Photos: Thai A, Dan Toan, Nguyen Phu Duc

The ancient village of Duong Lam, Mia Pagoda and Va Temple draw scores of visitors, while misty Ba Vi Mount and Tay Thien Peak charm travellers. However, few visitors pay attention to the ancient villages along the Hat River, Da River and Red River that were connected by meandering dykes. In this calm rural area, the houses are as old as the titular temples and village gates. Life continues as it has for centuries.

Dragon decoration in a pagoda

Isolated from National Highway 32, this cluster of villages is set in a distinct landscape. Travel along the meandering dyke and your heart will overflow with serenity. Set off from the embankment near Va Temple towards the capital, admiring scenes a world away from our urban lives. On both sides of the dyke, boundless fields of sugar cane and paddy are nurtured by the alluvial rivers. It is not a coincidence that long-haul buses often stop here to allow passengers to buy fruit. The produce varies with the season and includes jack fruit, guavas, papayas and sugar apples.

Pagoda of Dong Ho village

Visitors should not miss the Temple of the Two Trung Ladies, a key religious site in Hat Mon Commune, Phuc Tho District. This is said to be the site where the Two Trung Ladies chose to commit suicide rather than be captured by enemy troops nearly 2,000 years ago, leaving a legacy that would inspire later generations. The stone elephants, horses, screens and crescent lake outside the temple were recently renovated. Yet the main hall remains virtually unchanged. Thanks to its far-flung location, the temple is usually quiet, except on memorial days and during festivals to honour the Two Trung Ladies and reenact their military feast.

It’s said that long ago, the Hat River was as wide as the Red River. However, as time went by, the river shrunk and is now a narrow stream. Nonetheless, in the Vietnamese mind this river remains a source of divinity. On the two riverbanks, calm villages display water wells, brick walls, tiled roofs and vast green gardens. Phuc Tho District is an important supplier of clean vegetables for Hanoi and its suburbs. The locals specialise in vegetable farming and are very hospitable and honest. Every day and in all types of weather, one can always see diligent farmers working in the lush green fields.

A nghe statue, the peace keeper of the countryside

Heading back to Hanoi, the embankment will take you to Dan Phuong District. This district boasts ancient temples in shady bamboo groves, beautiful mossy village gates, and pagodas. Many villages bear the names Dong Lai or Bong Lai – the Founding Village. These villages feature different types of gates. The most familiar form is a trigate with upwardly curved gables carved with dragons’ heads. In the past, some villages had wooden gates fixed on wooden wheels to allow them to open and close. Every village has a pagoda and temple standing side-by-side. These sites evoke the culture of Vietnam’s northern delta through their roof patterns, belfries, trigates and main halls. Perhaps the most unique pagoda is Tan Hai Pagoda, which was built and restored by the locals to feature stupas and statuettes depicting the Tang monk and his disciples on their journey to the Buddhist West. Besides farming, the locals are known for their carpentry skills. This explains the beauty of the local pagodas.

The gates of Lau village, Ung Hoa

Following the Huu Hong Embankment towards Thang Long Bridge, you will reach Chem Temple, a site that has stood for more than 2,000 years by the southern bank of the Red River. The temple is dedicated to Ly Ong Trong, the Grand Heavenly King – said to have been Vietnam’s first diplomat. According to ancient books, he was born in Chem Village between the late era of King Hung Due and the early era of King An Duong. When King Hung Due sought out talented people, this young man, who had a well-developed body and many talents, took the name Ly Ong Trong and helped the nation. As a military commander he defeated enemy troops in the west and the south, and eventually travelled to the Qin court to help ward off Hung troops. During the Qin dynasty, he was proclaimed Marquess Phu Tin, and granted rewards by his homeland. This legend has endured for 2,000 years and the temple is lovingly maintained by the locals.

The journey through these peaceful villages ends back in the vibrant streets of Hanoi. Life may change, yet the calm beauty of northern Vietnam’s riverside villages remains intact, as does people’s appreciation for their heritage.