Travel Story A glimpse of local life in a 1200-year-old Vietnamese village

Not far from the bustling capital of Hanoi, residents in Duong Lam village live a traditional lifestyle that's scarcely changed in centuries.  

Sitting on a wooden stool outside her 400-year-old mud-brick home, 74-year-old Minh Nguyen prepares a traditional Vietnamese mung bean pudding. She chats with a friend who runs the adjacent tea house, one of dozens of well-preserved heritage structures which line the weathered streets of this 1200-year-old village.

They pause to greet a wiry middle-aged man who rolls by on a bicycle loaded with vegetables. He disappears through the crumbling stone entrance gate to the village, alongside which young women in conical hats tend to rice paddies, a long-standing and ever-reliable source of income.

Duong Lam village is only 60km west of Hanoi, the enormous Vietnamese capital home to more than seven million people. Yet life here has a gentle rhythm in a community that scarcely has changed in centuries. If construction-crane-laden Hanoi represents Vietnam’s future, Duong Lam is a prime example of its past.

Such authentic settings are increasingly difficult to come across in Vietnam. Not only is Duong Lam among the oldest villages in the nation, it’s also one of the relatively few with robust heritage protection. Bulldozers have torn through dozens of other ancient settlements across Vietnam in recent decades as the country has sought modernisation beyond its metropolises. In such scenarios, historic homes and public buildings are swept away, replaced by new concrete structures.

For some communities, or at least sections of them, this has been a positive, with welcome upgrades to homes, sanitation and electricity supplies. Other villagers, like Minh, loathe change. They’re content with things as they are.

Seventeen generations of her family have lived in Duong Lam. She still has many relatives and long-time friends in the village, although most of her 21 grandchildren have moved to Hanoi due to its far greater employment opportunities. Minh says she has never considered leaving.

“I love it too much here — peace and safety, and not too crowded,” she tells me through a translator. “I know so many people here and that is a very nice thing. It is a real home. And it still feels like the place where I (grew up) as a kid. I like the old ways of living and I can still have that here”.

Minh is fortunate, then, to live in a hamlet such as Duong Lam. UNESCO has praised the conservation work carried out at Duong Lam and stated it has great potential as a destination for heritage tourism. The risk is that such potential, if realised, could lead to the degradation of the historic town.

All over Asia there are so-called “ancient towns”, which were selected for their traditional architecture and culture and then heavily promoted as travel destinations, only to turn into tacky tourist traps. Vietnam’s neighbour China specialises in converting charming villages into cultural theme parks where city-dwellers come to get a warped flavour of the past.

Having visited all too many such phony “ancient towns” across Asia, I was sceptical when I saw posters in Hanoi tour agency windows for “Duong Lam Ancient Village”. It was curiosity, and a half-day gap in my work schedule, that prompted me to hop in a taxi to Duong Lam.

After 90 minutes navigating heavy traffic, we turned down a rough path bisecting a rice paddy. Once we stopped in a carpark by the entrance to the village, I was surprised by the lack of tour buses and minivans. “Maybe they park elsewhere,” I thought. Over the next few hours I realised that not only was Duong Lam a genuinely authentic Vietnamese village but also it attracted relatively few tourists.

As I ran my hand along the jagged surface of the huge entrance gate, I was approached by a middle-aged man in army fatigues. He was not a soldier — that occupation was well in his past. Rather, he was a farmer who wanted to show me the pristine state of his field.

His rice crop was nearly ready for the twice-yearly harvest, which takes place in spring and summer. In winter, the farmers of Duong Lam grow sweet potatoes, groundnuts and vegetables including spinach.

There were no fertilisers in sight and all the labour was done by hand with only rudimentary tools. The farmers take some of the produce for themselves and sell the rest at Mia Market, a small bazaar in the village square. It was here that I met Phan Thanh Xuyen, a 73-year-old man with a tobacco habit and a cartoonish, high-pitched laugh.

Phan reached out through a cloud of smoke to offer me a hit of his bamboo water pipe. I could not have said no any quicker. The last and only time I ever inhaled the wild tobacco so popular with Vietnamese men my head spun like a basketball on the fingertip of a Harlem Globetrotter.

Phan took no offence. Once my tobacco story was relayed to him he unleashed his comical giggle. Then he inquired why I was in Duong Lam. “You’re a journalist?” he asked with genuine excitement. “Please tell people about my village. I think it is very unique. Soon we won’t have any places left like this. This is real Vietnam.”

Phan was a teacher for many years, his career interrupted by an 11-year stint as a soldier during the Vietnam War. Just like Minh, he was never tempted to move to Hanoi. Phan said he knew he would badly miss the sense of community in Duong Lam, as well as its languid, old-fashioned way of life.

Although I’m a city boy, it’s easy to recognise the joys of such an uncomplicated town. Every person I encountered on its jumble of winding streets was either sitting in ease, or meandering along on foot or bike, with no semblance of stress or hurry.

For Duong Lam residents, it must be hard even to imagine the swarms of motorbikes in Hanoi, a mere 60km away. Each day that buzzing swarm gets a little louder, a shade closer. One day it may well engulf Duong Lam. Until then, it will remain one of the most enchanting places in Vietnam.

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