VietNamNet Bridge – Hoang Van Ky remembers the dinh (communal house) mostly as a place of festivities, full of laughter and gaiety.
Carving stories: Most of the sculptures in traditional communal houses are of dragons, phoenixes and unicorns.
The 65-year-old native of Thuy Phieu Village in Ba Vi District on the outskirts of the capital city has particularly fond memories of the laughter of children as they wait to see the “living deity” of the Full Moon Festival appear in the sky, and the sounds of joyful music rehearsals held by the village’s women.
The sun was shedding its dimming brilliance over the tranquil landscape of the village when we arrived there one afternoon, curious and excited about visiting what is said to be the oldest communal house in the country.
The traditional communal house in Thuy Phieu, just 30 kilometres west from downtown Ha Noi, took me back to a past I had not personally experienced.
The curved, tiled roof, a big old tree spreading out its branches to embrace the building, a farmer leisurely walking his buffalo on a small path… I knew I was watching life unfold as it had done for hundreds of years in the village.
Hoang Van Ky, the communal house keeper, received us warmly, and took evident pride in guiding and acquainting us with the history of a cultural relic that was the village’s “treasure”.
“Though the functions of dinh have changed over time, it has always been the most important and respected construction in the village,” Ky said.
A few people still visited the communal house to offer incense on the first and 15th day of every lunar month, giving it a sacred aura. On festival days, all villagers still gather here for jointly celebrating the events with folk games and rituals.
Stately: The Thuy Phieu Communal House, the oldest such structure in Viet Nam, is located in Ba Vi District, about 30 kilometres from downtown Ha Noi.
While this dinh is very special, almost every village in the country boasts one, and villagers set up shops by them.
“Dinh is the most important construction in a village. It can be said that it is part of the Vietnamese soul and identity,” said historian Nguyen Hong Kien from the Institute of Archaeology.
While there is no account that documents the time when the dinh first appeared in Viet Nam, there are six communal houses in the country dating back to the 16th century that still exist today. In one of these, the Thuy Phieu communal house, a pillar carries the carving of the year when it was maintained – 1531.
Architect Hoang Dao Cuong, deputy head of the Institute of Conservation of Monuments, said they have used carbon-dating to estimate that the pillar is about 600 years old.
“Given that a property is often restored every 60 years, the house must have been built much earlier than the year carved on the pillar,” said Kien.
“In 1968, during a repair session, locals accidentally found an ancient tile which dating back to 1655. It is now well preserved in this communal house,” said Ky.
There were different variants of dinh in Viet Nam, some of which still stand today. Quan dinh was a structure built in the middle of the rice field, under the shadow of a big tree this was where the farmers rested, ate their lunch after working hard under the scorching weather.
Meanwhile a dich dinh was where foreign delegates rested before they were given an audience with the king. This structure has been mentioned in historical documents and it is said that there is only one such left in the country – in Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh.
A dinh quang van was, as documented in Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu (The Complete History of the Great Viet), the place where king held parties to celebrate the coming of the spring; till Hau Le Dynasty (15th century), it was the place where king’s order was announced.
Piety: Hoang Van Ky, the 64-year-old communal house keeper, worships the village deity.
A dinh that we see nowadays is a structure with three main functions: a place of administrative management, a space for communal activities and a place of worship. Typically, it was constructed with donations of cash and kind (including labour) from every villager.
“With its three functions, dinh is a unique architectural structure of Viet Nam that is not found in other countries,” said Kien.
It is a place to worship the village patron saint, who might be God of Nature (God of Mountain, God of River or Sea), historic characters, or the pioneer who found and cultivated the village.
In some traditional craft villages, the village deity is the one who founded or introduced the craft, and then passed on the skills to other villagers.
The communal house as an administrative venue was a symbol of self-control. This was where disputes, punishments, tax collection or soldier recruitment took place. Under the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), the authorities even had a decree, ordering each village to contribute its money and labour to construct a dinh.
“The authorities, during the Nguyen Dynasty wanted to reach out to the grass-roots levels to do management work. At the beginning, this administrative function was not given much emphasis but it became stronger later in the 19th century,” Kien said.
Mythical: The dragon is a popular decoration in communal houses in Viet Nam. It can be seen in sculptures and bas-reliefs placed on the roof, pillars or beams.
Most importantly, dinh is a centre for cultural activities of the village. The most vivid and important example of it is the annual festival, which is still held today. A festival mostly comprises two parts: rituals and festivities. The rituals are associated with religious practices and customs while festivities include traditional folk games, sports and local art performance. The festival is held mostly after the harvest season, the most popular times being the first and the 8th month of the lunar year.
“The dinh, along with the images of the village’s water well and banian tree, is an iconic symbol of the Vietnamese countryside..,” said Kien.
“The architecture of dinh is simple, refined and Vietnamese. As this is the most important construction of a village, choosing the location for it is important,” said Kien.
The communal house is mostly located in the centre of the village and is very close to villagers’ residences. In front of dinh is usually a water body, well, river, lake or pond. The trees around it are also selected with care: the kapok tree, which symbolises the path leading to the heaven; the banian tree where the soul resides; or frangipani tree, the quintessence of earth.
Traditionally, dinh has a big hall with three compartments and two lean-tos. In the middle is a worshipping hall. The floor of the communal house was divided into different levels for people to sit on according to the hierarchy, when they met together to discuss village affairs in the past.
The roof of dinh is characteristically wide, heavy and sloping downward, giving the whole structure a regal, elegant look.
“Through field trips and research, we have discovered that the roof is often 2/3 of the height of the whole property. And it can be seen that the higher roof, the older the property,” said Cuong.
If a roof is 2/3 the height of the whole property, then it must have been constructed at least before 19th century, said Kien.
“As rain is frequent and the weather is hot in the north of Viet Nam, the roof must be big and sloping downwards the ground. The north has the high humidity climate; if the roof is short, water evaporates quickly, making it very hot inside,” said Kien.
The top edge of the roof is decorated with embossing or perforation patterns, and has two dragons flanking the moon or sun.
The subjects of sculptures in the dinh were mostly dragons, phoenixes, kylins, horses and elephants. There were also carvings that featured humans, but these were rare. Typically, they depicted daily life scenes: a mother embracing her child, people rowing boats, performing acrobatic feats, singing, dancing, and so on.
Traditional architecture: The dinh’s roof is characteristically wide, heavy and sloping downward, giving the whole structure a regal, elegant look.
Despite the rapid urbanisation of the past three decades the dinh still carries out its initial functions, and with the recent attention paid to reviving and preserving traditional culture, these are being reinforced.
But they cannot avoid changes wrought by time, said architect Cuong.
“Conservation of dinh and religious relics face several complex challenges. In the old time, the dinh was built with the support, work and sponsorship of villagers themselves, but it is not easy these days to find sponsors for communal house maintenance.
The increasing gap between urban and rural areas due to urbanisation and economic development has loosened communal ties in modern life, and it has become to find sponsors for a pagoda or a temple rather than a dinh.
A dinh needs around VNĐ10 billion (US$440,000) for restoration and maintenance work. “Given that a village has just several thousand households with limited income, this is not a sum they can afford,” Cuong said.
“As the state fund for conservation of dinh in particular and historical relics in general is limited, we can’t just rely on this source. Calling for individuals and organisations to donate may be a good solution.
“Since the 1990s, the government has attached more importance to repairing and restoring hundreds of relics. Many valuable structures have been saved. This has significant meaning in preserving the heritage of the country. Yet due to poor methods, skills and technique, some structures were not maintained properly and this led to the regretful loss of parts of the relic.
“Most of the heritage relics in Viet Nam are made of timber and there are several complex issues with their maintenance.
“The wood used in these relics is lim (steelwood), which is becoming increasingly scarce today. Besides, the workers that are in charge of maintaining the relics lack skills and knowledge about heritage conservation. Meanwhile, traditional carpentry villages are shrinking and there are very few carpentry artisans left,” said Cuong.
By the end of this year, the Institute of Conservation of Monuments will open a heritage maintenance class for carpentry artisans and add heritage conservation to the curriculum of students in some universities like the Ha Noi University of Architecture and the University of Science and Technology, he said.
The Institute for Conservation of Monuments has published a book called Kien Truc Dinh Lang Viet (Viet Communal House Architecture), featuring research findings and drawings of 15 characteristic communal houses of the north. The book also presents the conditions and conservation orientation for the communal houses.
“When the valuable document reaches the community, it will bring many benefits to conservation work. I expect it to become a solid scientific foundation for better conservation work,” said Cuong, one of the book’s main editors.