by Jim Goodman
Quy Nhơn is a small but pleasant, uncongested city of about 300,000 on Vietnam’s south central coast. The capital of Bình Định province, it lies halfway between the better-known tourist destinations of Hôi An and Nha Trang. While endowed with the same basic features that make those places popular—splendid beaches, a landscape of rolling hills, the ruins of ancient Chăm towers and delicious seafood—it draws but a small fraction of the tourists. Maybe it’s because the historical relics are scattered throughout the province and not concentrated in a single place, like the collection of monuments at Mỹ Sơn, near Hội An, or the sprawling Pô Nagar temple next to Nha Trang. Maybe it’s because the city has no real nightlife.
|the beach at Quy Nhơn
A long, hilly peninsula lies just offshore to the east, enclosing the Thị Nại Lagoon that bounds the northern part of the city. The longest bridge in the country stretches across the southern part of this lagoon to connect the city with the port area on the peninsula. North of this peninsula are several clean, white, secluded beaches beside small fishing villages. A few guesthouses and restaurants serve the rare visitors, where the seafood is fresh and cheap.
|secluded beach north of Quy Nhơn
Before that, until 1471, all of Bình Định, as well as Phú Yên to the south and Quảng Ngãi and parts of Quảng Nam to the north, were part of the Chăm Kingdom of Vijaya, which became the most important Chăm state from the late 11th century. Its capital lay about 20 km northwest of Quy Nhơn, between two branches of the Côn River, which flowed into the sea at nearby Thị Nại, the state’s main port. One of the principal Chăm relics from that period is within the urban area of Quy Nhơn, near National Highway 1A. It’s called Tháp Đôi—Double Tower—because the two towers look like twins. Originally three towers stood here, but the northern one collapsed long ago. The two that remain are in relatively good condition, with sculpted friezes and garudas still intact on the upper levels.
Vijaya rose to prominence because its northern neighbors, the Chăm states of Amaravati and Indrapura, had finally lost in their centuries-long conflict with the Vietnamese. Trouble between the Vietnamese and the Chăm started during the period of Chinese rule over the northern third of the country, which they called their province of Giaochi (and later Annam). The Chăm often raided the southern districts of Giaochi, which extended down to present-day Nghệ An province. The Chinese, or even local Vietnamese militias and guerrillas, would then drive them back and this sort of situation continued even after the Vietnamese expelled the Chinese and won back their independence in 938. Fed up with the raiding, sometimes the Vietnamese launched a punitive expedition against the offending Chăm capital, destroyed it, then forced the Chăm to cede their own northernmost districts, which could then no longer be used as bases for raiding parties on Vietnamese settlements.
|Bánh Ít--one of the Chăm temples from Vijaya's heyday
The Chăm civilian population fled in several directions. Many boarded ships under the command of a surviving Chăm royal prince to sail all the way to Hainan Island, where the Chinese Ming Emperor granted them permission to stay and autonomy within their own district. Descendants of these refugees still live in Hainan. Other Chăm fled west to Cambodia and Thailand, while a great number took up residence in northern Sumatra, becoming the ancestors of the people of Acheh province.
|Tháp Bình Lâm, in old Thị Nại
From the beginning of the 17th century Vietnam was split into two parts: the north, ruled by the Trịnh Lords, and everything south of Quảng Bình, ruled by the Nguyễn Lords. The latter relied more on foreign commerce taxes than land-use fees as the basis of its state revenue and the newly established port of Quy Nhơn quickly rose in importance. Foreign missionaries came with foreign trade and in the early 17th century the Portuguese set up a fairly successful mission there. Government attitudes towards the foreign missionaries changed in later years and became quite hostile. At the rocky promontory at the south end of the beach in Quy Nhơn are statues of the first Church officials and martyrs in Quy Nhơn.
|Tháp Phườc Lốc
Another 12 km to the north, also east of the highway, the lone, phallic-like tower Tháp Phước Lộc stands on top of a broad, barren mound above the rice fields. A lateral road running west from the junction leads, after a few kilometers, to the recently restored Tháp Cánh Tiên, standing on a small mound just west of Chà Bàn Citadel. The remains of this citadel date from its reconstruction during the Tây Sơn Era in the late 18th century. When it was the capital of Vijaya the citadel was much larger and the Cánh Tiên Tower was in its center.
|the roof of Cánh Tiên Tower
The last of the province’s Chăm relics is the Bình Lâm tower, which used to be the centerpiece of the Thị Nại Citadel, 23 km northeast of Quy Nhơn. A tributary of the Côn River ran from Chà Bàn to Thị Nại and Thị Nại was the first place the invading Vietnamese captured in 1471. Before advancing on the capital they destroyed Thị Nại’s citadel and today only a 200-meter dilapidated fragment remains, though they left the tower intact. The original population left after the fall of Vijaya and it never again served as a port. When Vietnamese settlers finally moved into the area Quy Nhơn became their port city. Those who moved into the old Thị Nại area reclaimed land towards the sea, so that nowadays the former Chăm seaport is several kilometers from the sea.
In general the Chăm towers stand on slightly elevated square bases. The entrance to the interior is on one side, with false doors on the other three sides, with sculpted decorations along the sides and above the doors. The tops of the towers feature graduated, tapering tiers, some with flared tips at the corners. Not much of the original sculptures are left, thanks to natural decay, war damage and looting, and the best examples have been removed to the big Chăm Museum in Đà Nẵng. But the provincial museum in Quy Nhơn holds a few statues and other decorative elements. A separate Chăm ceramics museum in the city, actually a private family collection, holds several lovely sculptures, imaginatively displayed, and a whole range of ceramics.
|Chăm stone sculpture
|false doors, Tháp Đôi
|remains of the Tây Sơn citadel at Chă Băn
Eight years later he dispatched Nguyễn Huệ north to end the rule of the Trịnh Lords and restore the authority of the Lê king. But when the latter died and his son took over and called in Chinese troops to establish his authority, Nguyễn Huệ, who had withdrawn to the south, announced the end of the Lê Dynasty and declared himself Emperor Quang Trung in December 1788. He then had his army celebrate the Tết New Year holiday early, marched them north and on the Tết holiday pounced on the unsuspecting Chinese and utterly destroyed their army.
|Nguyễn Huệ, later Emperor Quang Trung
Another Nguyễn Huệ statue stands in front of the Tây Sơn Museum near Phú Phong village, the brothers’ birthplace. Inside are displays such as weapons and uniforms used in that era, portraits and sculptures of the leading personalities of those days and models and maps of the major Tây Sơn campaigns. The Tây Sơn rebels were good at marshaling the strength of angry, disaffected people, at overthrowing a feudal order and at ending the political division of the country. For these achievements they still receive favorable portrayals in the state-run media and school textbooks. They eventually lost to someone who reinstated the feudal order, but maintained the unity of the country. What began as a local revolt in Bình Định in a long divided country ended in a single, unified nation stretching from the Chinese border to the tip of Cà Mau. Unfortunately, six decades after Nguyễn Ánh’s triumph the French came in and broke it all up again.
|Cánh Tiên Tower
Chăm and Tây Sơn sites in Bình Định are on the itinerary of my VIetnam tour program.
See http://deltatoursvietnam.com for details.