Every now and then, we all stumble upon a place which serves as a reminder of why we chose to live in Vietnam.
Tho Ha is one of those places. A tiny, ancient village located in Bac Giang, right on the border with Bac Ninh, it would be easy to overlook on a map.
Only 35km northeast of Hanoi, it is one of the most charming, warm and fascinating villages in northern Vietnam.
Getting to Tho Ha is as easy as pronouncing it, and once out of Long Bien, most of the route is on one straight road, which for the most part, has three lanes and fresh tarmac.
Much of the journey goes through a series of towns and villages, so this is far from an “off the beaten track” trip; you will never be too far away from a petrol station, repair shop or source of nuoc mia (sugarcane juice).
Our first stop is Bac Ninh Town, Tho Ha’s bigger neighbour. We scout a star- shaped formation on the map, right in the middle of the town.
Thanh co Bac Ninh, a citadel which imposes itself on the surrounding area, has hundreds of gleaming reviews online, and we can’t wait to check it out.
As we approach the front gate, a guard lifts a hand from his AK-47, signalling for us to halt. “Stop!” he declares, in clear English. “No photos!” Our Vietnamese companion finds out that the army has moved into the citadel, and turned it into offices and barracks. The guard says it may reopen to the public next year.
Lady of the Storehouse
All is not lost, however, as Bac Ninh is also the home of Ba Chua Kho Temple, one of the most important temples in northern Vietnam.
Located adjacent to Dong Tram Lake, it sits on the northeast edge of the town.
Ba Chua Kho is a goddess known as the Lady of the Storehouse, who according to legend, cultivated the wild fields around Bac Ninh, and took care of food stocks during conflicts with the Tong Dynasty.
On the 14th day of the first lunar month, the temple holds a festival in her honour, where symbolic money is borrowed from her, and worshipers pray for prosperity.
Ba Chua Kho Temple is awash with symbolism, so expect to see lots of frogs, fish and bats. There’s a good mix of ancient and modern areas of worship here, and even a resident turtle living in the waters around an ornate bonsai tree.
Rice Paper Families
The final stop is Tho Ha Village. After alighting from the rusty ferry across the Cau River, we are told to head up the nameless alley to the left, in search of families who make rice paper and banh da; the two exports Tho Ha has been known for since 1990.
Before long, we find what we’re looking for; the rice paper sheets, mounted on racks of bamboo, are drying up against the walls, on rooftops and above the alleyways.
“We’ve been in this business for 20 years,” says Nguyen Thi Mai, head of one rice paper family. “We have around 1,000 bamboo racks, and only six people working here.”
That’s not including their kids, of course, who start helping out when they are just five years old.
“The whole process takes 24 hours,” explains Mai, “from the long wet sheets of rice paper, to the dry papers cut into shape.”
Before leaving her home, we buy some freshly cut papers; only VND8,000 for a stack of 50.
The whole village is a maze of metre-wide alleyways and charming shophouses, and we are invited to stop for tea on more than one occasion.
There’s an ancient community hall and the obligatory pagoda, but the real charm of this town is in its peaceful nature and its people.
Take Long Bien Bridge out of the city, and follow Ngoc Thuy/Gia Thuong until you cross Duong Bridge. From here, follow the road straight, through Tu Son, until you hit Bac Ninh Town.
Tho Ha is northwest of the town, nestled in a meander of the Cau River. Take the DT286 highway out of Bac Ninh; once you reach Duong De Street, look out for the Cau River ferry crossing on your right; it’s just before Co Bo Temple. Ferry tickets are VND10,000 per motorbike.
Photos by Teigue John Blokpoel