Pedaling some virtues

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There is much to be said for cycling through rice fields and soaking in the atmosphere of Duong Lam a rural, unspoilt commune in Hanoi

 Foreign tourists in Duong Lam Commune, home to centuries old houses and other structures / PHOTOS: PHONG LAN

We contemplated a day of leisure with real excitement as we gathered at around 6 a.m. in front of the Vietnam University of Commerce in Hanoi's Cau Giay District.

It was a sunny day, and my friends and I were about to go on a bicycle tour to Duong Lam Commune, which is more than 50 kilometers from Hanoi's center.

We set off at high speed along the newly-renovated National Road 32, as though in a tearing hurry to get away from the city's noise and dust.

Once rice fields showed up on either side of the road, we slowed down automatically, gratefully breathing in the fresh air that has become a rarity in the heart of the capital as well as its surroundings.

After pedaling for more than an hour, we reached Son Tay Commune, where restaurants along the road were opening to sell breakfast. 

One of us, who knows Son Tay well, took us to a restaurant that sells bún (rice vermicelli) and bánh cuốn (rolled rice cake) eaten with chả (grilled pork meat served in sweet-sour sauce).

He said the food here was the best of its kind in the neighborhood. We did not find anything to dispute his assertion, and enjoyed our breakfast thoroughly.

During the short break after the breakfast, we had bánh tẻ - rice cake stuffed with minced pork and eaten with nưá»›c mắm (fish sauce). It is a traditional cake in the northern region, and the one we ate was made by the dish's most famous makers residents of the 19th-century village of Phu Nhi in Son Tay Commune.

About an hour later, we resumed our trip, and when we were several kilometers from Duong Lam, green rice fields appeared again on the road's sides.

The fields looked vast and endless, but before long, Duong Lam's gate came into view.

We did not head to the gate immediately, but spent time enjoying fresh tea and peanut candy bars at a stall under a giant banyan tree nearby.

We looked around, taking in the traditional landscape of the northern countryside that surrounded us. For how much longer would such beautiful, serene vistas remain, we wondered. Banyan trees in the middle of vast rice fields, traditional wells in front of ancient village gates.

The giant gate opened to small brick-paved roads running behind ancient houses. Laterite brick walls were covered with moss. Locally known as Ä‘á ong, laterite is a kind of soil in tropical and subtropical regions that has been used in construction by Vietnamese people for a long, long time.

One resident told us that around 45 houses in Duong Lam are built with wood and laterite bricks dating back several centuries. 

At the houses of Ha Nguyen Huyen and Nguyen Van Hung, considered the biggest and most beautiful in Duong Lam, we were told stories about the commune's history and its people's lives.

We learnt that the residents of Duong Lam were mainly farmers and soy sauce producers. This explained the presence of numerous big jars in the front yards of many houses. The soya sauce jars were exposed to the sun for between two and six months, we were told.

Later, we spent about an hour wandering through several of Duong Lam's nine villages and taking photographs. The commune is home to ancient temples and communal houses that have been attracting many tourists over the last several years.

Mong Phu Village's communal house, for instance, is believed to have been built toward the end of the Le Dynasty that ruled the country between 1428 and 1788. Experts say it is typical of northern countryside culture and architecture. 

For lunch, we returned to Hung's house, where the family has organized an eatery in the front yard to serve tourists. Since the space is quite small, the hosts restrict the number of tourists, and require advanced reservation.

That day we were served with dishes made from local produce: boiled gà mía (a chicken species native to Duong Lam), boiled morning glory eaten with soy sauce, thịt kho tàu (braised pork and eggs), canh cua rau Ä‘ay mưá»›p (soup with potherbs, ground freshwater crabs and Vietnamese gourd), and cà pháo muối (salted small, round eggplant).

Everything was simple and delicious.

We were full, but that did not stop us from enjoying the native desserts: bánh tẻ, chè lam (sticky rice cake with molasses and ginger), and fresh tea.

We left Duong Lam at 4 p.m. for Hanoi, carrying the commune's specialties - soya sauce, chè lam and peanut candy bars as souvenirs for our families and friends.

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