River cruising in Vietnam provides fascinating insights into local life.
Anchored by the steps of an ancient temple not far from Hanoi, a roar and a fire flash catch our attention. Looking up we notice dozens of attractive horses and highly decorated elephants being led in procession towards a flaming furnace…
We hurriedly abandon our vessel and make our way up the embankment.
One by one the horses are thrown into the leaping flames, which embraced them with gusto while bits of tinsel and cinders explode in the air. Piles of money follow the sacrificial beasts on their journey.
The locals watch in silence while it is we, the visitors, who hold our breath and comment: ‘Such a pity to burn these beautiful beasts. It must have taken a long time to build them’.
Local life along the river
Of course the almost life-size horses and elephants were delightful creations by local craftsmen who lovingly apply layers of paper onto bamboo skeletons and then decorate them with tinsel.
People buy them to offer in a mock sacrificial event, an offering to the ancestors, an old tradition originating in China.
The stacks of pretend paper money thrown into the fire are also part of this ritual. It is unplanned events like these that make river cruising in Asia such an interesting pursuit.
Local life in its entire vibrancy takes place under your very eyes: ceremonies, weddings, festivals, harvests and funerals.
Mr Thrin bends his body to one side and with arms outstretched forms a cradle. You’d think he is demonstrating some Tai Chi move but he is describing what he sees in this yet un-tamed tree.
Mr Thrin is a Bonsai Master and as such he has the ability to see the final shape of a tree before he trains it over the years.
This particular tree will end up extending its branches to suggest a mother embracing her baby –he says.
Mr Thrin’s garden is full of his artwork. When we stop to look at a particularly striking specimen he tells us it represents growth after suffering and indeed, the tortuous, partially ring-barked tree stretches sideways showing its practically disembowelled body while fine branches grow healthily above.
When I look at Mr Thrin, his lined face shows pain. I realise he must have seen a lot of suffering in his time.
The entire Dien Xa village is dedicated to the art of Bonsai and as we stroll leisurely around we stop to admire the locals deep in concentration pruning, wiring and bending branches to achieve the shape they have in mind. Many wealthy houses are proof of the Vietnamese love of Bonsai.
Some specimens are so expensive, they are delivered to their new owners with an expert in tow who will remain with the tree until it is happy in its new environment.
A Hanoi resident could expect to pay around $50 per day for the live-in Bonsai expert to see the transition is completed without risks.
Hung Lo Temple
On the grounds of the ancient Hung Lo Temple we are treated like royalty, literally.
An ensemble of children and teenagers regale us with songs written to receive Kings. Outside the temple rice noodles festooned around bamboo poles hang to dry in the sun.
The beauty of rural Vietnam is that you don’t have to go far to find it.
Within a radius of 150km from Hanoi there are many quaint villages linked by many rivers including the Red River.
From the comfort of a custom-made vessel -all teak and brass fittings- and with an extra shallow draft to be able to navigate small water bodies, the exploration is relaxed and rewarding.
Ancient Temples and pagodas stick their beautifully curled up eaves above emerald green rice paddies as if they were too, a natural crop.
Christian churches abound in this area reflecting intense French missionary campaigns. War memorials dot the landscape.
There is not a village without a monument to the war dead of the American War -as the Vietnamese call the Vietnam War.
These towers and tombs are a stark reminder of the price the local population paid with thousands killed by all forces involved.
Much in contrast but still on the subject of tombs, many rice paddies have farmers’ final abodes amongst the swaying stalks.
‘This is a nice resting place’ –many of us comment- ‘on the fields you worked so hard’. Alas, government rules now prohibit this old practice.
There is a surprise at every turn for the visitor: from villages where the whole community engages in the making of bamboo products to the village that entirely depends on the making of teapots and everything ceramic.
Many of the local women alternate their work on the fields with work related to the village’s specialty.
We sip tea at a farmers’ house under the beatific gaze of a Christ depicted on a wall-hanging (many Vietnamese are Christian); taste sticky rice parcels steamed in huge containers on the street; admire the craftsmanship of old temple construction, attend a Water Puppet show on a lake and get unplanned insights into ancient and colourful practices, always surrounded by the magic of tradition and myth.
At Halong Bay, shrouded in mist as it was, the many dragons said to have descended from heaven spitting jewels and amber to aid the Vietnamese against their enemies, are still there rising from the sea in the form of elaborate limestone karsts jutting off the water. The many lakes some of these hollowed islands contain can be visited by kayak.
Water puppets, enchanted islands, Bonsai masters and the culinary delights of Hanoi are a good introduction to life after suffering in vibrant Vietnam.
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Maria Visconti was a guest of Pandaw Cruises