Saturday, December 9, 2017

Thanh Hóa’s Famous Families

                                        by Jim Goodman

villager passing by the walls of the Hồ Citadel
       Thanh Hóa is Vietnam’s fifth largest province, situated between Ngh An, the country’s largest, to its south, the plains and rivers of the Red River Delta to its north and bound by the mountains of Laos on its western side.  The provincial capital, also called Thanh Hóa, lies 153 km south of Hanoi on National Highway 1A and 15 km from the beach at Sm Sơn.  While the scenery in the province is pleasant, it doesn’t boast of anything spectacular and foreign travelers generally pass it by, making it one of the least known places to foreigners in Vietnam.
typical Thanh Hóa landscape
       For the Vietnamese, however, Thanh Hóa is part of the ancient heartland of their culture, where the bronze drum originated and where human habitation began over 6000 years ago.  Unlike the Red River Delta, prehistoric Thanh Hóa’s plains were not swamps that had to be cleared, for only two rivers, the Mã and the Chu, run through them.  Hills are moderate in the eastern half of the province and higher in the west, where the valleys are also home to Thái and Mường minorities.  Thanh Hóa’s Vietnamese have a reputation for cultural conservatism, thrift and fondness for traditional folk music and dance.
flooded rice fields near Vĩnh Lộc
       The province is also important for its role in Vietnam’s history.  It was part of the Hùng Kings’ realm from the 19th to 3rd century BCE at the dawn of the Bronze Age.  Under the thousand years of Chinese domination it was part of the administrative unit of Cưu Chan, which included present-day Nghẹ An and Hà Tĩnh.  It suffered and repelled Chăm invasions in the 3rd and 5th centuries and after Vietnam regained its independence it later became the birthplace of four famous families—the Hồ, Lê, Trịnh and Nguyễn—that played important roles in the nation’s history.

southern entrance of the citadel's south gate
      The most direct route to Thanh Hóa city from Hanoi is via Highway 1A.  Even with the heavy traffic it takes only three hours or less.  Aside from Sầm Sơn beach, Thanh Hóa province’s main attraction is the Hồ Dynasty Citadel in Vĩnh Lộc district, two hours drive northwest of Thanh Hóa city.  But a better way to reach this historical vestige, and to appreciate the landscape of the province, is by beginning at Xuân Mai, 35 km southwest of Hanoi, one of the starting points of the Hồ Chí Minh Trail during the Vietnam War.
       Largely a footpath through thick jungle back then, Đường Hồ Chí Minh is now a paved road in good condition with very little traffic, rolling through forested hills with gradients at a maximum of 10%.  Skirting around Cúc Phương National Park as it enters Thanh Hóa province, the scenery is especially delightful.  Villages lie far apart from each other, but many restaurants and petrol stations punctuate the route.   
triple arches of the Hồ Citadel south gate
       At the Cẩm Thủy junction, the Trail turns southwest and then south, eventually passing near Lam Kinh, Lê Lợi’s birthplace, where a modest shrine marks the spot.  The other road turns southeast, along the Mã River, to Vĩnh Lộc and the Hồ Citadel, which lies a few kilometers outside the town, in what is now a rural agricultural area.  The gates and portions of the walls are basically all that’s left of the citadel, but that was enough, along with its historical significance, to earn it the award of World Heritage Site.   
citadel wall
       The site is large, nearly square, measuring 870.5 meters north-south by 88ê.5 meters east-west.  The triple-arched south gate, the ceremonial entry point, stands 9.5 meters high and over 15 meters wide.  The other gates have a single arch, the east and west gates rounded.  Local stone provided the construction material, quarried from nearby hills, with their sometimes sheer cliffs often striated, as if to give the masons guidelines where to cut the stone.  Thanh Hóa stone has a national reputation for high quality and in the early 20th century was used to build the cathedral and subsidiary churches at Phát Diệm in Ninh Bình province.
interlocking stone blocks of the citadel walls
       The stone blocks used in building the Hồ Citadel average 2 meters by 1 meter by .7 meter.  Some are almost perfect cubes, while others are longer.  Usually the masons simply stacked them on top of each other.   But occasionally they cut out sections of the corners to make the blocks fit together more snugly.  Thick earthen mounds backed up the walls and wooden watchtowers stood above the gates and at intervals along the walls.
       The man responsible for the construction of this citadel, Hồ Quý Ly, was a Thanh Hóa native from a nearby village.  Born in 1336, he first entered the service of the Trần Dynasty court in Thăng Long (today’s Hanoi) in 1371, after the Chăm, under a charismatic leader Chế Bồng Nga, had sacked the capital.  The Trần Dynasty, which defeated three massive Mongol invasions the previous century, was now in decline.  The Chăm continued to menace the Vietnamese for nearly two more decades, sacking Thăng Long again in 1378. 
Nguyễn Hoàng departs for Thuận Hoá
the founder of the Lê Dynasty
      In 1388 the Chăm annihilated a Vietnamese counterattack on their capital Vijaya, near today’s Quy Nhơn, and prepared another march on Thăng Long.  Trần Nghệ Tông, the King Father since his retirement in 1372 after two years as King, and still the power behind the throne, appointed Hồ Quý Ly as commander of its forces, but his attempt to deflect the Chăm advance failed.   Thăng Long was spared another sacking only because a Chăm defector revealed to Vietnamese gunners Chế Bồng Nga’s precise location.  After the death of their king the Chăm returned to Vijaya.
Trịnh Lords Palace in Đông Kinh (today's Hanoi)
       Trần Nghệ Tông died in 1394, leaving Hồ Quỹ Ly de facto ruler.  Three years later he ordered the construction of the citadel in Thanh Hốa.  Not merely a fortress, its walls contained a complete city, which was named Tây Đô--the Western Capital.  He forced the Trần Court’s removal to his new capital and renamed Thăng Long Đông Đô---the Eastern Capital.  Then he set about systematically assassinating 370 members of the Trần family and in 1400 deposed the nominal king, usurped the throne and founded the Hồ Dynasty. 
       His blood-soaked usurpation condemns him in the opinion of Vietnamese historians, yet he was also a progressive reformer.  He introduced paper currency and the use of nóm, the Vietnamese version of Chinese characters, in official documents, expanded traditional Confucian education to include mathematics and agriculture, and instituted land reform, limiting holdings to ten acres (four hectares).  Following a Trần tradition, he abdicated in favor of his son Hồ Hán Thương in 1402.but continued to manage state affairs behind the scenes.
local farmer outside the eastern gate
       However, two Trần princes escaped to China, where they called on the Ming Dynasty Emperor Yong Le to restore them.  The Chinese dispatched a huge army of 400,000 in 1407, chased the Hồ family all the way to Tây Đô and captured them there.  The Chinese sent their prisoners to serve as common foot soldiers in China and their ultimate fate has not been recorded.  Instead of installing a Trần ruler, the Chinese annexed Vietnam and stayed to loot and exploit the country to the greatest extent possible.
planting rice inside the citadel
       Serious resistance to the Chinese occupation began in Thanh Hóa in 1417.  Organized by Lê Lợi and known as the Lam Sơn Insurrection, after the name of the town hosting the first conclave, it won the support of two other influential Thanh Hóa families—the Trịnh and the Nguyễn.  Using guerilla tactics that were adopted by the Việt Minh centuries later, Lê Lợi’s forces first survived, then expanded, and after ten years captured the capital and expelled the Chinese.  In 1428 Lê Lợi founded the Lê Dynasty to govern the liberated country.
       Unfortunately, Lê Lựi died in 1433 and for nearly three decades palace intrigues, purges of lê Lợi’s lieutenants and periodic fights with the Chăm dominated the Court scene.  In 1460 the last two surviving Lam Sơn generals intervened to install Lê Thánh Tông as Emperor, the one truly successful Lê monarch after the founder Lê Lợi.  He conquered Vijaya and annexed the Chăm state’s territory, promulgated a new law code and reigned over a stable and prosperous Vietnam until 1497.
two hundred year-old house outside the citadel
       His son Lê jiiến Tông governed competently for six years, but upon his death in 1504 the country plunged into protracted political chaos, with five successive teenaged kings, who either died young or were murdered for their embarrassing debauchery.  Finally, in 1527 the security chief Mc Đăng Dung seized the throne and proclaimed a new dynasty. 
       Supported by the Trnh and Nguyn families, the remnants of the Lê royal family fled to Thanh Hóa and then to Laos.  There they waited until several years later, when an anti-Mc revolt broke out in Thanh Hóa.  Under the leadership of Nguyn Kim, the Lê loyalists returned to Vietnam to engage the Mac armies and in 1443 captured Tây Đô.  Re-occupying and rebuilding the former H citadel, the loyalists proclaimed it their capital and the residence of Lê Trang Tông, the teenaged descendant of Lê Thánh Tông whom they recognized as their sovereign. 
carved brackets of the old house
       Tây Đô remained the capital of the restored Lê Dynasty until the final ouster of the Mc family from power in 1592.  In 1545 a Mc follower assassinated Nguyn Kim and command of the Lê forces went to his son-in-law Trnh Kiểm, who was intensely suspicious of the Nguyn family.  Nguyn Kim’s eldest son soon died in mysterious circumstances and his other son Nguyn Hoàng laid low for years and eventually in 1558 secured appointment as governor of Thun Hoá, today’s Thừa Thiên and Quảng Trị provinces.
Sầm Sơn boat on the sea
       He did such a good job that in 1570 the Lê Court added Quảng Nam to his jurisdiction.  In 1593 Nguyễn Hoàng returned to the north to help mop up remnant Mạc forces, but fearing the intentions of Trịnh Tùng, in charge since 1570, Nguyễn Hoàng returned to Thuận Hoá and turned it into his personal fief.  When he died at the age of 87 in 1613, Vietnam was essentially split into two realms:  the north rued by the Trịnh Lords and the south ruled by the Nguyễn Lords, both recognizing the same Lê Emperor, who was basically a puppet of the Trịnh Lords.
       Hostilities broke out between the two sides later that century, but periodic Trịnh invasions all failed and one Nguyễn invasion of the north only got as far as Thanh Hóa before it had to turn back.  The two sides made a truce in 1674, dividing their realms at the Gianh River in Quảng Binh.  Peace between them lasted a century and then the Tây Sơn Revolt destroyed both regimes in the late 18th century.  Another protracted war ensued until eventually the resurgent Nguyễn defeated the Tây Sơn and in 1802 established the last pre-colonial imperial dynasty.
morning market on Sầm Sơn beach
       Tây Đô was abandoned during the Trịnh-Nguyễn conflict and today no trace of its former palaces or watchtowers exist. Most of the area has been turned into rice fields.  Only a pair of headless stone dragons in the center remains within the walls as evidence of its former splendor. But another kind of relic—a two hundred year-old house—stands in the village outside the eastern gate.  One story, wide, with a tiled roof, it features nicely carved embellishments on its beams, brackets and furniture and has been home to the same family for seven generations.
       No other vestiges of Thanh Hoá’s famous families exist in the province.  From Vĩnh Lộc, it’s two hours drive to Thanh Hoá city, which is almost entirely new, reconstructed after heavy bombing in the Vietnam War.  But Sầm Sơn Beach is a short distance away and very popular with Vietnamese tourists.  It’s also a major fishing center.  From dawn the fishermen go out in small skiffs of woven split bamboo, covered with pitch, with an engine at the rear, a wooden rudder and a triangular cloth sail, usually blue or brown.
hauling a boat up to higher ground
       At most, half a dozen people can fit into these vessels, but usually it’s just two or three.  They return from 9:00-10:00 and park their boats temporarily at the edge of the water.  Customers from the city and its vicinity, and even from as far away as Hanoi, then come to the boat to purchase the morning’s catch of fresh fish, squids, crabs, shrimps and other crustaceans.  When the crowd of buyers has dispersed, usually before noon, the fishermen move the boat to a higher spot on the beach, beyond the tide line, by mounting it on a frame with wheels and rolling it up the slope.
     The province has a few other scenic attractions.  But besides the Hồ Citadel and Lê Lợi’s birthplace, it does not have much tangible evidence of its historic importance.  The main legacy of its famous families does not lie in buildings.  It is the spread of Vietnamese cultural and political institutions across the entire territory of the Vietnam we know today. No other province can make such a boast.

sunset over the Thanh Hóa plain
                                                                             * * *    
 For the full story of Thanh Hóa's families, see my book Delta to Delta:  The Vietnamese Move South

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