As urban sprawl transforms Vietnam’s rural landscapes, the traditional village structure is getting harder to find. In search of history, Katie Jacobs takes a step back in time to explore the ancient village of Duong Lam.
Early one drizzly Saturday morning, a group of friends and I travelled an hour and a half west of Hanoi to the ancient village of Duong Lam. With a history stretching back over 1,000 years, Duong Lam, once known as Ke Mia, or Land of Sugarcane, is a rare and classic example of a traditional midland northern Vietnamese village.
As we drove, Hanoi’s sprawling western suburbs bled into a succession of high-rises, roadside eateries and small shops. No longer a chain of small villages, the road was lined with colourful signs hawking pho bo and bear bile. After an hour, modern development finally gave way to the impossibly green rice paddies, filled with bobbing conical hats and elevated graves.
Arriving at the large sign marking Duong Lam, we veered off the main road and pulled in amongst a few tour buses neatly lined up in the paved car park. Although not on the itinerary for most foreign tourists, the decision by local residents to preserve the historic nature of the village has turned this small, sleepy town into a popular attraction for many domestic visitors.
Collecting our tickets, we were greeted by an ancient banyan tree. Its tall branches shaded the large village gate. As the official entrance to the village, these heavy wooden doors have traditionally played an important role in monitoring, and in some cases, preventing, visitors. Even kings were expected to stop at the gate in order to pay their respects and be granted permission to enter.
A winding path leads to the centre of town, lined at first by ponds and fields, and then by walled compounds; their walls are punctured by small roofed gates welcoming those interested in seeing the homes and gardens inside.
According to archaeologists, the Viet people have been living in the region for 20,000 years. As permanent villages settled around Duong Lam, local architecture developed to reflect the climate and landscape. Built out of laterite stone, mud bricks and ironwood columns, construction materials were locally sourced and chosen for their durability, insulation and ease of use. Small details, such as pitched roofs, shaded windows and ventilation holes, indicate design that has embraced and adapted to the environment, a stark contrast to the tall cement buildings down the road. Although the village was founded over a millennium ago, the earliest house is 400 years old. In keeping with Vietnamese custom, many of the buildings have been updated, rebuilt and restored by recycling materials from the house that stood before.
After tea and sweets on the veranda of a recently-renovated house, we continued along the main road, winding past shady compounds, small temples and a French-era Catholic church. We soon arrived at the large town square, flanked by historic buildings and the communal house. Known as a dinh in Vietnamese, this long, majestic building, constructed in 1759, looks over a spacious courtyard, the customary location for local and national celebrations.
Moreover, women of Duong Lam have long been allowed to participate in the communal activities at the dinh and are honoured for their role in community life. Traditionally, women of this area play a large role both inside and outside of the household, working not only on family-related tasks, but also on many agricultural and craft activities normally reserved for men.
Stretching out from the town square is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways filled with family houses, workshops and small temples dedicated to local families, gods and heroes. Hours could be spent exploring the complicated maze and intricate detail. Two kings, Phung Hung (761-802) and Ngo Quyen (896-944), were born in this village. There are temples dedicated to their heroic battles against invaders of the country. Old women with mouths stained black and lacquer chipping from their teeth sell sweets wrapped in banana leaves. Cows wander through the town, their large bulk filling the narrow streets. Low doors at seemingly dead-end alleys lead into garden-filled compounds, where residents raise chickens and brew rice wine in large clay pots.
Finishing a traditional lunch of morning glory, tofu and rice in a small family-run restaurant, the grey sky opened abruptly to rain. With a quick escape to the bus, we left history behind and made our way home to Hanoi. Whether it is for one hour or one day, Duong Lam is a pleasant and fascinating escape into the past and culture of the northern Vietnamese countryside.
If You Go
Bicycles: On clear days, push bikes can be hired to explore the surrounding villages and fields. Visitors can cycle through rice paddies and visit temples dedicated to local gods and heroes.
Drinking Tea: Many of the local houses welcome visitors into their home and it is customary to share tea and sweets with the family. Guests usually leave a small contribution towards the high cost of building and maintaining the traditional houses.
Duong Lam is located near Son Tay, approximately 60 kilometres west of Hanoi. The village can be visited independently or through a tour agency in Hanoi. If you go without a guide, it is worth buying the Duong Lam guidebook by The Gioi publishers.