“I just need to get out of the city sometimes,” is a near constant refrain you hear from those living in Hanoi. The capital has a tendency to fry people, leaving them discombobulated and in need of a mental recharge. This all begs the question, where? There are plenty of options in the region that you can reach in between one and a few hours, be it the tourist hotspot of Haiphong, the mountain retreat of Bavi, the laid back paddy fields of Mai Chau, the gorgeous mountains of Ninh Binh or the exotic hill tribes of Sapa. But for those wanting to try something more unique, a curious but seemingly little-visited option is Duong Lam ‘Ancient Village’ an 80 minute drive northwest of Hanoi.
A day here allows you to take in a collection of surreal hamlets that are hard to accurately describe. A lazy copy writer will tell you it is a place to ‘step back in time’ though the term ancient is arguably a bit of a stretch. You are not going to see any pyramids or stone henges here, although there are a fair few homes here with wonderful courtyards that are over 300 years old. Now that, though not exactly ancient, is pretty old. Many of these are so well looked after that five years ago the village was given a UNESCO award for conservation — quite the bauble.
The ‘ancient’ claim comes from the fact that people did live in the area over 1,000 years ago, hence the grand title. In fact two Vietnamese kings, Phung Hung (761-802) and Ngo Quyen (896-944), are said to have been born here. Many of Vietnam’s tourist websites will tell you Duong Lam is Vietnam’s oldest village, but such claims are best taken with a few hefty lines of salt.
On Chào‘s visit alone, we were offered three babies to hold, had tea with a hundred-year-old woman with black teeth who insisted we eat lots of her homemade betel nuts, had a local toddler sing us Happy Birthday, and drank beer all evening with a gaggle of touchy-feely middle aged men.
Duong Lam itself is an unusual visual mishmash that is hard to place: one minute it feels like you are walking through a film studio of an old village, the next you feel like you are walking like through a first-person shooter video game, albeit without the zombies or guns. At least, we think there weren’t any zombies or guns. Who knows? At other times the village feels just plain charming. There are old oriental courtyards, tattered pagodas, and even a handsome early 20th century Catholic Church. We even found an old teashop where you can pet (ok, look at) a couple of caged alligators. As mentioned, it is a weird kind of place.
For those eager to tick off their“Things to See and Do” list, there is not that much going on in Duong Lam. It is better enjoyed just strolling around and taking in the curious atmosphere. One of the unusual features is that many of the grander restored houses have people living in them, so you are never quite sure if you are walking into a museum exhibit or someone’s house. It is a curious game of roulette when you do not know if you have just strolled into a tourist attraction or someone’s house. This is compounded by the fact that you might then be invited to sit down and have some snacks and tea. It is a curious game of roulette when you do not if you have just been invited into someone’s house or a café. But that is Duong Lam.
The villager are so friendly in Duong Lam that it is borderline bizarre, and it is well worth visiting simply for that. On Chào‘s visit alone, we were offered three babies to hold, had tea with a hundred-year-old woman with black teeth who insisted we eat lots of her homemade betel nuts, had a local toddler sing us Happy Birthday, and drank beer all evening with a gaggle of touchy-feely middle aged men. This was all done through a considerable language barrier, though it never seemed to matter. In fact, we had such fun in the village that we booked ourselves into a homestay for the evening, where we were made noodles at 2 a.m. despite the kitchen being long closed.
Photography enthusiasts, as well as generally-friendly types, will also love the village. There are antique wooden doors, crumbling walls, laterite brickwork, old wells, detailed carpentered features and abandoned miniature temples absolutely everywhere, an instagrammer’s wet dream.
But before you set off on your bike be warned: despite being less than an hour and a half drive from Hanoi, Duong Lam is tough to find. Chào , as we occasionally do, got lost trying to find it and ended up in a field of roaming buffalo about 10 km away. Thanks, Google Maps.
In one of the more unusual recommendations Chào has made, we should say that it does not matter too much if you never make it to Duong Lam Ancient Village because there is not much to do here. Yet at the same time you absolutely must go, so unique are its charms. We recommend going on a week day if possible as there will be next to no tourists, and at times it will feels like you have the whole place to yourself.
Tips for getting there: A taxi will be able to take you there in about 80 minutes flat (about 450,000 VND), but Chào found a motorbike ride a great way to take in the local streets and scenery. Aside from being a village Duong Lam is actually a much wider area, so for those using online maps you want to head to the bustling town of Son Tay, of which the village is just on the outside.