Sue Fleming heads 20km out of Hanoi to Kim Lan and meets a self-taught village elder who has been instrumental in getting the village in touch with its past. Photos by Julie Vola. Translation by Nguyen Ha Linh
Nguyen Viet Hong has spent the majority of his 79 years in the small rural village of Kim Lan in Gia Lam, a district of Hanoi. But his depth of knowledge and love of learning belie his modest rural life.
With a warm and welcoming smile, Nguyen Viet Hong takes us into his home. We sit around a table in a traditional wooden Vietnamese family house, drinking tea and listening to Hong’s lively voice recount the story of his life. What had brought us to Kim Lan village, about 20km south-east of Hanoi, was an interest in ceramics, but the story of Hong’s life is far more than a story about ancient pottery.
Unusual items are hung on the walls of the room: a display of old coins; a photocopy of a hand-drawn map from 1497, showing Hanoi and the surrounding area, including Kim Lan, Bat Trang and the Red River; hand written parallel sentences in Han Chinese script on either side of the altar; photographs of a smartly-dressed Hong at official gatherings. Through a side door we glimpse a mini museum. Its glass cabinets are crowded with pieces of delicate pottery, ancient building tiles and clay artifacts. We ask Hong how all these are linked to his life.
Smiling, Hong jumps up from the table and returns a few minutes later with a collection of coins mounted on a board and a thick book tucked under his arm. We look in amazement at the coins. The inscriptions are clear — some are Chinese, many from the Tang dynasty, and others are Vietnamese from as early as the 10th century. Hong opens the thick tome, written in Chinese, with information on early Chinese coins.
“Because of my love of history I am fascinated by these coins,” he explains. “They were discovered in Kim Lan. With my knowledge of Chinese, and the help of a dictionary, I was able read about them.”
The most recent coins are dated 1008.
Hong brings out another book from the cupboard under the family altar. There are photographs of excavations, of pieces of pottery and many of Hong with a man called Nishi. How is this all connected to him?
“As a child I picked up pieces of pottery from the riverbank, but had not thought they were anything special. Many years later I began to look carefully at these shards and realised that they were not new. The designs and glazes are different to the ones used now. So I collected more pieces from the riverbank, where flooding had eroded the soil.”
On his retirement Hong joined up with four other amateur archaeologists in the village to form a community archaeological project — Tim Ve Coi Nguon (Tracing the Origins). By the year 2000, the group felt confident enough about their discoveries to write to the Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi. The institute, along with the Vietnam History Museum, excavated and found pottery artifacts dating back to 7th century.
Who was Nishi and how did he fit into the story?
“Nishimura Masanari was a young Japanese archaeologist working in Vietnam,” says Hong. “He came with his Japanese wife and their two children to live in Kim Lan while Nishi was working on his thesis.”
Together with Hong they began to do some research and became both colleagues and firm friends. When Nishimura died in an accident in 2013, he was buried in the village.
Before Nishimura’s death, he and Hong had achieved their dream for the village — a museum. Here 300 exhibits are displayed, many of them discovered and donated by Hong. Hong proudly shows us around and points out the photograph of himself and his wife, and another of Nishimura.
We listen to these stories but want to know more about Hong himself.
Born in 1936, he was the first boy after seven sisters. Being the eldest son of a respected family that had been in the village for many generations gave him responsibilities. However, Hong’s special place in his village is not only due to his birth; it comes from his achievements.
Hong has a profound knowledge of the ancient history of Vietnam. He acquired this knowledge by being able to read in four languages — Vietnamese, Chinese, French and Russian. All his life he has studied, but only attended formal schooling as a young boy at a small school in the village dinh (community temple). Here he was taught in French. After three years, his father enrolled him with a Chinese teacher, but a few months later this teacher passed away. At the age of fifteen, Hong married and again studied Chinese and Han Nom (ancient Vietnamese), with his father-in-law as his teacher. He showed us the dedication that he wrote in nom at the time of his marriage.
As a young man, Hong worked for a short time at a Hanoi printing house. This gave him the opportunity to extend his knowledge of languages and history; he learnt to read and write in Vietnamese and studied books in French and Chinese. Later he learnt Russian by reading novels and listening to the radio.
Hong’s eyes twinkle as he talks about his time in Hanoi. I ask him what had impressed him most.
“I was fascinated by the city, by the cosmopolitan atmosphere, the food, the books and the bicycles,” he recalls. “I rented a bike by the hour to teach himself to ride.”
On returning to Kim Lan in 1954, Hong became a Vietnamese teacher but, needing a steady income to support his family, he got a job at a ceramics factory in Bat Trang. He worked there until his retirement. This began his interest in pottery, an interest that has continued to this day.
Hong shows us some of the pieces he has collected — many more are now in the History Museum in Hanoi or the village museum. Attached to the family house is a pottery workshop with a traditional, coal-fired kiln where Hong still works with his son and daughter-in-law.
Listening to Hong, watching him read and explain the Chinese inscriptions in the coin book and on the parallel sentences (which he had inscribed) on the gateway of the dinh, it is difficult to believe that he did not attend a prestigious school and university. His deep knowledge of history, archaeology and pottery has instead been acquired through a lifelong process of self-teaching and learning.
Inscriptions on the gates of the dinh speak of Kim Lan as an important place because of its ceramic skills and the number of scholars that have come from the village. Hong is the modern-day link to that tradition.
The historical importance of the ceramic village of Kim Lan is not widely known and yet this place is easily accessible from Hanoi. In lanes along the Red River, small family establishments with their own coal-fired kilns are busily involved in the production of ceramics.
Kim Lan’s long history has been pieced together through archaeological and historical research. In AD865, the Chinese general, Cao Bien, was sent to administer Vietnam, known then as La Thanh. The general returned to China but two soldiers remained to establish a settlement. This was when the village of Kim Lan was born. Although Cao Bien was a Chinese general, he is remembered because of the industry and wealth that he brought to the village. There is a statue of him in the dinh. The parallel sentences on the gates speak of him.
It is believed that Kim Lan predated neighbouring Bat Trang and may have been the earliest place in Vietnam to produce ceramics. In 1010, when Ly Thai To, king of the newly independent Vietnam, established his citadel at Thang Long (now Hanoi), the village supplied ceramics to the royal capital.
But ceramics from Kim Lan went much further than Hanoi. Excavations in the village by the Vietnam Institute of Archaeology, Vietnam History Museum and a Japanese archeological group, found pieces that matched those found in Japan and Korea, showing that high quality ceramics were exported overseas from Kim Lan in the 13th and 14th centuries.
In 1996, after floods eroded the banks of the Red River, three pots (each weighing 18kg) of ancient Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese coins were discovered in Kim Lan. Most were from the China’s Tang dynasty but some were minted much earlier. Why these coins were buried is a mystery, but they show that Kim Lan was once a wealthy village and its people travelled and traded extensively.
In 2013, the first community museum in Vietnam opened in Kim Lan. It was built with funds raised by the community and by Nishimura Masanari, the Japanese archaeologist who spent 13 years living and researching there.
Kim Lan still has the atmosphere of a traditional village. Buddhist nuns care for the peaceful pagoda, and the dinh is an important community building. The Catholic church has a stunning French tile floor. In the busy market, the people are welcoming.
Visiting Kim Lan
To get to Kim Lan village, jump on the 47B bus and travel to the last stop. Alternatively, cross over Chuong Duong Bridge and drive south on the dyke road. Pass the turning to the Eco Park on your left and the turning to Bat Trang on your right. Cross the canal, turn right and drive for about 2km. The museum is open at weekends.
A note of thanks to the interpreter for this article, Nguyen Ha Linh. This piece was only possible thanks to her translation skills. Linh is a student at Hanoi University. She is studying Chinese and wants to become a scholar and researcher.