Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Transformation of Nha Trang

                                                                                     by Jim Goodman

Tháp Bà, Cái River, Nha Trang
       Lying beside one of the most beautiful bays in East Asia, with a long beach, excellent seafood, picturesque islands and good weather practically the year round, Nha Trang is one of the top tourist destinations in Vietnam, both for foreigners and for the Vietnamese themselves. Tourism is by far the biggest factor in the local economy and new hotels and restaurants are opening practically every month. Over a half million people now reside in metropolitan Nha Trang, making it one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. About eighty years ago there were just a couple thousand inhabitants of a few small fishing villages at the mouth of the Cái River, north of today’s downtown area.
       On a small hill beside the river here stands Tháp Bà, an ancient Chăm temple that testifies to Nha Trang’s ancient glory, long before any Vietnamese had ever heard of it, as a small but independent Chăm kingdom called Kauthara. The city’s contemporary name, Nha Trang, is a corruption of Ya Trang, River of Reeds in the Chăm language, their own name for what is now called the Cai River.
Po Nagar Temple
     The Chăm are an Austronesian people who established several states in Central Vietnam from the 3rd century C.E. The smallest of these, Kauthara, basically consisted of what is today the province of Khánh Hòa. Like other Chăm states, Kauthara adopted the Indian model for its state, religion and society, influenced by its southwestern neighbor Funan, an alliance of maritime city-states that dominated southwestern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia from the 2nd through the 7th centuries. The earliest Sanskrit inscription in any of these Chăm states came from a stele at Võ Cạnh, a site near Nha Trang, dated from the 4th century.
       While the Chăm adopted the whole pantheon of Hindu deities, they also assigned equal importance to their own indigenous mother-goddess Po Nagar. Chăm society was matrilineal and Po Nagar was a goddess for all Chăm, not just those in Kauthara. Her biggest, most prestigious temple was in Kauthara, perhaps first constructed in the 6th or 7th centuries. As a sanctuary, the Chăm considered it on a par with the Mỹ Sơn site in Quảng Nam, where most religious monuments were dedicated to Shiva.
stone carving of Shakti, Po Nagar Temple
       In the small ancient state of Kauthara arable land in the plains was also limited. It could not survive on agriculture alone. But the state had good trading relations with the nearest hill peoples, overland connections to Cambodia and, most importantly, enjoyed a thriving maritime commerce. Chăm trading ships made regular journeys to the islands of Indonesia, while Kauthara itself was an important stopover for vessels plying the route between Srivijaya and China. Given the importance of Po Nagar to Chăm culture we can assume the city also drew Chăm pilgrims from the other coastal kingdoms.
       By the 8th century Kauthara was a wealthy and active port, thereby arousing the envy and cupidity of some unsavory neighbors. In 774 Javanese raiders attacked and plundered the city, burned down the Po Nagar temple and stole its sacred lingam. The Chăm king led his navy in pursuit, caught up with the Javanese, destroyed their ships, but was unable to recover the temple treasures. The king ordered the temple rebuilt, this time in brick and stone instead of wood. This structure survived until 944, the year Khmer invaders sacked the city, smashed the temple buildings and stole the main image, which was gold.
columns at the entrance to the temple compound
       Following the Khmer withdrawal the Chăm rebuilt Po Nagar Temple one more time, replacing the central gold image with one of stone. They also added more buildings and sculptures over the next couple of centuries, eventually covering about five hundred square meters of the hill. They embellished the corners of the towers with little stone figures and added stone steles, like the one of Shakti, Shiva’s consort, to the side of the main sanctuary, and relief sculptures, like Indra atop his elephant, directly on the sides of the walls.
       Kauthara fought a war with its southern neighbor Panduranga in the 1060s, but when peace was restored maintained friendly relations with Panduranga for the next several centuries. The little kingdom may have sent forces with the King of P:anduranga’s army that expelled the Khmers from Vijaya in 1149, four years after the Khmer invasion and occupation. But Kauthara largely abstained from involvement in Vijaya’s wars with, successively, the Khmer, the Mongols and the Vietnamese.
Chăm dancers at Thạp Bà
       In 1472 the Vietnamese conquered the Chăm state of Vijaya and annexed all of its territory down to the Cả Pass at the northern border of Kauthara. Except for parts of Phủ Yên province, just north of Kauthara, Chăm residents in Vijaaya mostly fled. Some moved into Kauthara, but at any rate the border remained quiet for a long time. Vietnamese migration into former Viyaya was slow and in the 16th century the country plunged into a protracted civil war and power struggle that by the end of the century had effectively divided it into two parts. The Trịnh Lords ruled the northern provinces down to Quảng Bình and the rival Nguyển Lords governed everything south as far as Kauthara.
       Chăm in Kauthara, particularly those descended from Vijaya refugees, began interpreting the Vietnamese political discord as a sign of weakness in their old enemies and a chance for the Chăm to recover Phủ Yên. Soil and land conditions in Phủ Yên were much more conducive to large-scale agriculture than in Kauthara or the even more arid lands of Panduranga. In 1611 the Chăm launched an incursion into Phủ Yên, but the Nguyễn forces soon drove them back across the border. That didn’t put an end to Chăm ambitions regarding Phủ Yên, but Kauthara was also involved in serious internal sectarian conflict.
the Cái River at Nha Trang
       Kauthara Chăm society was split between its Hindus, largely the peasantry, Brahmins and ruling class, and the Muslims, mostly from the commercial elements. In 1622 the Muslims staged a coup, killed the Hindu king and installed one of their own as monarch. This inaugurated a civil war that soon involved the Churu, Êdê and Giarai highlanders from the western hills. In 1627 a Churu chieftain named Pô Rômê took the throne of Panduranga and with that state’s army forcibly quelled the faction fighting in Kauthara and took over its administration.
       Pô Rômê ruled for 24 years, a time of rising prosperity until, perhaps inevitably, he was drawn into the burgeoning conflict between the Chăm and Vietnamese in Phủ Yên. Violence broke out along the border in 1651. Pô Rômê got caught in one of the skirmishes and was mortally wounded. His half-brother took the throne and launched an invasion that forced Vietnamese defenders to retreat all the way to Bình Định. The Nguyễn Lord Nguyễn Phúc Tần dispatched 3000 troops under a Chăm general that retook Phủ Yên, then seized Nha Trang, captured the Chăm king and forced him to cede Kauthara and all territory down to the Phan Rang River. Kauthara’s Chăm population all fled; the Hindus for further south, the Muslims west to southwest Vietnam, Cambodia and Siam. Nha Trang port ceased to exist, the hinterland was deserted and the erstwhile kingdom now had a greater population of tigers and other wild animals than it did of people.
Khánh Hòa landscape, west of Nha Trang
       When Vietnamese began settling in the province they tended to establish villages in the Cái River Valley west of Nha Trang. Their administrative center was at Diên Khánh, 11 km west of Nha Trang, an important stop on the north-south route. Because mountains to Nha Trang’s immediate south and southwest block a direct southern exit from the city, even today vehicles heading south from Nha Trang still have to detour first to Diên Khánh to get on Highway 1A.
        Diên Khánh would have its moment in history in the late 18th century when it became the focus of campaigns in the 1790s by Nguyễn Ánh, the surviving member of the Nguyễn royal family, against the Tây Sơn Dynasty that had overthrown them. In 1794 Nguyễn Ánh felt strong enough to make Diên Khánh a permanent base and so ordered a citadel built there. One of his French advisors, Olivier de Puymanul, a fortifications specialist, oversaw the construction, the four main gates of which are still in place. He stayed there through the expected, but unsuccessful Tây Sơn siege and two years later led Nguyễn forces in the capture of Nha Trang port.
citadel gate at Diên Khánh
       It took Nguyễn Ánh six more years until final victory, but the installation of a new dynasty changed little around Nha Trang. It did not revive as a busy maritime commercial port and Diên Khánh was much bigger and more important. Even when the French took control of Central Vietnam, their base in Khánh Hòa was in Diên Khánh. But after emerging victorious from World War I, and convinced their stay in Vietnam would be permanent, French authorities began seeing Nha Trang as a possible seaside vacation venue for their colonists and administrators to spend their leisure time.
       In 1924 the French combined villages and recognized Nha Trang as a minor town, upgrading it to a full town in 1937 and the de facto provincial capital. Local residents around this time built the Long Sơn Pagoda on a hill in the western suburbs that today is one of the landmarks of the city. The huge white Buddha at the summit, however, was only added in 1963, the year South Vietnam’s President Diêm was killed, as a protest against the Diêm regime’s anti-Buddhist policies. Carvings of Buddhist monks and nuns who killed themselves in protest at this time surround the base of the sculpture.
Chùa Long Sơn
       Besides setting up a tourist zone for their fellow countrymen, the French also involved themselves in restoration work on the long neglected Po Nagar Temple. Only five of the original buildings still stood, but the columns of the entrance at the foot of the hill, which had survived the 10th century Khmer invasion, were relatively intact. The French did not replace the original, boat–shaped roof, but renovated the steep staircase leading up to the kalan, or main sanctuary. Some of the standing sculptures they removed to a small museum in the compound. But essentially, the compound as it exists today is the work of French restoration.
embroidery work at XQ village
      Nowadays the temple compound is a top tourist attraction, but also a place of worship for the Vietnamese, who long ago incorporated Po Nagar into the pantheon of their Holy Mothers cult, renaming her as Thiên Y A Na. From the compound’s hilltop location visitors get a wonderful view of the mouth of the Cái River and its myriad boats. A couple of picturesque island temple compounds lie offshore nearby. Further back towards the city center the unusual shape of Tháp Trầm Hương (Agarwood Tower) enhances the northern shoreline and the nearby X Q embroidery village has workshops with girls doing silk embroidery, displays of such items and a pleasant tea garden. But beyond Tháp Bà, Nha Trang’s main attraction is its beach, the longest municipal beach in the country.
Nha Trang beach
       On ordinary days the waves are relatively modest, never reaching a size appropriate for surfing, but all the other seaside activities are possible here. Boating clubs offer cruises to the offshore islands. Diving and snorkeling clubs introduce people to the underwater attractions and an Oceanographic Museum at the far southern end of the beach informs visitors of everything they could want to know about marine life in the vicinity. All these are popular activities, but for most visitors splashing around in the sea, relaxing under a beach umbrella or strolling on the sand are sufficient.
       Mornings and afternoons the crowds on the beach are almost entirely Westerners, particularly Russians, who first became familiar with Nha Trang when the Russians had a naval base at nearby Cam Ranh Bay 1979-2002. Russian tourism really took off here in the last decade, with regular direct flights from Moscow. After Vietnamese, Russian is the second most commonly heard language in Nha Trang. Bilingual signs in Vietnamese and Russian proliferate the downtown area.
       Vietnamese begin coming out to the beach only from late afternoon, when temperatures are cooler. So do the roving vendors, selling drinks, fruits, snacks, lobsters, scallops, oysters and other shellfish, raw or cooked. Bars on the beach begin preparing for Happy Hour and restaurants start assembling the ingredients of the special dishes they will offer for dinner, knowing that every visitor caps a day at the beach with a sample of Nha Trang seafood.
buying lobsters on the beach
Tháp Trầm Hương (Agarwood Tower)
       Tháp Bà, Chùa Long Sơn and the little embroidery village provide visitors to Nha Trang with a cultural and historical backdrop. But sun, sand, surf and seafood form the basis of its attraction and its success as a tourist destination. And no wonder it’s popular. If these are the features a traveler seeks in choosing a site for a holiday excursion, Nha Trang is the city that, from its reconstitution in colonial times, deliberately designed itself to be precisely that kind of venue.

Pn Nagar/Thiên Y A Na
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                    Nha Trang is one of the sites on my cultural/historical tours of Vietnam. 
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