The elderly visit the Tra Phuong Pagoda
In the Red River Delta, it is practically de rigueur for every commune to have at least one pagoda, so these places of worship are to be found in the thousands.
Standing out amidst this multitude is the 1,000-year-old Tra Phuong Pagoda in Tra Phuong Village, Thuy Huong Commune in Hai Phong City's Kien Thuy District.
Thich Quang Man, head of the pagoda, is agile at over 90 years of age, of sound mind and a walking dictionary on Buddhism as well as the coastal area of Hai Phong.
I have had several conversations with him and he has told me many things about the history and other salient features of the pagoda.
He said that the pagoda was built early in the 11th century (1010-1020). At first, it was called Ba Danh Pagoda and it was situated in an isolated, "high area", surrounded by many trees. The description brought to mind a verse by the late poet Yen Do: "In the past, pagodas were among trees and rocks, monks were among the clouds."
In fact, the Ba Danh Pagoda was so quiet that it inspired a saying that has lasted until today - Vắng như Chùa Bà Đanh (As quiet as Ba Danh Pagoda). The saying has actually expanded its connotations. It is also used to describe a business establishment (movie or a restaurant) that is frequented by very few customers.
The oldest objects at Ba Danh Pagoda now are three very heavy looking rock columns with elaborate designs and decorations typical of religious architecture popular during the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225).
It's a pity that the pagoda is disrepair and these three invaluable vestiges, 10 centuries old, are exposed to the elements. When I expressed concern that they could be stolen, Ngo Trong Thang, a man who helps with the work at the pagoda, said it was a holy place and nobody would dare to touch those objects.
I am still concerned because thieves had stolen some precious statuettes at the pagoda in the 1990s.
A few centuries after it was built, the pagoda underwent a change when Mac Dang Dung was crowned king in 1527. It is said that he took shelter in the pagoda and survived deadly events when he was young, so when he ascended the throne, he had it renovated and its name changed to Thien Phuc, meaning "good luck from God."
A stone lotus flower of the Ly Dynasty found at the Tra Phuong Pagoda
From Nui Doi Town of Kien Thuy District, go west for about three kilometers along District Road 402 before you arrive in Thuy Huong Commune. The pagoda is to the northwest of Tra Phuong Village. It stands on an area of about six hectares. On the way back to town, you can drop by the village market and buy things at lower prices than at the district or city markets.
However, the main improvements to the pagoda were actually made by Queen mother Vu Thi Ngoc Toan who hailed from Tra Phuong Village. One old folk ditty went: "Co Trai emperor, Tra Phuong princess." (King Mac Dang Dung was a native of Co Trai Village, just a few miles from Tra Phuong).
The renovation to the Ba Danh Pagoda was recorded in an inscription on a rock stele in 1562. It mentioned that pagoda was moved to a new place about 200m from its original location. The old location is where the Thuy Huong High School stands today. To this day, teachers and students occasionally dig up some old objects at the school campus.
The great pagoda soon became a Buddhist hub for the eastern region (now Hai Duong Province and Hai Phong City). Historical documents say the bell at Thien Phuc Pagoda could be heard hundreds of kilometers away. Buddhist scholars often delivered lectures at the pagoda and the place was always crowded with followers on the 15th day of every lunar month and during other religious events.
When the Mac Dynasty came to an end in 1592, warriors of the succeeding Le-Trinh Dynasty destroyed many of the architectural structures that marked the previous dynasty and Thien Phuc Pagoda was among their victims.
This began a long period of turbulence and problems of the pagoda until the early 20th century when it was restored to make it look like what it is today by Ngo Thi Dinh, who lived in the village. She was the wife of the director of the Phu Lien Weather Station.
In 2007, the Ministry of Culture and Information recognized Tra Phuong Pagoda as a national architectural and cultural relic.
The pagoda is built in the shape of the letter T with five frontal and three rear sections. The columns, beams, joists, wooden altars and other decorative objects were elaborately designed. They look bright and strong even after withstanding harsh weather conditions for hundreds of years.
There are a dozen old statues of Buddhist monks in the center of the main hall. To the right and left are two statues of King Mac Dang Dung and Queen Vu Thi Ngoc Toan. The two rock statues are not very large, but researchers consider them rare sculptures of the Mac Dynasty.
After praying and offering incense in the main hall, visitors should not forget the house of steles and tombs of the monks to the left of the entrance. There are two steles that tell the whole story about the construction, repair and restoration of the pagoda from the Ly Dynasty to the Mac Dynasty and later.
In front of the house of steles, two rock crocodiles can be found under big trees hundreds of years old. The designs and sculpting techniques of the two crocodiles are typical of the 16th century.
Locals say the statue of the Queen is very holy. They say "good-hearted people" can make their wishes here and have them come true.