|The sight of music: Members of the singing club study lyrics in the front hall of the pagoda. The quiet venue offers inspiration for children during the summer. — VNS Photo Linh Chi
Free classes at a pagoda in the surburbs of Ha Noi give children a chance to learn and enjoy the arts. Duc Hanh reports.
We live in Ngu Hiep Commune, 30 minutes drive from downtown Ha Noi, near an ancient pagoda named Hung Phuc, meaning prosperity and blessings. The pagoda has been a place of worship for local people for nearly one thousand years.
On the first full moon of the lunar calendar, people go to the pagoda to pay their respects to Buddha, and enjoy the beautiful scenery and tranquility of the adjacent garden and lotus pond.
This summer, the tranquility has been broken, but in a good way, by the sound of music and over 200 youngsters people who are attending summer art and music classes.
Started by Most Venerable Thich Thanh Phuong, the programme called "Dao trang Thanh thieu nien Phat tu" (Movement of Young Buddhists) has drawn together children aged from 8 to 17 years old from the surrounding area who are learning how to play the keyboard, photography, painting, cooking and martial arts.
According to records, the Hung Phuc Pagoda was built by two princesses from the Ly dynasty. They asked their father to grant them land to the south of Thang Long Citadel because the site was sacred, the scenery was beautiful and the people were kind.
The princesses set up a small temple to live the simple life of Buddhists, but seeing the people were so poor, they gave all their money and gold to them so they could find new arable land, plant mulberry trees, raise silkworms and promote the craft of weaving.
|Celebrating: The classes wrap up with a festival. — Photo Nguyen Long
They also taught the people to make traditional food such as square glutinous rice cakes. They even taught villagers to weave big baskets that are still used today.
The pagoda is home to 17 royal edicts from Viet Nam's different dynasties, and many beautiful wooden carvings that are true gems of the country's ancient arts.
Only 13km south of the Ha Noi Railway Station, the Hung Phuc Pagoda is an ideal destination for a Sunday outing.
"We are in the time of urbanisation and playgrounds for children have become scarce. We've opened these summer classes to provide young people in the neighbourhood a place to learn, work on their strengths and stay away from temptation," said master monk Thich Thanh Phuong.
The classes are paid for by the pagoda, so they are free for students.
|First sketches: A young girl draws a Buddha statue. — VNS Photo Tu Quyen
Students can enroll in any subjects they like.
"Each student takes two or three classes, with two sessions a class per week.
"For all the classes, we invite the best teachers from Ha Noi to teach."
Looking at the young children walking to classes in their light green Buddhist uniforms, it brought my thoughts back to ancient times.
When I shared my thoughts with the master monk, he said: "In the old days, the pagodas were all learning facilities for the people. Even young princes and princesses used to study at the pagodas."
Vietnamese heroes such as King Le Dai Hanh, who defeated the Song invaders and placated the Champa; King Ly Thai To, who made Thang Long Citadel the capital of the Great Viet's kingdom; and General Ly Thuong Kiet, won the famed battle of Nhu Nguyet River, all studied at pagodas when they were children.
Today, the Government is opening schools all over the country, but during the summer, there are few places for children to go.
This summer, the Hung Phuc Pagoda has given them somewhere to go and learn, and last week, a party was held to celebrate the end of the course for the children and their parents.
A small exhibition of paintings and photographs was held in the inner yard to mark the event, and the bright colours and bold strokes lit up the party.
Quang Tuan, who teaches the photography class, said: "The children learn techniques very quickly, and the cameras supplied by the pagoda are all new and very good.
"They don't have to go far to capture a good shot of children in other classes, the lotus pond in front of the pagoda or the rice fields a little further from the gate," Tuan said.
In the arts class, painter Pham Hoang Van teaches them to draw the beautiful wooden carvings in the pagoda and the lotus lowers that float in the pond.
"I was surprised by the paintings because they show the fresh and naiïve look children have on the world around them," he said.
As we walked further into the pagoda, we saw martial arts students dressed in black uniforms performing movements that were well rehearsed and synchronised.
English students sang songs in English and acted in a comedy show. Their acting was so good everyone laughed.
|End of term show: Teacher monk Most Venerable Thich Thanh Phuong reviews the final artwork of the youths. — VNS Photo Que Chi
Walking over to the flower arranging class, to our surprise, we were offered a beautiful bouquet. Thuy Vinh who teaches the class said: "I've never taught anywhere like this before. The children are really talented, and all I can say is this is wonderful."
When you look around to see the proud faces of the parents who have come here to witness the growth of their children, you don't have to look far.
Chi Linh, who has a motorbike repair shop near the pagoda, said: "If the monks didn't open the classes during the summer, our children would not have this opportunity to learn. We are very busy all day, and even if we had the time, we wouldn't know how to teach these things to our kids.
|Going vegetarian: Young people also learn to make food from simple vegetables. — VNS Photo Linh Chi
"The Children's Palace in Ha Noi is too far away, and space is limited. Looking at what our kids did today, my wife and I are very happy!
"It is a blessing for the children to learn in an ancient pagoda with green trees and dedicated teachers from Ha Noi."
"The dream I've had for many years has come true," Most Venerable Thich Thanh Phuong the master monk said.
"Tomorrow the children will go back to school, but the classes in pagoda will continue at the weekends. I hope that parents will continue to send their children here. My wish is to continue these classes for your and your children's children," he said. — VNS