For the average tourist, getting lost in the alleys of one of Vietnam’s oldest villages, Duong Lam, probably doesn’t rank high on the to-do list. But there are plenty of reasons why it should.
Located just a smidgen over 50km west of Hanoi, Duong Lam was once the heart of a bustling urban centre, famed for its trade and pottery, and the birthplace of not one but two of Vietnam’s founding kings.
Recognised by UNESCO in 2013 for its restoration efforts, Duong Lam’s centuries-old laterite brick houses, gated archways and paved alleys are a far cry from the concrete and steel leaping out of the ground in the nation’s capital.
Accessible by motorcycle, the fairly comfortable ride to this ancient citadel follows the Red River to the historic town of Son Tay, offering amazing views of rural agricultural landscapes along the way.
Duong Lam isn’t exactly a bustling tourist hot spot, and the foreigners who do visit are whisked through the town from the north, with routine stops made at Duong Lam’s best-known attractions.
These are well worth a look themselves, especially Mong Phu Temple in Mong Phu Hamlet, Mia Pagoda and Ngo Quyen Temple, dedicated to the general who expelled the Chinese from northern Vietnam at the end of the 10th century.
But it is away from Duong Lam’s celebrated attractions that the erstwhile explorer can really uncover the layers of this serene, ancient city.
Starting at the southern end of Duong Lam Village on Doai Giap Road, you’ll soon find yourself navigating a maze of narrow stone alleyways, weaving their way past high walls and wooden doors concealing secret gardens and passageways.
While these parts are rarely seen by tourists, that isn’t to say that visitors aren’t welcome. In fact, quite the opposite.
Our first stop was a house we stumbled upon in the back alley of Cho Mia. The roof was old but fragile, the laterite masonry aged but beautiful. Bike tyres hung suspended under each pillar holding up its dilapidated roof. Then Quang beckoned us in.
The house was 135 years old and had been in Quang’s family for three generations. The decorated army veteran lived with his wife, who told us the town’s prized heritage status had been a double-edged sword. “The house is old and needs work, but we have to get permission to renovate,” she said.
Half-an-hour later we were back on our unguided walkabout, and soon stumbled upon a handsome wooden facade surrounded by high brick walls and emerald vines — the vines completely covering the top of the wall, further hiding it from the outside world.
We knocked and heard footsteps approaching from the other side. An aged face appeared, bewildered by the two foreigners standing and smiling sheepishly. Our translator jumped in to save us, detailing our crusade to see the ancient wooden houses hidden behind the walls. The householder, Binh, then smiled and beckoned us to follow him.
“You’re lucky, not many locals would invite a foreigner inside for tea unless you paid them,” our translator said as we climbed our way through the shutters of the 300-year-old timber house.
“This house has been here since before the French,” said Binh. “Even before my grandparents were born — and it is still standing strong. It even withstood fighting from the war.”
We looked up and admired the dark wooden beams, decorated with photos of airbrushed smiling babies and of a time when Binh and his wife once toiled in the fields as farmers.
Despite being 72 years old and barely clearing five feet, Binh wasn’t short on personality. At one point, he slapped my chest and raised his hand up to my head, questioning the source of my six-foot, two-inch frame.
As we prepared to leave, he showed us his cheeky grin and poured us a second glass of tea. Raising his glass, he said, “A good life is one with tea, adventures, alcohol and beautiful women.”
I say cheers to that, Binh.