Vietnam is filled with villages racing to modernize by tearing down their old buildings and replacing them with modern ones as fast as they can, but there are still places where visitors can see what a traditional Vietnamese village looked like 100 years ago. One of those places is Duong Lam, an ancient village made up of five hamlets that are preserving many of their historic buildings.
Exploring the past at Duong Lam Ancient Village
Enter this ancient village through the Mong Phu gate, which was last rebuilt in 1833.
(Duong Lam once had four gates, but Mong Phu is the only one that still remains.)
Although officially within the village, the area just inside the gate still looks rural, with rice fields and lotus ponds on either side.
Wander laterite alleys
There are also yards where freshly cut laterite blocks are being set out to dry.
Laterite describes a range of compressed soils and soft rock that can easily be cut into blocks when wet, but that becomes firm when dried. In the past, laterite was one of the most common building materials used here and in much of Southeast Asia. In Duong Lam it was widely used to build fences, house walls, and other structures.
While in days past laterite would have been the dominant building material (along with wood), over time a mix of materials have been used to maintain and repair the ancient village’s historic walls and buildings.
Most of Duong Lam seems to be a maze of narrow alleys lined with laterite and brick walls. There are a few architectural details around gates and windows, but these alleys are utilitarian spaces – the ancient village’s architecture gems are largely hidden behind simple doors set into the laterite walls.
Visit ancient wooden homes
Slip through one to be transported to another world where colorful courtyards are surrounded by traditional wooden houses built as far back as 400 years ago or fanciful French colonial facades from more recent decades.
Of course, once you have entered, you may well be invited to sit down for green tea and sweet bars of Che Lam (a type of rice cake) by an older woman dressed in traditional clothing.
While eating in the beautiful porch of this ancient wooden home, it’s easy to see that her own dining area and kitchen are basic and unexpectedly modern.
And this is what is wonderful about wandering the maze of streets and alleys that make up the bulk of Duong Lam’s hamlets – not only do you get a close look at rare historic homes, but you get to meet the owners and get a glimpse of their lives.
All while enjoying tea and snacks.
Another doorway might lead to an ancient wooden house along a sunny courtyard filled with jars of bean paste made by the family.
Here lunch is served in a separate building, but visitors are free to explore the main room of the several-hundred-years-old house, where beautifully carved ceilings tower over traditional furniture and family altars.
Another gate leads to a shady courtyard draped with hanging vines.
Food and tea are available here too, but it’s ok just to tour the beautiful ancient house.
While it would be pleasant enough to spend all day poking into courtyards, looking at houses, and drinking tea with the hospitable families who live here, there are other things to see in Duong Lam.
In the heart of one of Duong Lam’s ancient hamlets
Leaving behind the narrow alleys, larger streets lead to the commercial and spiritual center of each hamlet.
It’s harvest season and every open space – including the courtyard in front of the historic Mong Phu communal house – is being used to dry crops.
(Communal houses are the community centers of Vietnamese villages, as they combine a place of worship dedicated to a national leader or highly regarded local ancestor with a public gathering space for ceremonies and festivals.)
There are other places of worship in Duong Lam as well, one of the most well-known of which is Mia Pagoda.
Mia Pagoda is a very old place of worship that is famous for the number, variety, and quality of its statues.
Tranquility reigns at Ngo Quyen temple
Ngo Quyen temple is also in Duong Lam, although in a more rural part of the village.
Ngo Quyen led the fight to free Vietnam from 1000 years of Chinese rule and became king in 939. But he is also a local hero, as he was born in Duong Lam, and his tomb is located here as well.
It’s a link to an even more distant era in the history of Duong Lam village.
Duong Lam is located about an hour out of Hanoi, making it an easy day trip. Tours can be arranged in Hanoi or adventurous travelers can venture out on their own. There are a few guest houses in and around the village, but they are very limited in number, so plan ahead if you want to stay overnight.
A guide is not required to visit Duong Lam, but it is recommended, as the village is a maze of similar-looking streets, it’s often not clear where entrances are located, almost no one speaks English, and there is very little information available in English. Lunch can and should be booked in advance, as on quiet days few places will serve food and on busy days every place may be fully booked.
Some residents will offer tea just because they want to meet people from other places, but for most it is a way to support themselves and pay for the upkeep of their home, so either a fee will be charged or a tip will be expected.
The local tour company Duonglam Ecotourism has the most information on the village that I’ve found. (I have no idea how they are as a tour company.)
This post is linked to travel stories from around the world at the Budget Travelers Sandbox.