If you are ever in doubt that your small gestures actually make a difference, then the road to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc in the Ninh Binh province of Vietnam will reassure you. For a day of spirituality and finding happiness by focusing on the happiness of others, it’s best begun at 8am with a private tour. Our first stop was a souvenir shop where we witnessed that you don’t need grand gestures to make an impact.
But it was no ordinary souvenir shop. This modest brick building with a corrugated iron ceiling is home to a charitable foundation, where clothes, ornaments, bags and paintings are made, displayed and sold, all in one place. The creators were severally disabled as a consequence of the Vietnam War, reminding us that the effects of nerve agent and bombs were visible not only in those who lived during the war from 1968 to 1975, but for their offspring too. But despite disabilities, they worked meticulously and proudly on weaving cushions and bags and producing other works of art in the shop.
I watched them for a while and then wandered over to the clothes to see what else they had made. Amidst the colourful selection of handbags on display, my gaze zoomed in on a red shoulder bag with intricate beadwork of black flowers on either side. It had a unique handmade quality and feel which is hard to find on the high street so I bought it for my sister to brighten her daily commute.
I walked over to the till to pay for the bag when a large sign with the words “Do small things & big supports”, caught my eye. The sign drove home that I was not just buying a beautiful bag, I was supporting a disadvantaged, yet hard working group of people. And the smile on the cashier’s face showed it.
After visiting the shop, we drove away towards our ultimate destination: a harbour alongside a river in Xa Ninh Hai, where a rowing boat waited to take us for an adventure on peacefully still waters. A small Vietnamese girl rowed us down the river, using the strength in her feet to manouvre the two oars while her smart phone occupied her hands. We passed small brick houses along the river side and sailed further on the river.
Within a few moments our gentle meander was accompanied by the rhythmic knocking of the ores against the side of the boat. The sound was similar to that of a train rocking from side to side, easing its passengers into a state of relaxation. Amidst the stillness, I focused softly on the serene and endless water, with no other distractions apart limestone mountains and luscious foliage. I relished the moment and the accompanying slowing of the heartbeat. It was a brief escape from the pace of the life that I know and a perspective of how things could and should be.
After the languorous boat ride, we dined on goat meat and steamed rice for lunch. According to our tour guide, the former is good for fertility and sperm quality. By this logic, he said, it also brings happiness – or blissful happiness – otherwise known as Hahn Phuc.
After this Hahn Phuc meal we visited another Hahn Phuc place: the ancient temples of Truong Yen from the Dinh Dynasty (968 -980). Inside the temple foods were laid on the shrine and incense burned to welcome and adore the Gods and the spirit of Dinh Bo Linh, emperor and founder of the second Vietnamese dynasty. The intensely spiritual place gave me a feeling that a higher being was watching over us.
From one peaceful place we went to another, a small harbour on Xa Ninh Xuan River, where a paddle boat waited for us. We paddled out onto the emerald waters, which welcomed us with their tranquility. With my focus on the still waters I again felt at peace as we navigated past towering limestone citadels and my focus anchored softly on the green eternity before me. The simple yet dramatic beauty of the salubrious surroundings left us with a sense of what it’s like to be truly present in the moment.
The journey to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc started with “Doing small things and big supports”, and ended utopia. And by tuning in, I found a moment of Hahn Phuc, where calm and inner piece are within reach. I just have to close my eyes and picture it.