Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin, Asia, Bắc Ninh, Buddhism, Ceramics, Chùa Dâu, Chùa Linh Am, China, Dong Kinh Co Nhạc, France, Hanoi, Hanoi New Music Ensemble, Ho Chi MInh, Minh Dam Quang, Provence, Vietnam, Vietnamese Cuisine, Vu Nhat Tan
Culture neither survives nor advances by accident. Decades of violent rupture does not bode well for continuity. In the case of Việt Nam, it takes people dedicated to renaissance to find out about the past after decades of turbulent experience. What our friends here are faced with gives the definition of the word contradiction a whole new vocabulary.
My wife and I weren’t totally clear on the significance of a text from our friends Bông Hoa and Vũ Nhật Tân. “Minh and us want to take you to a village in Bắc Ninh to the oldest ceramics maker area in Việt Nam.” Sounded innocent enough.
I’m not sure if anything is innocent in Việt Nam. There is always a new layer to be uncovered, and for us, never more than on this day.
“We will pick you up at your hotel at 9:30 AM.” Sounded like a normal outing message, but soon the fabric of our day would take shape. We were thrilled that Đàm Quang Minh would join us, for along with Vũ Nhật Tân, he guides the finest ancient Vietnamese music group in the country, the Ancient Music of Tonkin Ensemble, and as a cook works on recovering virtually lost Vietnamese recipes. When everyone arrived, we had a driver, Vũ Hoà, who is himself a well known abstract artist and whose father was the first conductor of a symphony orchestra in Việt Nam. Đàm Quang Minh and Vũ Hoà divide their time between Hà Nội and Paris.
“First, we’re going to take you to the oldest Buddhist temple in Việt Nam, Chùa Dâu. It’s on the way, then we go to lunch in Bắc Ninh and visit our friends,” said Minh, but in French. Layer number one of the day. Fortunately I speak a decent amount of French myself, so we were not faced with a disaster of language confusion!
So now six of us piled into one car, me in the front seat with Vũ Hoà driving, and the back seat a squished sandwich of Minh, Tân, Bông Hoa and Jan. And just so you know I am not a travel writer, I have no idea how they got us where we were going. There is rarely signage in Việt Nam that is of much good once you are off a main road, so it was common that we’d stop, Minh would ask directions, and we’d proceed forward or encircle a few construction detours. So if you’re reading this post you’re lucky – I have no idea how you’d do this without Vietnamese friends with a car, but I am happy to share the experience with you with my blog.
The second layer of the day was about China. No blog, no letter, no essay, no book can begin to cover this topic. In essence there is an inherent contradiction for the Vietnamese. On the one hand there is a monumental historical distrust of the Chinese, which still fills the news with the provocations of Beijing in the South China Sea (and there’s a social media movement to change the name to the South Asia Sea, in case you were curious). But on the other hand, there is a deep, unfathomable respect for Chinese culture, of which there is also a clear and obvious debt in Việt Nam. Many Vietnamese have family origins from China, making relations even more weblike than we can imagine between the two countries. Behind it all is Confucius.
I think an anecdote of Hồ Chí Minh might describe this contradiction better than I can.
After World War II, the issue of how to expatriate millions of Japanese soldiers out of Indochina was a formative discussion in 1945. He was faced with two alternatives, knowing Charles de Gaulle was licking his chops to reclaim France’s empire. Let the Chinese Nationalists expatriate the Japanese or let the French (along with British support) do it, but that allows the French back into their former colony, regaining a clearly ominous foothold in his newly declared nation of Việt Nam. There was no good decision. Like any leader, he had many people advocate against his final answer. But he had a response to his critics that remains a masterpiece of successful messaging.
“None of you remember history,” goes my paraphrase of Uncle Hồ to his detractors. “The last time the Chinese came to Việt Nam they stayed for a few thousand years. To get rid of the Japanese, I’d rather us smell French shit for a few years than Chinese shit for the rest of our lives.”
Uncle Hồ was right. The French were gone in under a decade but the Chinese, either Nationalist or Communist, would never have left. Just look at a map.
And the house at Bắc Ninh? It became a backdrop for a day revealing the true Việt Nam, one that is neither Chinese, nor French, but contains both and yearns to reclaim its heritage ruptured by wars, whether that legacy be rediscovered through ancient music, new music, ancient ceramics or reclaiming farm houses long forgotten. Where does one influence stop, the other begin?
Welcome to the real Việt Nam.
As we entered rice country on the highway, both Jan and I wondered aloud about the double image of North Việt Nam with Provence. The lush green fields are negotiated with tree lined routes that, instead of an iconic man wearing a beret on a bicycle with a baguette in his basket, are animated with iconic Vietnamese women on bicycles with their highly effective rice field hats shielding the sun. Swap one for the other and you’ll hopefully understand the blur of cultures. Around each bend in the road we easily expected to see vineyards.
Vũ Hoà parked the car at the beginning of a narrow path. No restaurant had been seen for miles, no business, just farms and then houses clustered together. Our friends told us the clusters were an ancient communal decision made to allow for more land for crops and livestock. The earth was rich with a deep red color, almost like our American Southwest, so it was easy to understand the promise of visiting one of the oldest ceramicist in the country. The ancient earthen walls had a golden hue.
Đàm Quang Minh explained to me that the farm houses in the area were beginning to be preserved, rather than bulldozed under the false notion of destructive progress. I would find a French concept in the designs, but the construction was Vietnamese, so Minh assured me we weren’t visiting an old colonial plantation type house à la the film Indochine. But for a quick comparison, take a look at this stone work in Beaujolais, France and followed by another photo from our pathway in Bắc Ninh, Việt Nam.
After about a 10 to 15 minute walk along these walls we turned slightly right, and were met by this entrance, decorated beautifully with ceramic images. Jan and I knew we were close to our destination. I’ll now use a photo gallery to transport you this rice country home in Bắc Ninh, North Việt Nam.
Jan and I had imagined we were headed to a village, a street perhaps, with little shops and vendors hawking ceramics. But we realized the delightful seriousness of visiting this home, the owners being good friends of Đàm Quang Minh, who if you recall I introduced as a co-director, with Vũ Nhật Tân, of the most significant ensemble devoted to ancient Vietnamese music, the Ancient Music of Tonkin Ensemble or Đông Kinh Cổ Nhạc. Laying the groundwork for working together between the ancient musicians and the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble was the background discussion of Bắc Ninh.
If we had turned around right at this moment, our journey would have been fantastic. But it was time to enter the house, which Minh guided us to do so that we could visit the ceramic studio of the family. I’ll let the photos continue the narrative again.
After we had taken quite a bit of time deciding on what would best fit our needs as a keepsake to bring back home, we continued touring the house and the surrounding gardens. Behind all of this delight was the background of reclaiming Vietnamese ways of life. Vũ Nhật Tân kept saying to us “this is the real Việt Nam of old ways. Minh and I dream we will bring ancient music here, combine with new music, technology, in wonderful projects over the years. This is the Việt Nam that is not France, is not China, but has learned from them.”
As we left the ceramic studio, we entered into a small narrow courtyard with moss covering the stone floor, and views of the second story.
Vũ Nhật Tân then wanted to show us around the house, to go a little ways behind to see a secondary home belonging to neighbors. The idea of communal living, clustering living arrangements was adopted in ancient times to allow for more farm land and grazing for livestock, so there was a systemic communism to Confucian etiquette. And Confucius remains an undeniable link with China, as Confucianism still infuses the ethics of Việt Nam.
And so it was time for a communal lunch. I’ve come to understand that the style here is to present the entire meal at once. No concern for a hot supper, or even a hot soup, or a hot plate of anything. What is much more important is the bounty of the table, the freedom of choice between dishes is up to you. Finishing your plate is an idea you should leave in the West, as I’ve observed that the amount you eat is not essential (but as the guest you’d better stock up, nonetheless!).
Food is communally shared. You don’t get a plate with your portion. There is no progression between dishes, like there is a global sense of grammatical time, rather than our Western grammatical division of past, present and future. Verbs are not conjugated and meals are not presented in courses with a hierarchy behind the progression. If you don’t like one dish, OK. In the West, you have to finish your plate. Not here.
Minh and I had bonded pretty quickly when we met in Hà Nội last October at a dress rehearsal in the new Old Quarter Cultural Center for his Ancient Music of Tonkin Ensemble. Tân had quickly introduced us, but Minh later appeared offering us a shot of his own brew of rice spirit. This stuff often approaches hard core alcohol and not much else, which, at least for me, is good for getting drunk but not for anything worth savoring.
Never fear, for along with reclaiming ancient Vietnamese music (Bắc Ninh is renowned for its vocalists), Minh also researches lost dishes and their recipes. And remember, he spends half of his year in Paris, a city with a somewhat positive reputation for cuisine, if my memory serves me well. Remembering that I had adored his liqueur the day we met, Minh produced the coup de grace for us to savor with lunch, what I dubbed the “Vietnamese Armagnac” to roars of laughter around the table! Not to mention how good his liqueur went with the Vietnamese olives.
Of course we have more meetings planned to discuss the dreams of ancient and new music for Việt Nam while we are here until early November. Of the best way to integrate a strategy connecting mutual friends in Paris to the cause. Of what type of project to consider, what moves first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and this being Việt Nam, all the way to the luckiest number for a ninth move! All these discussions are behind the scenes now and a few years away, but when they go past the planning stages, you’ll hear about them, rest assured. Who knows, there might even be a festival in Bắc Ninh someday. Dreams are good!
Were we finished for the day?
Not on your life! Before we headed back to Hà Nội, there was one more stop. A new Buddhist temple to bookend our day that started with the oldest Buddhist temple in Việt Nam. We set off in our sandwich mobile with Vũ Hoà assuming the tireless role as our Vietnamese Parisian taxi cab driver.
I’ll continue the story soon with a new post about these ancient and new Buddhist temples, a perfect symbol for our day discussing ancient and new music for Việt Nam.
Best, best, best,