the highest concentration of Roman Catholics in Vietnam.  Roman Catholicism was brought to Vietnam by French missionaries, including the Jesuits, in the early 17th century (they also adapted the Vietnamese alphabet to Latin script) and it was strengthened when Vietnam became a French colony in 1887,

One of the most important buildings for the faithful is the Catholic Cathedral at Phat Diem.  Nothing prepares you for this complex consisting of cathedral, bell tower, convents, chapels and libraries, all built in an eclectic mix of Sino-Vietnamese-Pagoda and European-Gothic style.  To an architectural purist it would probably be anathema but I rather enjoyed the eccentric juxtaposition of curved oriental roofs topped with crucifixes and neon-lit statues of the Virgin Mary.

Phat Dem cathedral

It was built in 1892 by a Vietnamese priest, Tran Luc, known as Father Six.  The cathedral itself has a largely wooden interior with vaulted ceilings and huge thick ironwood pillars. A scattering of white clouds drift across a blue ceiling and the area above and around the granite altar is made of lacquered and lavishly gilded woodwork studded with icons of missionaries and Vietnamese cherubs with a Madonna and child at its centre. Outside there are two huge stone slabs on which the mandarins used to sit to observe the Catholic rituals.

Opposite the main doors stand the bell tower with stone columns carved to look like bamboo. This tower features in Graham Green’s book The Quiet American as it is from there, at the time of the French Indochina war of 1952, that the protagonist Fowler watches a battle raging in the streets below. Prior to this the area had been ruled by the Prince-Bishop and his private army and was apparently a lively place It was bombed again in 1972 during the Vietnam war but now has been well restored. Mass is still celebrated in the cathedral at 5 am and 5pm when the bell sounds and the faithful stream in. It is also much visited by the Vietnamese of all beliefs who are similarly intrigued by the unique mix of buildings as we tourists were.

in a Hanoi coffee shop drinking coffee dripped over condensed milk!

Our next anchorage was in Hanoi itself where we had another unusual disembarkation. After making our way up over rough ground we walked  though a machine shop to emerge in a busy street. A coach then took us to the city centre for a walking tour of the Old Town. After the tranquillity of the river the cacophony of the city came as a shock. Our senses were assaulted by more people than we’d seen for days, backpackers chattering in many languages, noisy motor bikes, skeins of dangerous looking electric wires overhanging narrow streets lined with busy colourful shops and stalls. Our guides valiantly herded us around and at one point took us into one of the tunnel houses, certainly something we’d never have found for ourselves. One enters a building via a long, dark corridor with two, three or four floors of tiny apartments above, only to emerge at the other end in a different street. We finally went to a coffee shop and were revived by glasses of the Vietnamese speciality, strong coffee dripped onto condensed milk, stirred and poured over ice.  A sugar rush in a glass – but delicious.

in the ceramic village – Bat Tang

After an overnight anchorage midstream in the Red River our next morning excursion was to Bat Tang, a village famous for ceramics which had been produced there for over 1000 years. It seems the custom that specialised trades should be concentrated in one location and we had seen, or would see, villages devoted to bonsai, bamboo, carpentry, blacksmithing and conical hat-making on this trip. In this workshop it was dusty, hard work for the employees some of whom were busy hand painting intricate designs. We saw items ranging from tiny tea pots to the almost life sized vases which are often bought in pairs to stand either side of the ancestor’s altar in the house.

This visit was rounded off with a display of the Lion Dance, a quite amazing spectacle. Accompanied by a gong and drum which effectively set the rhythm, two lions, a red and a yellow, with two men inside each costume, dance, flirt, chase ‘money,’ get angry and rear – this is achieved by one of the two men inside jumping on the shoulders of the other and takes skill and impeccable balance.

watching the Lion Dance

The dance apparently originated when a village which was invaded by a ‘beast’ each New Year, decided to retaliate and scare it away. Today it often forms part of the Tet or New Year’s festivities where it is said to bring good luck.

We, the group of 20 passengers from the Pandaw cruise from Halong Bay to the Red River, had observed a number of temples and pagodas on our shore expeditions. We had learned the difference: a temple is a place of worship of a person; saint, king or queen, with some also serving as community houses while a Pagoda is a place where Buddha is worshipped.  In the village of Sai Son we were able to spend time in one of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam, The Thay or Master’s Pagoda built in the 11th century. Set in an attractive garden in which bonsai and orchids flourished, it was full of atmosphere.

We entered the pagoda, which is in three parts, stepping over a slightly raised board to do so. These are incorporated into most pagodas as in stepping in, one bows one’s head so automatically makes a gesture of respect. We found ourselves in the prayer hall surrounded by banks of Buddhas and daemons, some carved from jackfruit wood others painted red. There were offerings of flowers and rather incongruously, boxes of biscuits. To the left of the altar we saw statues of the monk Tu Dao Hanh, The Master and founder of the pagoda. He was a mystic, a medical man, an inventor and a choreographer of traditional water puppetry which he staged in a small pavilion in the centre of the pool in front of the pagoda. Performances still take place there today.

some of the balancing toys

Later we took a walk around the village and came across a workshop where people were making delightful little models of dragonflies, owls and other birds which balance on a stick or on your finger. So far on the trip we had not had a great many opportunities for shopping and these inexpensive little toys, which we actually saw being made, were good souvenirs of an excellent excursion.

The next morning’s visit was to the UNESCO village of Duong Lam. This is one of the ‘thousand year’ villages and contains a collection of some 900 ancient vernacular buildings and temples built from laterite, a local mud-like material which is taken from ponds. Although some more modern houses had been built on the outskirts of the village, alterations to the historic houses have to be approved by the authorities.

a “black teeth” lady

Two kings,  Phung Hung (761-802) and Ng Quyen (869-946) were from Duong Lam, giving the ancient village great prestige  We visited the big communal house where court was held and business conducted by the elders. Formerly no women allowed in but fortunately things have changed.  We were also invited into the house of a former military man a Catholic who was the 16th generation to live in Duong Lam. We sat around the very elaborate gilded ancestor’s altar and were offered drinks.  On the way back to our coach we noticed an elderly woman on a stall with black teeth. This had been caused by chewing betel nut – which this 80-year old lady said she had been doing since the age of 15.

Throughout these coach trips our Pandaw guides were unfailingly kind and helpful and by telling us personal stories of their own lives, they provided us with vivid insights into Vietnamese life. They also kept us entertained, at one time in the coach Duke set up a game which he said would give us at least 5 words of Vietnamese to take home. He divided us into four teams, repeated the 5 words twice, telling us to note them down phonetically. He then gave each team the same number of dongs and the clue that the words meant vegetables or herbs, before letting us loose on a village market. The team which bought the correct items at the lowest price would be the winner of a bottle of wine. All good fun especially as our team won!

making rice noodles

All too soon our cruise was at an end. It finished with a flourish as the Pandaw crew entertained us and danced with us on the last evening. That wasn’t quite the end however, even on the way to the airport a stop was made  Hang Lo Temple to give us one more thing to remember. On arrival, as we crossed the main square we saw sheets of what looked like net curtains hanging on lines. They turned out to be rice noodles hanging out to dry. It wasn’t these, or indeed the temple itself, that we had come to see but an example of what UNESCO calls ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ It was a performance with singing and dancing of Hat Xoan an old traditional song, by a group of men and women in traditional costume.

the small 32 berth Angkor Pandaw that had taken me to places I thought I would never see

Vietnam is a county in transition. On the rivers we had passed barges full of building materials, seen banana plantations being uprooted to build new roads and learned that people are leaving the land to work in the new factories. Everywhere preparations are being made to increase tourism for which the non-material assets like water puppetry and the performance of traditional songs and dances have been recognised as precious jewels to be cherished alongside the physical cultural manifestations such as temples and pagodas. On this Pandaw cruise we have appreciated both as we sailed via less-visited places, right into the heart of this fascinating country.

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