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Red River bank collector pieces history together

Update: June, 20/2011 - 19:19

Memorabilia: Hong shows his collection of ancient coins from the seventh to the 15th century. — File Photo
by Minh Thu

For decades, the image of an old man picking up broken pieces of ceramics on the sandy bank of the Red River has been a familiar sight for people in Ha Noi's Gia Lam District. In that time, many have said they considered Nguyen Viet Hong as a "nerdy"man who had nothing to do but idle away his retirement.

It wasn't until the Viet Nam Institute of Archaeology and the Vietnamese Government recognised the ceramic pieces he has collected as national legacies that people began to understand the value of his long and quiet work.

Knocking on Hong's door just as he and his wife finished their final batch of pottery on a Friday afternoon we found ourselves almost dazed by hundreds of ceramic and porcelain pots, bowls, plates and vases.

Hong led us to the bustling Kim Thuong wharf on the Red River. He is quite familiar with the site because he has spent his afternoons here for years in search of ancient relics.

"Sometimes it's just not fair. Had the river been consolidated, many more precious Kim Lan relics would have been saved from the flow," he says.

He proudly shares that he has collected enough ancient coins to fill dozens of jars and thousands of ancient ceramic and porcelain fragments from the 11th century. All were collected along the river.

He also walks us through his small museum, a 30sq.m room filled with ceramic and porcelain legacies spanning the length of the region's history: the Duong Dynasty in eighth and ninth centuries, the Tran Dynasty in the 14th century to the Le and Mac dynasties in the sixteenth century.

His vocation as a collector came to Hong as a surprising coincidence. In 1996 he overheard one of his nephews talking about some of the neighbourhood kids who had found a jar full of bronze coins while swimming in the river and exchanged it for candy. Hong felt nostalgic for the ancient relics and decided to find the jar. As he looked at the rusty coins, he realised that they dated back thousands, even tens of thousands of years. He laughed happily as tears of joy fell from his eyes in front of the strange stares of other villagers. Since then, the village children know they can exchange the pottery fragments or coins they find along the river for money to buy candy. He has explained the deeper historic value of each of the fragments to the children. Day after day, he follows the footsteps of the children to the river, his "archaeological team" of Kim Lan Village. Bystanders can watch the grey-haired old man and a small flood of kids chattering behind him.

An understanding of Chinese and decades of experience making ceramics has provided him the foundation he needs to understand that the relics are a priceless legacy from the past. At first he thought of his collection as a hobby but gradually Hong came to understand the great significance to not only his home land of Kim Lan but the nation of Viet Nam.

"Many cultures have been built in the land of Viet Nam in the process of its formation and development. In the metal era alone there was the Dong Son culture in the north, the Sa Huynh culture in the centre and the Dong Nai culture in the south," Hong explains. "The Dong Son culture in the north is symbolised by its ceramic and bronze relics. Studies have proven the close development of Southeast Asia and southern China through these relics."

Hong says that several foreign visitors have offered to buy the relics at prices he could only dream of. But he always refuses.

"The antiques I own are extremely priceless. And the work I have been doing helps to fill the missing pages of history in my home land of Kim Lan, and more significantly, our nation," says Hong.

He shares that aside from seeking answers through his pottery fragments, his dream is to clarify the history of his beloved village which has been covered by the dust of time. "Where does the name of our village come from and what does it mean?" "How did our village ancestors live and develop in the flow of national history?"

Those questions have haunted Hong for years and he fully understands that they cannot be answered in a day or two. To that end he began looking for historic documents, and relics in temple and shrines to study.

He proudly shows off the precious legacies he has found: a document from 1472 showing that doctor Nguyen Binh gave his village the gift of a Buddha statue like the one in Phat Tich Pagoda in northern Bac Ninh Province, and hundreds of ancient coins that can be traced through multiple dynasties.

Following the footsteps of relics, Hong is on his way to finding the roots of his homeland. He already knows his village has existed for 12 centuries.

The agile 72-year-old man, who has great love for his hometown, does not ask for certificates, money or recognition. Being able to fill in the empty pages of his loving land's history is already the best reward. — VNS

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