Posted by: sharemore1 | December 3, 2012

12th Century Pagodas and 21st Century People

Buddha and Choco Pies_2099

Offerings to Buddha: Fruit and Choco Pies

A week of Teachers’ Day celebrations culminated in a road trip with Hanoi University of Science faculty.  We travelled to Bac Giang Province, about 40 kilometers north of Hanoi, to visit pagodas from the 12th century and earlier.

Jeans and Keens_2120

Jeans and Keens

As we reached our first pagoda, I wondered if I would be admitted.  The posted rules required that visitors be civilized, elegant, well-dressed and “speak in a timorous way.”  I was quite sure that my jeans and Keens did not meet the criteria. Uncertain about my dress, I must have projected a lack of confidence that allowed me to pass the timorous test.  No one stopped me.

As much as I enjoyed visiting the pagodas and imagining what life was like when the local king and monks brought Buddhist teachings to the hilly countryside, what caught my eye were the people we encountered along the way.  A few seemed to belong more to the 19th century than the 21st.

Along with the faculty, two thoroughly modern young children were on our trip.  Although they were certainly well dressed, they didn’t seem to have gotten the message about being timorous.  They ran around boisterously, curious about everything.  The little boy especially enjoyed an exhibit of ancient weapons.

Girl in Purple Hoodie

Girl in Fuscia Hoodie

Boy in Knit Cap_2110

Curious Boy

While the boy examined the spears, I watched the workers—a habit from my occupational safety and health days.  One man seemed able to squat forever as he applied mortar to a brick wall he was building.  We would call this an awkward posture (it certainly would be for me), but he seemed comfortable.  Nearby, a woman shoveled sand into a wheelbarrow while the men looked on.  It is not unusual for Vietnamese women to have physically demanding jobs.

Brick Layer

Brick Layer

Woman Construction Worker

Woman Construction Worker

Our lunch stop was at a restaurant in one of the villages.  After climbing three flights of stairs, we saw the food laid out on two rows of tables a few inches off the floor.  As the Vietnamese faculty took their places and sat cross-legged on the floor, my husband Moshe realized that his knees wouldn’t bend that way.   He immediately went in search of a chair and brought back two low stools, which he stacked one on top of the other to lift himself off the floor.

Seated for Lunch

Seated for Lunch

After lunch we wandered around the village.  We poked our heads in at the local equivalent of a mini-mart, which sold gas, tomatoes, eggs and snacks.   I hope it’s only motorbikes, and not tourist buses, that try to fill their tanks at the miniature, 4-liter pump.  In a scene out of the 19th century, a man led his young buffalo hitched to a cartload of wood down the main road.

Mini Mart

Mini Mart

Buffalo Cart

Buffalo Cart

A young woman pushed her rusty blue bicycle up a hill, a high stack of cardboard secured to the back.   She wore a conical hat and the typical facemask women wear to protect themselves both from pollution and the sun.  She had ridden her bicycle through the village to collect discarded paper she could recycle for a few dollars a day.   As we caught each other’s eye, I wondered if she were as curious about my life as I was about hers.

Recycling Cardboard

Recycling Cardboard

Our next stop was an erstwhile waterfall that had been damned to block even a trickle of water from pouring over the rocks.  There we spied a young bride and groom having their pictures taken.  In Viet Nam young couples like to have photographs taken in their wedding finery at historic and natural sites.   After seeing many such photo shoots, I’ve often wondered whether couples have to send their clothes to the dry cleaners before their wedding day.  We could see that this bride wore jeans under her wedding dress as she clamored over the rocks.

Bride and Groom

Bride and Groom

Elderly (meaning even older than I am) women  often welcomed us to pagodas.  One woman folded her tiny self into a tiny space as she squatted and shuffled papers at the entrance.   Another woman grinned broadly as we entered her pagoda.  Her colorful clothes—peach, magenta, blue, orange and black—contrasted with her striking black teeth.  When she was growing up, young girls lacquered their teeth with tree resin.  It was applied in layers and later repeated to assure that the dye was very black and permanent.  This was an important cultural practice as well as a fashion statement, like tattoos today.

Working at the Pagoda

Working at the Pagoda

Big Smile, Black Teeth

Big Smile, Black Teeth

With dusk fast approaching we visited Bo Da pagoda, first built in the 11th century during the golden age of Buddhism in Viet Nam.  As we neared the pagoda we heard gongs reverberate through the late afternoon, providing ambient music for a monk chanting his prayers.  Once inside the packed earth walls, we wandered through a maze of rooms, one opening into the next.  Inside was a library of over 2,000 woodblocks that preserve Buddhist teachings.

Bo Da Pagoda

Bo Da Pagoda

Outside the wall was a field of tombs that, like the woodblocks, help document the history of Vietnamese Buddhism.   The stone and brick structures, called stupas in other parts of Asia, contain the ashes of more than 1,000 monks and are inscribed with their names and dates of birth and death.

Field of Tombs

Field of Tombs

This Teachers’ Day trip to rural Viet Nam was a chance for us to become students.  We learned about Buddhist history and culture and got a glimpse of life in the countryside today.


Responses

  1. Beautiful pictures as always!

  2. Hi Sharon –

    Reading this was such a treat – a real visit to another world!! I’m surprised you passed the “timorous test.” Maybe the wardrobe anxiety paid off…but I think, looking at those healthy and beautiful (and lively, I’m sure) children, there’s a slightly different interpretation than our first reading. (Well, you know all this!)

    The pictures were so down to earth, and the setting so exotic…a great post!

    XX Laura

    Date: Tue, 4 Dec 2012 04:05:29 +0000 To: lauragalvin@hotmail.com


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