Where the wild things grow

Photo of Entry:  Where the wild things grow

After a 40km drive from Hanoi and a long slog up the mountain side, I’m delighted to reach the ruins of Dam pagoda. Found halfway up the mountain, the thousand-year-old pagoda is now overgrown with weeds and bushes. Nature is once again the master of the land.

Walking towards the pagoda I try to picture it as it would have been – once upon a time. No doubt the structure was an imposing one. Large steles with feral looking animal-sculptures still stand tall, if not quite as tall as they once were, at around 5m.

On one pillar two dragons flanking a moon is symbol of Phallus Linga while the surf waves below represents Yoni, the feminine base, both imported motifs from Buddhism in India.


The pillar not only expresses the artistry of the sculptors and profound philosophy of my Vietnamese forefathers. – their aspiration for favourable weather, a prosperous country and reproductive race are evident.


Historically, the pagoda has also been known as Tam Cam pagoda, named after a folk tale about two half sisters,

Tam and Cam, which is sort of a Vietnamese version of Cinderella. After Tam’s mother dies, her father remarries and Cam is born. Tam is the more beautiful of the two sisters, but she’s horribly mistreated by her step mother.


While Cam enjoys a life of leisure, Tam toils under the sun. On the night of a royal banquet, The Goddesss of Mercy – or in some versions Buddha – helps Tam dress up in beautiful clothes, but in her haste she loses a slipper in a river.

The King happens upon the slipper and is so dazzled by its beauty he declares that any maiden at the celebration whose foot fit the slipper would be made his first wife.


Of course, no one’s foot fits, not even Cam’s much to her mother’s chagrin, until Tam arrives in her gown, minus one slipper. A marriage is quickly organised, though no one lives happily ever after just yet, as Tam is killed by the step mother, while Cam is sent to the palace to replace her. To cut a long story short, Tam eventually is reincarnated, while Cam is made into mam Cam – you know like mam tom.

Anyway, Dam pagoda was built in 1086 during the reign of King Ly Nhan Tong on Dam or Dai Lam mountain, the highest peak of Lam Son mountain range.


It was built by order of the Second Queen Mother Linh Nhan (or Y Lan, the infamous imperial concubine).


In her old age, she felt regret for her once nefarious ways – she compelled the First queen mother and 76 other imperial maids to commit suicide, amongst other things – so she built a number of pagodas to ease her troubled mind.

Dam pagoda was so immense it took eight years to complete and covered an area of 8,000sqm. The buildings had their backs to the mountain and were placed on four stone steps along the mountain slope. Each step was made from thousands of carved stones.

To make transporting materials to the construction site easier, a canal named Con Ten (which means Arrow) was built to link the mountain with Duong river.


Legend has it that after finishing the pagoda, seven families living on the foot of mountain were assigned to open and close all the doors.

Besides its harmonious architecture, which of course ticked all the right boxes of feng shui philosophy, Dam pagoda is also well-known for its sculptures which are considered the forerunners of classic Vietnamese sculpture.


But time wears out us all and after a period of neglect, the once opulent building fell to ruin last centruy.


The main building was destroyed in 1946 during the war against the French colonialists,” says Do Thi Quyen, the pagoda’s main caretaker.

A small, spare pagoda was built in the old foundation. Only Quyen lives there now with an allowance of $10 a month.


This paltry sum is merely enough for her to purchase some rice and vegetables. However, the old woman works hard cleaning up the grounds, gardening and clearing weeds and bushes on the old pagoda’s stone walls.
It seems that the weeds are growing too fast for one woman to stop them, but Quyen is an optimist.


“I believe that in the near future, our pagoda will be re-built as big as it was in the past. Monks came here to visit and said they would return here to build a new pagoda,” Quyen says with a smile.

I stand one more time by the pillar with the dragons roaring over the waves. It’s not by chance that a copy of the pillar is displayed in the front yard of the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi. Generations of Vietnamese artists have come here for inspiration and to admire the technique.

I take a seat and watch the sun moving across the landscape. The paddy fields stretch as far as the eye can see. A canal lined with lotus flowers flows towards the river. Old villages with brown tiled roofs sit quietly down the mountainside. The ancient pillar still stands between heaven and earth.

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