The man who guards history

by Thu Anh Do (United Kingdom)

Making a local connection Vietnam


“Why do people call you crazy?” Nam’s dark tan face instantly breaks into a subtle smile as soon as he hears my question. I sense it isn’t the first time. “Because I work here full time, every day, for the last 30 years without any wages.” Nam gestures for me to sit down beside him, on top of this mountain in the Ninh Binh province of north Vietnam. The mountain is not known for its views. I am here because I have some time to spare after a visit to the nearby Trang An, a beautiful place likened to “Ha Long bay on land”. Nam - a small built man in his late fifties - is here on duty, as the unofficial guard of an ancient emperor’s tomb. Who does that?! My curiosity is hardly contained. I watch Nam’s rumpled hands, slowly and regardfully wipe clean the surface of the tombstone. Offerings of fresh fruit, flowers, and a cup of rice wine are neatly placed on the unornamented altar. Incense leaves a sharp sweetness lingering in the air, and on the lush greenery around us. There is a sense of peace, a sense of solemnity often found in the backyard of Buddhist temples. There is a heightened relief upon reaching the top after 265 slippery steps in ballerina flats. And then, there is an untitled feeling of encountering on that small patch of flatland, an old man sitting by an ancient tomb. Alone. Every day. Rain or shine. Up here, it’s easy to forget about iPhones and Facebook. About swiping right or left. “He was a great leader, unifying the country”, Nam says with a glint of pride. He knows every story there is to know about the emperor, Dinh Tien Hoang. The man was born locally to a farmer’s family, excelled at military tactics, and founded an independent dynasty in the 10th century. He became the first emperor in Vietnam’s history. Worshipping the dead, including ancestors and heroes is a common practice in Vietnam. It is believed that the deceased has a continued existence, and their spirits will look after the people and the land. Nam takes care of the tomb, out of respect and gratitude for the historical figure. Centuries and worlds apart, their two souls quietly bonded. “I ain’t make no history, but this is my way to preserve it”, says Nam as we part. The contentment shown on his face is something I know that my Instagram filters won’t capture in full. Nam’s words echo in my head on the way down. A simple, unannounced and rich way to live life. I still think of them, sometimes, when modern life throws lemons.