SE Asia #02 Hanoi Area
SE Asia #02 – Outside Hanoi
This is part 2 of our tour of 3 South East Asian locations and covers areas around Hanoi that we visited including Ba Vi National Park and Duong Lam World Heritage Village.
Weather and Air
Before we start this though, I’d like to talk about weather. As anyone who has investigated travel to South East Asia knows, there is a wet season (monsoons) and a dry season. It is generally suggested to see this area during the dry season unless you are a duck. Apparently in the wet season it is really wet with heavy rain pretty much all the time. This is great for lush green jungles and forests but typically not ideal for tourists – or photographers. The wet season is also wonderful for mosquitoes and all the exotic diseases they offer to those who are out and about.
We dutifully did our research ahead of time and scheduled our journey for the end of the dry season when the insect population was dormant. We figured that perhaps we’d get a few stray showers announcing the start of the monsoon season and even better, maybe some of those beautiful big white puffy cumulous clouds that photographers live for would waft by.
So, we were a bit bummed out during our first 4 days (in Hanoi) as it was overcast the entire time. No rain but warm, and a bit humid. The sky was just this dull murky gray overcast. Hopefully it wouldn’t last too long. By the 4th day of this with no change we discovered what was really going on. It was not cloudy at all. That “overcast” was smoke.
As we know, rice is one of the main crops of SE Asia and especially so in the areas we were traveling in. Throughout most of the area, rice growing relies on rain rather than irrigation. In the flatter areas near major rivers there is some irrigation (along with annual flooding) but for the most part they need the rains. As such, most rice is grown in the wet season and harvested at the beginning of the dry season. During the dry season the fields are just left alone as what had been shallow rice paddies with several of inches of water are then just solid dry ground. Well, so what?
As it turns out, just before the start of each rainy season (which officially starts on April 1st - and when we were there), they need to get the fields ready to plant as soon as the first rain storm fills their paddies with water. What we didn’t know is that the way they prepare the fields is by burning the dry stalks from last year’s crop. This does 3 things. First it gets rid of the old stalks, second the ash turns out to be a pretty good fertilizer, and third it fills the atmosphere with smoke. During the last 2 weeks of March pretty much every rice paddy in SE Asia is burned and the entire sub continent is hidden beneath an thick blanket of smoke.
We couldn’t really smell the smoke as it wasn’t at ground level in Hanoi, but what we thought was an overcast of clouds was really a thick layer of smoke in the atmosphere blocking out the sun most all of the time – just like a cloudy day. And, it lasted our entire trip, through all 3 countries. The only break we got was a bit of clearing one afternoon while we were cruising on Ha Long Bay. But other than that, smoke, smoke, smoke. Most of the time outside of Hanoi and especially in Laos and Cambodia, the smoke layer was at ground level causing all manner of discomfort and respiratory issues. One member of our tour group had to go to the hospital for repertory issues and by the end of the trip pretty much everyone had some sort of a cough and general malaise. While on the cruise ship on the Mekong many times I stole a cloth dinner napkin, soaked it in water and wore it over my nose and mouth like a bandit. And on many days we just retreated to our cabin (the cabins had AC) so we could breathe some filtered air for a while.
Of course the smoke on some days was better than others but it was there throughout our trip. I think our time on the Mekong in Laos had the worst smoke. On some days it seemed you could barely see the other side of the river. But, as you’ll be seeing, thanks to some computer tricks I was able to “dehaze” a decent number of images taken on some of the less smoky days. And, on more than one occasion, at sunset the smoke filled air produced some wonderful gold light.
Smoke on Mekong River in Laos (unedited photo)
So much for photographing lush green jungle hills
Smokey sunset light on the Mekong
Ba Vi National Park
As we deliberately arrived in SE Asia a few days prior to the start of our guided tour, and as our tour only included Hanoi and Ha Long bay in Vietnam we decided to hire a guide to take us to some places outside the city. Not knowing where to go and as we had a guide, car, and driver for a full day we left it up to them.
Although I photographed quite a bit from the car during the drive, our first real stop was at Ba Vi National Park which is 30 miles west of Hanoi. Evidently in the high season this 26,700 acre park is very popular with the locals as it is in the Ba Vi mountain range making it much cooler than Hanoi in the summer. There are 3 mountain peaks in the park with the tallest being 4,200 ft. high. The park is mostly lush jungle and tropical rainforest with the peaks obscured in clouds and fog most of the time. Although in terms of mountains in the western half of the USA, 4,200 ft. is barely a foothill, but in North Vietnam it is a grand mountain range.
In the lower reaches of the park is a resort-spa and although we didn’t see it, there is a bird garden and an orchid garden. We were a bit off season so the resort was not in operation, however one can see the buildings and pools which are packed with folks escaping the heat of the city during the hot season.
Fog shrouded road near Spa Resort
On the top of one of the Ba Vi Mountain peaks is a temple dedicated to the mountain god. After parking one is faced with two set of steps escalating up into the clouds in opposite directions, each through their own stone gate. To the left the steps lead to the top of one of the peaks that has been developed into a shrine or monument to Ho Chi Minh. The equally steep steps in the other direction lead up to a religious temple on the top of one of the other peaks.
We took the second set of steps that lead to the temple. I didn’t count the steps up to the temple but it is said to take about a 30-40 minutes to get to the temple. So, of course it took me well over an hour. These are very uneven stone steps with random step heights as well as random tread depth, all covered with damp from the fog and many with a slippery coating of moss. And the whole affair is ensconced in a lush tropical rain forest boasting every shade of green imaginable. After being unceremoniously passed on the stairs by very polite 90 year old ladies carrying heavy baskets laden with offerings of food for the gods I finally made it to the temple. Ellen decided that half way up was enough for her and made use of a convenient bench to relax till I returned.
Huffing and puffing I eventually made it to the temple. It is said to be near the summit but with the fog I could not see the actual top of the mountain. However I did see a continuation of the stairs going on up the mountain and disappearing into the fog. I don’t know what is at the actual top but was informed by our guide that the temple we were at was the real deal and there really wasn’t much at the top other than a view which would be useless on a foggy day.
The temple itself is sort of just stuck onto the side of the mountain. Part of it may be wedged into a cave but much of it is jutting out into space on stilts. As with most temples in Vietnam, the main room is where people come to pray and leave their offerings of food and cash. However, unlike most temples this one is not full of gold statuary. I don’t know why but it is the way it is. In addition to the somewhat simple temple interior, one thing I did find quite interesting was the intricate dragon carvings along all the roof lines.
Gate to the temple at the bottom of the steps, near the parking lot
Thuong Ba Vi Hanoi Temple
The main room of the temple
Intricate carvings along rooflines
Older woman coming up the stairs as I stood panting on the side
Duong Lam Village
On our way back to Hanoi we made a couple of stops. One was at a very non tourist rural village called Duong Lam. Duong Lam seems to be an area consisting of a cluster of neighborhoods (almost separate villages), many of which are called Duong Lam. Our visit took us to one particularly old such section which is a UNESCO World Heritage site where the people live much like they did in older times – if one ignores the motor scooters.
There were no gift shops, only one restaurant we could detect (because we ate there) which was out behind someone’s house, no hotels, and not even any stores I could see although I suspect that some of the houses doubled as stores for the locals. But with the doors closed and no signs you pretty much need to live in the village to know which house sells what goods. I believe there is another section of town, not included in the UNESCO site, where one can find stores and such, but in the section we visited, there were none. In other words, it looked much like it might have centuries ago.
This section of the village has a main roadway that zig-zags through the area and is wide enough for two cars to barely scrape by each other. About half the other streets are barely wide enough for one car and the rest are too skinny even for one car. But, as most people drive motor scooters these narrow gaps between houses work just fine.
As we have come to discover in many of the older parts of the world, the visual focus of houses is many times inward and not outward. In other words, the street facing side of houses are literally right at the edge of the road or sidewalk have very few, if any, windows and what windows there are are usually closed off with heavy wooden shutters. However, if you get a glimpse inside you will usually find a central courtyard which many times have lush gardens, statuary and fountains. Most of the windows look in on this courtyard. Doung Lam follows this pattern. Along the streets are just blank walls broken from time to time by a door or shuttered window. But even in such villages, many times the houses along the main streets are much more varied and inviting. Duong Lam has a mix of both.
One street had plants in the front of some houses, each house has a unique façade and color, and many had windows facing the street. But then again, other streets were just blank walls facing the street.
Duong Lam street with varied and more inviting facades
A more typical back street in Duong Lam
Even though many of the residents commute into Hanoi the tenor of the area is more old school than urban. I wouldn’t say it is rural as the buildings are tightly packed but they are all one story and most of the residents fend for themselves rather than working for larger businesses or companies.
After walking through several back streets and watching a fellow walk his water buffalo down the avenue we came to a nice wall with an opening. Our guide led us into the arched opening that led into a lovely courtyard of a well kept house. On the other side of the courtyard we entered the house right into a quite busy kitchen full of hustle and bustle. Past a stove with bubbling pots, around a table full of produce stalled in mid cutting and out through a curtain of hanging beads into a good size dining room which was really just an enclosed patio.
The dining room was set up for tour groups and consisted of long wooden tables with benches. Each table could seat about 8 to 10 on a side and about half of them were in use. As our little party was just myself and Ellen as our guide and driver ate on their own (I think that is a requirement) we got a table of our own. We didn’t order anything, food just started coming. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Some was not bad, some was a mystery, some just did not suit our western tastes and some was pretty good.
After lunch we exited the dining room through a lovely garden. Why we didn’t enter this way as opposed to through the kitchen is but one of many mysteries we encountered on this trip. The garden area had seating for small groups and on the other side of the courtyard was another, more formal eating room with fine crafted, dark stained woodwork carved in elegant designs as well as upholstered benches and ornate cabinets. This room was obviously not for riff raff like us.
Then as a crowning touch, sitting on the ground in the courtyard just outside the big open French doors of the high class room sat large metal and plastic colanders full of just washed dishes drying in the sun.
Man walking his Water Buffalo down the street
Young boy watching us pass by from the doorway of his house
Formal room in the restaurant
Lunch dishes drying in the sun
As one might expect, Vietnam is mostly an agricultural based economy. In the Red River Valley (sounds like a song lyric) where Hanoi is, as well as the Mekong delta, rice is the predominant and most important crop. The entire countryside is covered with rice paddies with a small village interspersed every 4 or 5 miles. Other crops in the country include sugarcane, cassava, corn, sweet potatoes, and nuts. One thing though that is common throughout agricultural Vietnam is that the methods of farming have not changed in a thousand years. It is still purely a manual process but with the aid of a Water Buffalo for plowing. The planting, cultivating, harvesting and field preparation is all still done manually by family members wearing iconic conical hats and on small family owned plots of farmland.
On the way to tend the rice field
Blowing in the wind
As one drives around, another very common site is small cemeteries. Unlike the western world where large cemetery’s serve entire communities or are associated with a church; in Vietnam burying the dead is a family affair. Each family has their own small cemetery which is usually just plunked down in the middle of one of their rice paddies.
While the specifics of a burial in Vietnam depend on wealth and status there are some universal practices that cross those lines. First of all, being such a hot and humid climate, burial is done pretty quickly after death. Sometimes they’ll pack the body in sand and douse it with perfume in order to postpone the burial but even this can’t last too long before the problem makes itself know to those nearby.
Funerals are a time when entire extended families converge to show respects and even though everyone doesn’t stay around for the whole affair, the post burial rituals last for a year. For the first 7 weeks, there is a memorial service every 7 days. Following that period, on the 100th day after death there is a larger service and yet another one at the one year anniversary.
As the climate is so wet and water table so high, grave sites are usually on raised areas or mounds of dirt and many times the bodies are put in small structures to keep them dry. Although I didn’t find any reference to this on the Internet, our tour guide told us that traditionally the little buildings we see are built one year after death. Before then, the body is placed in a casket and just buried in the ground. Then as part of the 1 year ceremony, the body is dug up, whatever remains is removed from the bones and reburied and just the bones are placed in the little buildings. I don’t know if that is true or not, but even with the short stature of the population, those buildings are not long enough to have a body laid out horizontally. So, maybe that story is true and they only contain the bones.
In the western world we’re used to seeing graveyards neatly laid out in parallel rows of graves. However, in Vietnam the positioning of the graves seems haphazard and random. The little buildings just seem to be scattered around. Well, ancient custom tells that the direction these little buildings face is important to the well being of the deceased and is based on the month in which they were born. In addition, who they are buried near determines who they will associate with in the afterlife. So, it is important that they be near loved ones (typically immediate family) and not so near more removed family members, especially if they hadn’t gotten along very well. So, to the casual observer, the placement of these graves looks random but in fact is very carefully determined.
A typical extended family cemetery
A more geometrical, and well kept, family cemetery by the side of the road
As one should assume, Vietnam is made up of a few cities but mostly rural villages. And, like most of the world, each village is typically centered on some sort of temple. Some are quite prosperous, well kept and quite lovely and some less so.
What has also happened is that as cities like Hanoi have grown, they have overtaken many of these smaller villages. But, even if they are now just part of the suburbs of Hanoi or Saigon many still cling to their village identity and feel more village like than suburbs like. On our full day outing with a hired guide, we stopped in one such area called Chua Thay and its Chua Oong Dau Temple.
This temple sits at the edge of a small lake and is quite picturesque. Many trees have grown around the lake and temple and it sits next to a tall hill or ridge putting it in afternoon shade that keeps it nice and cool. It was quite inviting. The shady street in front of the temple is colorfully decorated with hanging lanterns. The street along the side of the temple squeezes down to one lane between the temple wall and the side of a cliff rising above the village. This narrow section is covered with an arbor sort of structure complete with dangling vines and which is also decorated with lavish lanterns and oversize artificial flower decorations. I don’t know if the decorations were put up for a special event or are always there, but they sure did make for a lovely, colorful and serene scene.
The temple itself was also quite lovely. There was a ceremony going on during our visit so we didn’t venture into the main room but did look in through the big doors that opened out onto a covered walkway and along the side of the building and then onto a courtyard.
Street in front of the temple
Street alongside the temple
Walkway by the side of the main worship room
Buddha's in Chua Oong Dau temple, Chua Thay near Hanoi, Viet Nam
I hope you enjoyed reading about our SE Asia trip to North Vietnam and will come back for the rest of this journey.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website.
https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/se-asia-2018-03 (all images)
https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/se-asia-favs-2018-03 (subset of images)
Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, tour guides and pamphlets gathered at various sites along the way along with attraction websites)
Keywords: Ba Vi National Park, Blog, Chua Oong Dau Temple, Chua Thay, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogSEAsia, Duong Lam Village, Hanoi Area, Rice Field Burning, SE Asia Smoke, Smokey Air in Vietnam, Thuong Ba Vi Hanoi Temple, Vietnam, Vietnam Cemeteries, Vietnam Funeral Ritual
Dan, you are a masterful story teller and a great photographer. I love your humorous
approach to some of the travails on this trip.
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