In early December this past year I had the opportunity to visit Mr. Nguyen Huu Kiem, the 4th generation kite builder and guiding light of the kite building community of Ba Duong Noi, a village about 15 miles up the Red River from the center of Ha Noi, Viet Nam. Vietnamese f r iends f rom Ha Noi had made hi s acquaintance last year when he made and sent me a traditional bamboo kite whistle with three tubes. How exactly I came to get a kite whistle from him is a story I need to tell here.
Years ago I had seen an old article by an early 20th century French traveler who was going up to Ha Noi from Hai Phong in the early spring. He wrote about the scores of kites which flew over the countryside, all of a particular design and all with whistles mounted on them, which keened and moaned day and night for the days and weeks they stayed in the air in the constant spring monsoon. An engraving, which I saw years later, showed a singular design of kite which is unique to the Red River Delta around Ha Noi and which I never found anywhere else. That image stayed tucked away in my mind for several decades and when in 2005 I traveled to Ha Noi myself I was disappointed to not see any kites. I mentioned this to several friends and when I returned in the spring of 2006 one of them had gotten me a whistle made, and after asking around I was able to see several of the old kites on walls and hanging on display. I ended up commissioning several more of the whistles to take home. Back in New Orleans without a kite to mount the whistle on I would occasionally hold one out of my truck window when driving down quiet avenues in the late evenings. The image of an older adult with a kite whistle out of his truck window is very hilarious to many Vietnamese, and when it was mentioned in a newspaper article I ended up getting the really beautiful traditional whistle that Mr. Kiem made for me.
So this December when back in Ha Noi, I very much wanted to meet him, and it was so arranged. Friends drove me up the diketop road, which runs along the Red River for miles. Along the massive ancient dike, the suburbs of the growing city of Ha Noi are slowly engulfing the riverside villages as they spread northwest. When we turned off of the dike onto the road leading down into the village, we finally parked at a small bend and were met by Kiem, who led us to the site where all the village kite builders are constructing anew the temple to the sky spirit which is the patron “genie” of the village.