Old Vietnam is alive and well at one of the country's most sacred pagodas
Clay statues depict 18 Arhats (Buddhist monks post-enlightenment) at Chuong Pagoda
Chuong Pagoda, the centerpiece of Vietnam's largest port in the 17th and 18th centuries, still stands as a tall reminder of Vietnam's not so distant past: a time of spirituality, tradition and simple beauty.
Still the most scenic spot in the former town of Pho Hien, now a part of the town of Hung Yen, the pagoda has lost none of its historic allure.
Pho Hien was once the north's premier port city and a vibrant commercial and cultural melting pot of Vietnamese and foreign peoples. It was second only to the capital city of Thang Long (now Hanoi) in terms of commercial activity.
Today, visitors to Hung Yen can see the unique historical and cultural remains of the past at Chuong (Bell) Pagoda.
Built in the 15th century under the Le Dynasty, the pagoda was then restored in 1707 in the architectural style of the post-Le period.
The pagoda's name came from a legend:
In the days of myths and folk tales, a golden bell drifted to the shore of the Red River in Nhan Duc Village during a flood and when the waters receded it began to sink in the mud.
Throngs of residents of neighboring villages rushed to Nhan Duc to save the bell but they could not make it budge, it was too heavy.
Eventually a group of Nhan Duc villagers were able to take the bell home. Believing they had been granted the charm by God, the villagers then built a pagoda to worship the bell, whose toll could be heard for miles around.
Also known as Kim Chung Tu (Golden Bell Pagoda), the religious complex was built with meticulous attention to detail.
After entering the Cong tam quan (three-entrance gate), which has eight roofs, visitors cross a stone bridge over a lotus pond. The bridge will lead them to a brick patio made of bricks from Hanoi's famous Bat Trang handicraft village.
Walking across the stone walkway in the middle of the patio is like walking through time. The path leads to a courtyard in front of the sanctuary compound. The bell tower and altar house, where local residents worship their ancestors, follow next
HOW TO GET THERE
- Chuong Pagoda is located in Nhan Duc Village, Hien Nam Ward, Hung Yen Town, Hung Yen Province, 64 kilometers south-east from Hanoi.
- From Hanoi, tourists can take buses 205, 208, or 209 from the Luong Yen and Giap Bat bus stations to get to the pagoda.
- They can also book private buses at Hanoi's Gia Lam bus station for the trip.
- Another way is to travel by boat on the Hanoi Pho Hien route from the Red River tourism wharf.
Cong tam quan (Three-entrance gate) at Chuong Pagoda in the northern province of Hung Yen
The pagoda, recognized as a National Architectural Relic by the government in 1992, has many carved Buddha statues, including the Tam The (three Buddhas of the Past, Present and Future), A-di-da (Amitabha), and four Bo-tat (Bodhisattvas).
Next is a startling wood relief depicting the Thap Dien Diem Vuong (Ten Courts Managed by the 10 Kings of Hell).
In it, sinners are depicted serving out punishments for their crimes: some are being dumped into a cauldron of boiling oil; others are having their tongues cut out.
But the Thap bat La Han (18 Arhats), made of clay, are much more peaceful. Each one depicts a wise monk expressing a different attitude.
The Arhats are Buddhists who have achieved full spiritual fulfillment. They have reached "Nirvana," the state of absolute freedom from worldly cravings, and thus they are no longer subject to reincarnation.
Tourists can go up to the bell tower before contemplating a stele which dates back to 1711, built under the reign of King Le Du Tong. On the stele is engraved a picture of Pho Hien and the city of Thang Long.
The stele helped researchers locate the commercial road that once connected Pho Hien and Thang Long. It used to pass right by the Chuong Pagoda gate. The map also helped historians locate the borders of Pho Hien's original 20 wards
The mad hatters of Chuong Village
Chuong Village has been the home of Vietnam's famous non la (conical leaf hat) for centuries.
The small village, around 30 kilometers from downtown Hanoi, is often crowded with people buying non la and also watching local craftswomen make it.
The village's Non Market is open from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., six times a month, on the 4th, 10th, 14th, 20th, 24th, and 30th days of the lunar calendar.
Most non la are made from palm leaves. The leaf is cleaned with sand before being left in the sun to whiten. It is then evened by a blade.
The hat makers of Chuong Village, all women, then place the leaves over a frame made of bamboo circles. The leaves are tied into place with string and sewn from top to bottom. The excess leaves are then trimmed. Strong sewing makes the most durable hats.
Finally, to make the hat whiter and protect it from mold, the hats are singed with burning matches.