It is often said that the simplest and purest things are the most beautiful and enduring. This thought arose when I arrived in Tho Ha village on a sunny and breezy day. Located in Van Ha commune in Viet Yen district of Bac Giang province, Tho Ha bears many traditional features typical of the midland Northern Delta. The village’s scenery and mossy architecture, and the simplicity of the villagers made an unforgettable impression on me.
On three sides the village is bordered by the Cau River, while the remaining side leans against low hills. As such, Tho Ha is blessed by nature. The locals use ferries as their primary means of transport, mainly around Pagoda Wharf, Lower Wharf, and Upper Wharf. For this reason, Tho Ha is an oasis, removed from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. For generations, people in Tho Ha have preserved this sense of peace, which may be seen in the poetic beauty of the curtain figs lining the Cau River, their roots flowing down like silky hair and reflecting on the water, or the old banyan trees standing vigil beside the ancient temple. The people living by this peaceful river lead simple and frugal lives with the usual ups and downs. They are dedicated to honing and preserving their village’s traditional crafts.
Strolling along winding paths lined with old brown-red bricks, I watched the sun shine on mossy tiled roofs and leaves and flowers flutter into courtyards and alleys. Upon entering an ancient pagoda, my heart suddenly found tranquility, as if cleansed of all impurities and worries. Looking up at the weathered curved roofs of the communal house, my mind felt lighter and clearer. Each layer of bricks and ceramics plastered on the village’s gates, shrines, ancient wells, and walls brought back memories of Tho Ha’s bygone glory as a famous pottery village.
Entering Tho Ha’s communal house, Doan Minh Pagoda, and Tho Ha Confucian shrine (collectively recognized as a National Relic site), I stood in awe at the vast number of ancient and priceless stone steles, worship objects, horizontal lacquered boards, and couplets preserved here. This location is a wonderful example of the traditional cultural and spiritual spaces of Vietnamese people in the Red River Delta.
Living close to water, people in Tho Ha used to produce and trade traditional pottery. This is one of the three oldest pottery production centers in Vietnam, together with the pottery villages of Phu Lang and Bat Trang. Tho Ha pottery was highly sought-after due to its special baking technique, which gave the products a distinctive red-brown color, rich clay properties, a clear echo when tapped, and high durability and water resistance.
The locals used this pottery to create a unique cultural and spiritual architectural complex. Many ceramic products made by Tho Ha’s potters, such as incense bowls, jars and crocks, are still displayed in the village’s communal houses and pagodas. The walls of houses and the village’s roads and fences are still embedded with pieces of pottery, persevered through the ages. While the traditional Tho Ha pottery-making trade has almost vanished, the ceramic products made by locals today remind us of what was once a bustling ceramics trading port in the old Kinh Bac region.
Aside from its unique tangible and intangible cultural values, Tho Ha is also known for its rice paper and rice noodles. Tho Ha rice wrappers are white, soft, and sticky. When rolled and fried, the resulting spring rolls are crispy but not crumbly. Tho Ha rice noodles are also famous far and wide for their elasticity and delicious flavor. The village is also known for its sweet and succulent sesame rice crackers and coconut rice crackers. The rice papers made by the locals are dried in the wind instead of sun-dried as in other places, making them highly viscous and easy to roll. They are made from pure rice flour, manually milled in stone mortars to create the desired stickiness.
Tourists leaving Tho Ha often buy rice papers and rice noodles as souvenirs. Before boarding the ferry to head downstream, visitors should also buy some liquor from Van village to warm their belly. I heard someone recite a few verses of a poem by Phan Vu: “Van village’s wine is glistening and sweet/ The girl’s eyes shyly steal a glance / The boys become enamored all season long” …
Tho Ha is also famed for its beautiful and colorful traditional festivals. When the swallows herald the coming of spring, people joyfully prepare for exciting spring festivals, including the Tho Ha Festival – a National Intangible Cultural Heritage. Visitors will be entranced by the mesmerizing quan họ melodies and have the chance to sing quan họ duets themselves on boats drifting in the middle of the Cau River. They might even recapture their youth as they enjoy folk games like swinging, cock fights, wrestling, cờ bỏi chess games, and duck-catching contests. No wonder King Tu Duc once praised Tho Ha with the words: “Exemplary customs”. It was a nod to the many beautiful traditions that remain worth learning in this village.