Cu Da and neighbouring village Khuc Thuy lies some 35 kilometres southeast of Hanoi. A mere one hour road journey and yet seemingly a step back in time away from the growing metropolis that Hanoi is set to become. Cu Da and Khuc Thuy are two of the only three such ancient villages still left in Hanoi’s vicinity, the third being the recognised, and more frequented, Duong Lam village in Son Tay province.
Cu Da remains a little hard to get to, and hence, for better or worse, has not been affected or influenced by tourism. The road into the village was made for bicycle traffic, not vehicles and even a small car has trouble navigating itself through to the village centre, particularly early in the morning when the local market is in full swing. But once there the visitor is blessed with both a spiritual and commercial atmosphere of life from a bygone era. Indeed, it is fair to say that life here has changed little over the centuries when the town was a bustling centre of trade with ships and boats sailing down the Nhue River carrying goods of rice, salt, cotton and fabric to surrounding towns. The boats may be gone but much of the town still centres on its staple business of producing soy sauce and vermicelli noodles.
The villages have a considerable array of ancient homes, most in a state of disrepair, some constructed during the Le dynasty of 300 years ago and more recently during French occupation primarily from the 1920’s. A stroll along the banks of the Nhue River is a delight for any photographer. Besides the ancient homes and old gated entrances to alleyways, the village is blessed with a number of wonderful pagodas and community halls, all showcasing traditional life with serenity hard to find in the nearby city.
From people coming from market, to prayers in a local pagoda, to labourers busily going about their business of making vermicelli, these small villages provide an array of photographic opportunities. One simply doesn’t have to find it … it all comes to you!
Continue to walk along the banks of the river and through to Khuc Thuy village, which really is an extension of Cu Da, one can find two magnificent pagoda’s at odds against each other. Khuc Thuy pagoda is three hundred years old and filled with history and atmosphere. Whilst there the caretaker of the pagoda told me he was 80 years old, but looked more like 60 (see above image). A short stroll away was Cu Da pagoda, the largest in the area. It had a stunning stone casted façade and is currently undergoing renovation. The final touches were being made to a massive white Buddha at the entrance (see image) which provided a striking focal point, but the actual pagoda itself had fallen prey to ‘over renovation’ and hence took away from the value of its cultural history.
Many of the the homes and businesses of the villages are centered on vermicelli production, with clouds of hot steam seeping out through the doorways and windows testament to that. Once placed on large bamboo mats the vermicelli is then hung out to dry in the village laneways and alleys. By mid morning the whole village walls are almost carpeted in layers of mats until the vermicelli is dry. It is then cut into smaller sections and sent off to wholesale markets in Hanoi. Whilst laborious, the vermicelli production of the village provides a stable, if not healthy, income for its residents.
Although famed for its old world atmosphere and ancient homes, there is a spate of new, unattractive, high rise homes being built almost on top of the older, heritage buildings, thereby destroying the harmony and history of the street scape and its village spirit. As rapid urbanisation approaches, this will prove to be unstoppable, but it does seem the history of the village is dear to the majority of the local populace here and it is hoped that Cu Da and Khuc Thuy villages will be recognised by the central government and tourist bodies as a heritage site well worthy of preservation and to correctly place its importance in Vietnamese culture.
Cu Da is a marvelous place to visit, if only to escape the chaos of the capital and to propel oneself back to a time where community and religious spirit was the backbone of society in rural Vietnam.