Saturday, May 10, 2008

Day Three in Vietnam: 15 May

Hanoi Ninh Binh
AM: Travel to Phat Diem (~150km), visit Phat Diem Stone Church in the morning.
Back to Ninh Binh town for lunch
PM: Sampan rowing trip along Ngo Dong river.

A very long bus trip today, on some pretty bumpy roads. Our destination, Phat Diem Stone church, is actually part of a large complex including several shrines as well as the cathedral.

During the French ocupation, this area became heavily Catholicized, and the Cathedral itself dates to 1891. Built of massive greyish-black stone, it is an imposing and somewhat ominous edifice. On the weekday we visited, it was pretty much deserted except for a few other tourists and a couple of beggars at the gate, and a group of Vietnamese women who either wanted me to buy their their babie or (more likely) subsidize their maintenance. The church is massive, weighty, and except for the ornate altarpiece, very simple in style. Massive wooden columns hold up the vaulted ceiling, and plain benches and kneelers fill the church. We entered from the sides, which open up to allow in light (a good idea--I did not see any electric lights on inside the church.

The main idea I got from the church is the fusion of Christianity with Vietnamese culture. Although the Mdonna and Child--indeed, virtually all the statues (Peter, Paul, the four Evangelists) were all depicted with western features, nonetheless the architecture itself is an interesting mix of western and eastern. I'll try to post some pictures tomorrow as I manage to download them onto Ken's computer.

After luch we went to the Ngo Ding River for a sampan (small rowboat) trip through the three grottos on the river. We all climbed into the boats, which were rowed by the local women (indeed, Vietnamese women seem to do the lion's share of all the hard work here!). Some of them are able to row with their feet--an impressive accomplisment and a logical one considering female anatomy). Kenm, who speaks pretty good Vietnamese, chats with our rower, and we both lend a paddle. The grottos are large hollows in the limestone rock above the river, and in places are so low that one needs to watch one's head to prevent decapitation. At the midway point schools of vendor-sampans converge on us for the big sell: drinks, fresh fruit, candy...and encourage you to buy refreshments for the rowers as well.

I am reminded of that scene in Apocalypse Now when they are journeying down the river, but this is quite a different atmosphere. For one, there are no hostile locals (there will be later when the tips are not what they expect, but that is proleptic) and the scenery is lush but not overgrown. On the way back our rower brings out what she acknowledges herself is the main moneymaker for her: hand-embroidered tablecloths and other linens. We (or Ken, rather) haggle for a while, and then let the matter rest, then discuss it a bit more, he wants a tablecloth for his wife, and I want a gift for my aunt Jane-Ann in Georgia.
By the end of the ride all parties are satisfied, and I have in the bargain a lovely small spring-green pillowcase to fill with lavendar as a sachet.

Not all the others have such a good experience: their rowers are quite aggressive in their request for tips and make their disappointment very plain. Although it can be offputting, when one is objective it's is hard to fault them: what seems to us like pocket money is an entire day's wage or more to them and they have come to look upon Westerners as their bread and butter...

On the long trip back I once again find the endless lines of small shops on each side of the road fasicnating. How many com pho shops can one kilometer support? Ten? Twenty? How do they make a living???

We arrive home road-weary and when we got off the bus I find I am still moving up and down from the hours of motion. In our room it is difficult to stay awake long enough to jot down some notes from the day without nodding off.

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