Saturday, April 25, 2015

Half a Day on the Road, East toward Halong Bay, via Yen Duc Village

Written on April 24 and 25th 2015--in Hon Gai, which is the old half of Halong City.  The other half, the modern mostly tourist oriented city is Bai Chai, across the narrow mouth of the enormous bay behind the cities that is, among other things, a splendid natural harbor and always full of shipping.  The choice of where to stay is very simple.  In Bai Chai you find restaurants and hotels with lots of stars, the tour boat harbor, and nearly any service or activity a wealthy tourist could want.  I always stay in Hon Gai, and usually in one or another of the small hotels that are all lined up on one particular one-block-long street.  Actually, they're all almost exactly the same size (one room wide) and all the same height (4 floors above the ground floor, with 2 rooms per floor), but they're very different in personality.  One looks quite plain, another is flatly opulent.  Mine this trip is very nice and run by an impeccably groomed,  round little woman who looked at my passport and was delighted to find we're the same age.  Whatever!  They're all owned and operated by the families that live in the quarters on the ground floor and all the beds are hard.  After years of looking for softer beds here I've given up.  If the rooms are otherwise nice, I'll sleep on one of the hard beds and be fine. . .that one attitude change widened the choice of hotels. . .er. . .a lot.  The traditional mattress here is after all 4" thick, and solid hardwood.  It could be worse!  Near such hotels you find, of course a wide variety of noodles, rice, and good things to eat, if you're still able to sit comfortably on a 10" high stool in front of a 20" high table and able to pay the dollar or two or even $2.50 a good meal costs.  I can still manage the money, but the stool and table are an increasing challenge these days.  To begin with, there's the problem with the length of long bones. . .mine are longer than a lot of Vietnamese people's. . .which means even if they'd bend enough, the knees still wouldn't fit under the table.  Then there's the weight of the table and its four legs.  It hardly weighs anything without something to spill on it and it can put its four legs almost anywhere in an effort to catch your toe and spill your soup. . .preferably on the poor person who sat across from you.  If you manage to keep away from the table leg traps while you eat and stand up to leave, your stool will often run ahead on its four short little legs and get set to throw itself at your ankles.  It can be desperate at times.

But this isn't the Michelin Guide to accommodations.  I'm supposed to be doing a job of work, finding old farmhouses in the mountains and documenting them.  On the other hand, I have a dear friend, Ms. Cuc, of Indochina Junk, who has for a long while done whatever she can to forward my projects here in Halong Bay and so my first mountain farm house was. . .well. . .actually about 10' above sea level I think, surrounded on all sides by absolutely level land, with the water table a foot or two below the surface of the ground (and this is the very end of the long dry season).  In short, Yen Duc, the site of Indochina Junk's new initiative to bring high-end tourism in a very special way to the traditional villages of North Viet Nam, is a Red River Delta village.  It is historically important in that it was the early center of the Viet Minh revolution against the French occupation and suffered a lot during the Revolutionary War.  Partly as a result, almost all the homes in the village these days are reasonably modern and quite nice.  The small house I was eventually to see was a survivor though, lasting through the generations for the last 183 years, and still perfectly sound (and obviously well-loved) today.  Besides the little house, let us say up front, there was a wonderful lunch (I did say "upscale" tourism did I not?), several hundred ducks, a distillery and the real crowning glory of the day, a new pagoda, built entirely in the timber-framing tradition, standing in frame, with the brick work just beginning.  It will no doubt be lovely when finished, but the chance to see it in frame, all its columns and beams and the wooden lattice of its roof-to-be in plain sight, was magnificent.  So many pagodas these days are made to look as though they had been built this way, the old way, but beneath the carefully painted faux-wood surface, they're really all concrete.  This one is the real thing.
The ride to get there went very well, though it's a long stretch of busy traffic to get to the bridge and across the river and out of Hanoi, and another long stretch of traffic on the country's main north-south highway (AH-1) which was busily getting some new asphalt in several places, so we got to practice one-lane freeway driving with trucks. . .a special sort of dance if you're a motorbike.  Even old QL-18, which is just a pleasant two lanes most of the time anyway, seemed pretty busy a lot of the day.  No matter, I did (just barely) spot the sign to the village and made the requisite turn and got there.

I think it would take longer to write all this down than it took to do it, let me do a few maps and photos instead for now:
Here's enough map to get us through the first week or maybe two--most of Northern Viet Nam. That's Hanoi at the left end of my first day's ride (the thick blue line). . .as far as Yen Duc village. . .and then on to Halong City.  I apologize for the creases, dirt, tears and so forth, this old map has been with me over a lot of kilometers.  Four trips?  Maybe this is number five. . .or maybe six.  The first map was paper and only held together with strapping tape the last year it went.  This one is plastic and is lasting better. . .just a little out of date now.

Here's the day's run, all told, from Hanoi (okay, I cut off the "H" but you can still see the "anoi" at the start of the day.  Yen Duc Village is about an hour's ride out of Halong City and I left it late enough in the day that we barely got into the hotel before dark. . .didn't really, but close enough.

My tour guide, Ms. Huong and our host, Mr. Te.  This garden is the site of the old "bigger house" that was killed in the French war. . .bombs.  

This is the oldest house left standing in the village. . .183 years and going strong.  Things have changed a lot over the years, the tiled front yard was originally a wet-season water storage pond.  with the other, bigger house behind us.  This house was just for the oldest people of the family, including the ancestors, who still have the altar in the middle.  The house across the pond was a little bigger and open on both sides, not just the one.  It was destroyed in the French war (bombs) but the little house survived, in part because it looked like a hill from the air. . .in those years the roof was covered with flowers and there were rock gardens at each end.  Nowadays there's a big modern house as well, where most everyone actually lives.

One of the two bedrooms, one at each end. . .the "window" looks out onto someone else's property.

Looking up into the roof structure, the curtain valance conceals the beam that carries the whole roof load from column to column.  There are no rafters.  Rather, corbels stacked up on top of each other, each one a little shorter than the one before, define the pitch of the roof and round pole purlins carry laths that in turn carry the red brick tile.  What you don't see is almost a foot of mortar above the red brick and then ANOTHER layer of brick tile on top of it all.  Incredibly heavy, but it makes for a cooler house in summer, an important point!

Every house of any consequence includes two "couches" with a table in between, where else would you serve tea to your guests?  These are ancient I think, more restrained than many modern versions.

I'm not sure if this is solid blocking, carrying the roof load above the main beams, or if it's just a carved panel over the more typical tapered stack of corbels.  H'mm.

The wooden hinge of one door and the lock for the next.  The lock simply slides sideways to hold the door closed.

Now that's a head board. . .and a solid wood mattress with a mat of. . .not memory foam.  Oh my.

The ancestors live here. . .and are well taken care of.  Fresh bananas and a full jug of "rice wine".  Should get us through supper at least.

More roof and corbel variations.  It takes a lot of timber to support the weight of all that roof tile and mortar!

My host, Mr. Te, alongside the Ancestor's home.  

Here's the lock at the bottom of the door.  . . locked

And unlocked! 
The steep mountainous terrain around Yen Duc village. . .my guide, Ms. Huong.  I was appropriately riding a mountain bike.

Besides ducks, fish and a pig now and again, there's room on the farm for veggies too. . .powered in part by pig poo I think.  This is water morning glory, one of my favorite vegetables locally, usually served sauteed with garlic and whatever.  It does better in a flooded field, but obviously does well enough in dry season as well.

Two hectares of duck pond. . .concrete side walls on a comfortable slope for the ducks, keep the soft delta soil from caving.  The bottom is mud, which the fish like.  They raise both "butter fish" and carp from purchased fingerlings to market size, about 1.5 kg at six months for the butter fish and 3 kg at one year for the carp. . .These white ducks are for the meat market, about 300 coming up at a time.  

Ducks, mostly everywhere.

I missed the joke again.  Darn.  Ducks for eggs (a different variety) in the background.  They're kept out of their house during the day and spend the day outside, in the house over night to lay.  

Mrs. Nguyen Thi Sinh, the lady of the duck-pig-fish and vegetable farm, explaining how 250 laying ducks provide a minimum of 200 eggs per day.  H'mm.  That's a lot of eggs.  
My first glimpse of the new pagoda going together.  This is about one year into the project and it's to be completed sometime before Tet next spring. . .so less than a year to go.

The exterior columns are carved local limestone I think (it might be really artfully done concrete, though I don't believe it!).  They're weather proof.   Unlike so many modern pagodas though, the interior columns are real, precious hardwood, solid straight tree trunks. . .magnificent!  The whole thing is held together, from the ground to the purlins, by joinery, not by metal fastenings.  This is very similar to European "timber frame construction", or traditions in China and Japan. . .wherever mankind has had access to good timber.  Now it is increasingly rare all over the world.  Plywood and laminated beams. . .but no joinery.

Let's just look at details for a while. . .beautiful beautiful work

Here you see the concept of a tapered stack of corbels very clearly. It's just the same as the much smaller house we just left though on a grand scale.

The columns are not "set in" the ground, rather this structure is like a table, all the framing above holds the columns plumb where they belong.

On the right, just the purlins, to the left and ahead the lath has been added to carry the red brick tile.

I'm sorry, I'm just in love with the corner details.

Eventually the masonry will close it all in and the roof will cover it and you'll have to look carefully to see the wonderful frame.  I came at a fabulous moment.  But. . .to have been here for the whole project with a box of cameras and memory cards.. .oh to dream of it!!

No, I don't know what the joint looks like, nor exactly how it's done.  I may find out as the trip goes on.  The trip, of course, may go on for a number of years.

Stacked corbels supported at the inner end by framing into the columns.  What work!

I'm not sure who she is, but everyone thought I should get her photo with the new structure. . .a moving force in the ladies' bake sale and bazaar society perhaps??  Oh that gorgeous roof structure!!

Ah, now here's some moving force.  It'll move when these say to!
There was a stop at a small distillery too. . .but there're no photos to show.  The process is very simple and what you can see when it's not working looks like a propane cooker and a galvanized wash tub with a lid, a hole in the wall to  pass the steam pipe through to a water tank (that holds the condenser) and a number of plastic tubs full of sticky rice in various stages of fermentation.  That's it.  The pigs in their sties were more interesting. . .spotless clean.  Their poo is washed out daily and disappears into an underground tank. . .and provides the biogas to power the cookstove to brew the liquor.  After that (painfully sober) I rode the rest of the way into Halong City to my usual string of hotels and tried to remember which one of them was my home last time.  In the event I picked one I'd not tried before. . .and it's just fine.
I guess they're not all exactly the same size, but it's close!  I think mine this trip is the pale green one at the left end of the row (they look different from the seat of a motorbike out front).  The one next door is now a day-care-kindergarten and one beyond that houses a lovely coffee shop on the ground floor.  It's a charming little one-block street in a nowhere neighborhood that's been cut loose from the world by the highway going by.  Still, quite nice $12 and $15 rooms. . .with rock hard beds.  Sigh.

And that was just the first day.  There are two more since then and I have to move on tomorrow.  Oh My Goodness.  It'll be a long night typing tonight. . .


  1. Absolutely brilliant woodwork. And your photos so clear. Couple of old original houses in Hoi An old quarter have similar but more plain than that, and even the reconstructed palace in the Imperial Quarter at Hue are not that fancy, but similar construction.
    I found the fact that the columns simply sit into carved cups, brilliant, so much different to what I've done in my working life.
    Keep the photos coming my friend

  2. Ken, the querns around the duck pond ! Bring me one !!
    Seriously though, I also was fortunate enough to be present at three or four pagodas in various stages of construction, from foundation to finish and like you filled up most of a day photographing corners, carvings, details. As you return to Ha Noi and perhaps pass through Son Tay you might stop in Duong Lam village to see the walls and old homes of laterite. I think you would enjoy that. There are at least two recently rebuilt pagodas with all the massive wood columns and roofs there, very accurate and wonderful in their details.
    Hmm...dinner in Seattle and then a few days later reading your travel log.


  3. Oh, and one of the small pagodas in a river side village has my name baked into a roof tile, a temple to the spring wind genie who lifts the kites in April.