Sunday, October 27, 2013

Only the Ruins Remain: Chăm Relics in Bình Định

                                                          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
    It certainly has its attractions, both within the city and at various sites in the countryside.  Flanked by a bay that keeps the worst of the typhoon winds from striking the city, Quy Nhơn is blessed with beautiful clean beaches.  The most accessible is right next to the city, especially the southern stretch along Nguyôn Huệ Street. Pretty much deserted during the day, the beach fills up with local Vietnamese around 4 p.m., when the sun is low enough not to affect their skin tones.  Vendors appear selling grilled seafood, fruits and other snacks while groups form up on the beach for football or volleyball and others go for a wade or a swim in the sea, usually fully clothed.  A few indulge in jet-ski rides or parasailing and a couple of times during the year the waves are strong enough for surfboard riding.
    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
    The city has a variety of religious monuments, the biggest of which is the centrally located Long Khánh Buddhist temple.  Originally a more modest building from the 18th century, it was rebuilt in recent years and is now much bigger, three stories high, housing an enormous Buddha statue inside and backed by a multi-tiered pagoda.  The city also has a few Catholic churches, a legacy of the Portuguese mission first established here in the early 17th century.  At that time Quy Nhơn was, after Hội An, the second most important port in Đằng Trong, the portion of the country ruled by the Nguyễn Lords from the late 16th century.  Quy Nhơn was a relatively young city then, for Vietnamese didn’t come here to settle until the beginning of the 16th century.
    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
    Sometimes there were long periods of peace between the two sides, such as most of the 13th and early 14th centuries.  From the late 12th century Vijaya was more involved with wars with Angkor’s Cambodia and suffered Khmer occupation for a few decades at the start of the 13th century.  Not long after that the Mongols invaded both Vijaya and the Vietnamese state further north.  The invasions failed and Vietnamese-Chăm relations, forged by a common experience of invasion, were good for a while.  But by the mid-14th century they had soured and under a vigorous king named Chề Bổng Nga Vijaya forces sacked the Vietnamese capital Thăng Long three times.  Finally, in the late 15th century, the Vietnamese, under a strong young king named Lê Thánh Tông, decided to settle accounts with its main Chăm nemesis once and for all.  Leading a massive land and naval expedition in 1471, he destroyed the Chăm kingdom of Vijaya and leveled its capital. 
    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
    The triumphant Lê Thánh Tông announced that the former lands of Vijaya were now open to Vietnamese colonization and created a system of militarized settlements to achieve this.  But for the next hundred years the new settlers were mainly criminals, gangsters, political exiles and such.  Only after Vietnam became embroiled in dynastic struggles and civil war, from the mid-16th century on, when the population in the Red River Delta was declining from war-induced famines and life was becoming untenable there, did migration to the south begin in earnest.     
    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
    When the Vietnamese conquered Vijaya they destroyed the citadels at the capital Chà Bàn and the port of Thị Nại but did not destroy Chăm religious monuments, just left them in place, where today they comprise most of Bình Đính’s tourist attractions.  Aside from Tháp Đôi, they lie north and northwest of Quy Nhơn.  The best preserved towers, called Bánh Ít, or Tháp Bạc (Silver Tower), stand on a hill just east of the highway 18 km north of Quy Nhơn.     Built in the late 11th century and originally comprising several buildings, today four of them remain, and from the summit one has a view of the heartland of old Vijaya, as well as some of the other towers.
    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
    Further west, off the road running north of the Côn River, on a low mound in a setting of rolling hills, stand the three towers of Đương Long.  These were the last major structures built in Vijaya’s heyday, exhibit strong Khmer influence in the shape and decorations and are the tallest Chăm towers in the province.  South of the river, off the road leading to Tây Sơn, the single tower Tháp Thủ Thiện stands among sugarcane fields, its foundations badly eroded, looking like it might topple over any day.
    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
    For the average Vietnamese, the Chăm legacy of Vijaya is less relevant than the fact that Bình Đính was the birthplace of the Tây Sơn Revolt, so called because it was led by three brothers from a village in Tây Sơn district, about 45 km northwest of Quy Nhơn.  The three—Nguyễn Nhạc, the eldest, Nguyễn Lữ and Nguyễn Huệ--launched their revolt against the Nguyễn Lords ruling Đằng Trong in 1771.  By 1778 they had seized the entire south and exterminated all but one member of the ruling family, Nguyễn Ánh, who escaped to Thailand.
remains of the Tây Sơn citadel at Chă Băn
    Nguyễn Nhạc proclaimed a new dynasty and decided to set up his capital on the old site of Chà Bàn.  Partly this was to curry favor with the Chăm as allies.  He had a new citadel built, though a much smaller version, in which Tháp Cánh Tiên was a couple hundred meters outside the walls.  
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
    Quang Trung died suddenly in mid-1792.  Nguyễn Nhạc died the following year.  The Tây Sơn Dynasty lasted just under a decade more until it fell before the slow, steady, relentless campaign of Nguyễn Ánh.  While Nguyễn Nhạc has been all but neglected in Vietnam, Nguyễn Huệ, the military genius who defeated a massive Chinese army, has been elevated to national hero status.  Every city has a Nguyễn Huệ Street (in Quy Nhơn it’s the one along the beach) or a Quang Trung Street, or both.  A mighty statue of him stands in Quy Nhơn’s central roundabout.
    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 for details.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Living in a National Relic—Đường Lâm, Vietnam

                                                           by Jim Goodman

    Like its modernizing Southeast Asian neighbors, Vietnam faces the problem of how to preserve its traditional culture against the onslaught of globalization.  Traditional culture, especially one rooted in ancient times like Vietnamese culture, is what gives a people its separate ethnic identity.  Economic development, greater mobility and ever improving communications pose challenges to customs and practices long associated with simpler times and less complicated lives.  To preserve traditions and the national heritage is to maintain a country’s distinct identity in the maelstrom of faster and faster globalization. 
traditional architecture in Đường Lâm
    Since the introduction of the reform era at the end of the 80s, the Vietnamese have simultaneously improved their lives and revived aspects of their traditional culture that had long been dormant or even suppressed.  They celebrate their festivals again, renovate their temples and communal houses, produce exquisite handicrafts in the specialty villages and patronize traditional music, dance and theater.  The government has in recent years abetted this revival by providing funds for renovating historic temples and buildings, sponsoring arts and crafts and subsidizing a few festivals. 
    There’s a limit, though, to how much any government can do to preserve traditions, customs, culture or even architecture.  Vietnam has its share of World Heritage sites, from natural ones like Hà Long Bay and Phong Nha caves to historical ones like the Chăm ruins of Mỹ Sơn, Huế Citadel and the old port of Hội An.  Intangible Heritage traditions like Huế court music and cà tru singing have also won recognition.  But not everything of cultural value can make it to the World Heritage list.  
temple to Phùng Hưng
     So the government has its own list and has gone about declaring as national relics innumerable old buildings, temples and communal houses.  These receive subsidies for renovation and are supposed to follow strict rules imposed by the Bureau of Cultural Heritage.  In addition, the government declared Hanoi’s Old Quarter a national relic, while it still harbored several traditional tube-houses and old communal houses.  In 2005 the Ministry of Culture and Information recognized Đường Lâm commune, 45 km west of Hanoi, in Sơn Tây district, 5 km past the town, as a national relic, the first ancient village to be thus designated.
    Certainly Đường Lâm deserved the award.  Comprising nine villages, it lies just north of Ba Vì Mountain, famous in Vietnamese mythology, bounded by rolling hills and streams to its south and flanked by sprawling fields of rice and sugar cane.  Archaeologists have unearthed artifacts here over 2000 years old and the village layouts have remained virtually unchanged for centuries.  Many of the houses are up to 400 years old, made of local laterite brick, which also covers some of the connecting lanes.  Đường Lâm hosts a greater percentage of traditional Vietnamese house compounds than any other old village in the Red River Delta, which is one big reason it garnered the Ministry’s recognition.
Ngê Quyền
    Đường Lâm also has a special resonance for Vietnamese because it was the birthplace of two of the country’s ancient national heroes—Phùng Hưng from the 8th century and Ngô Quyền from the 10th century.  In mid-8th century Tang China, then ruling Vietnam as its province of Giaochi, the An Lushan rebellion shook the empire to its foundations and left its authority weakened everywhere, especially faraway areas like Vietnam. 
    Into this power vacuum stepped Phùng Hưng, from a rich and influential family related to Vietnam’s ancient kings, before the Chinese conquest.  He raised an army and marched on the capital, defeated the Chinese garrison and effectively ruled the country in a fair and benevolent way for the next several years.  After his death the local people deified him.  The Tang Dynasty eventually recovered in the early 9th century and reasserted its control over the Vietnamese, but never again to the exploitative extent it had done previously.  The Vietnamese had witnessed the fading of Chinese power and the assertiveness of a domestic hero and from then on pressed the Chinese for greater autonomy and recognition as a separate people.  
dragons on the pagoda, Chùa Mía
     The Tang Dynasty collapsed in 907 and it was not until 960 that the Song Dynasty, the next relatively durable one, took control.  The Vietnamese began preparing for their opportunity.  Revolts broke out during the dynastic struggles in China, culminating in the seizure of the Chinese administrative capital in 938 by another Đường Lâm-born hero--Ngô Quyền.  When the Chinese sent a naval invasion against Ngô Quyền he anticipated their move and had stakes planted in the Bạch Đằng River, the main water route to the Red River Delta heartland.  When the Chinese vessels appeared he sent his forces, in smaller boats and with full knowledge of the location of the stakes, to engage and slow down the enemy.  When the tide fell the Chinese found their ships impaled and the Vietnamese then burnt and destroyed them.  With this victory the Vietnamese regained their independence.
    The communal house and temple honoring Phùng Hưng lie in the southwest quarter of Đường Lâm.  Huge, leafy old trees stand in the rather large courtyard.  The building is a modest, one-story structure with tiled roof.  A statue of the hero sits in the rear sanctuary.  The temple to Ngô Quyền is just a few minutes further on, slightly smaller, with his tomb nearby on the bank of the stream. A sculpture of him also sits in the rear sanctuary, dressed in yellow and red silk and wearing a huge golden crown.
Quan Âm Thị Kính
  At the northern end of Đường Lâm is Chùa Mía, one of the most attractive Buddhist temple compounds in the north.  Already several centuries old when it was rebuilt and expanded in 1632, it features a twelve-tier pagoda in the courtyard, with dragons crawling up its four sides and what looks like trisuls in between.  The shape resembles a stalk of sugar cane, and in fact the temple’s name translates as Sugarcane Pagoda.  A giant old banyan towers beside it.  In the rear sanctuary stands a collection of painted clay sculptures depicting scenes from Buddhist mythology, including an exquisite rendition of Quan Âm Thị Kính, heroine of a popular traditional chèo drama.
    The heart of Đường Lâm is Mông Phụ village, home to an impressive, classical-style đình, or communal house, originally built in the Lê Dynasty.  A pair of white gates, topped by sculpted lions, marks the entrance to a spacious courtyard, with two smaller flanking buildings and the đình itself, with its very wide, tiled roof and its upturned corners festooned with sculptures of the four mythical animals—dragon, phoenix, lion and turtle.  Resting on a slightly elevated platform, its massive roof is supported by thick wooden pillars, while carved dragons embellish the posts, brackets and tympani in the interior. 
    The central altar honors the tutelary god Tản Viên, the mythological Ba Vì Mountain god.  It is here that the village elders meet on issues of common concern to the villagers, like planning for the annual festival honoring both Tản Viên and Phùng Hưng.  Smaller đìnhs exist in other villages within the commune, as does a Confucian temple and a Catholic church, making Đường Lâm a microcosm of most of Vietnam’s traditional belief systems.
Đình Mông Phụ
    Mông Phụ village is the largest in the commune and comprises most of the preserved national relic area.  Whether on foot or on motorbike it makes for fascinating exploration, a real picture of traditional village life.  The houses are generally single story, in a compound enclosed by a wall, with a garden, well, and usually with a small building comprising a kitchen and storeroom and a larger building with the bedroom and family ancestral altar. 
    The main construction material is laterite brick.  The adjacent hills are full of laterite pebbles, rendering the land unfit for agriculture, but the stone is easy to mine and make into bricks, plastered with mud from the local ponds. One sees piles of it resting against compound walls on a tour through the village.  Laterite bricks are one of Đường Lâm’s important products, sent to other villages, along with carpentry, knitted wear and molasses.  The commune has also produced many scholars over the centuries and Đưừng Lâm teachers have found employment across the Delta.
    When the government notified Đường Lâm residents that their commune was now a national relic, they felt quite flattered, pleased to have official recognition of their cultural importance and confident the award, and the increase in tourism, would bring them benefits.  However, they had not reckoned with the new rules and restrictions they would have to deal with as a result.  Renovation and restoration of public buildings and temples proceeded at once, but the Ministry chose only eight private houses to finance renovation.  As for the remainder of the families, under the Heritage Law now in effect for them, they were not permitted to change, expand or even repair their houses without government authorization and supervision, virtually impossible to procure.  Their dilemma is identical to that of families in Hanoi’s Old Quarter still living in houses that have been classified as national relics. 
typical Đường Lâm house of laterite brick
    So, as a result of being recognized as a national relic, most Đường Lâm residents found themselves living under increasingly uncomfortable constrictions.  Money from the ticket booths erected in the wake of the award only seemed to go to public buildings or the handful of private homes, whose owners then benefitted from home-stay tourist customers.  Most villagers did not benefit at all from the award.  On the contrary, their lives got steadily worse.  The population increases every year, babies grow up and require more living space, but villagers are not permitted to add a story or even an extra room to their houses.  As a result, small children sleep with their parents, big children sleep on the ground, for space is too limited for many beds.  When it rains hard enough the roof may leak and the mats on the ground get damp, endangering the sleepers’ health.
    In many of these preserved traditional houses three generations share a room of just ten square meters and half of them sleep on the ground.  For craft workers the single room house is also their workshop and all the tools and materials have to be cleared away to make space for sleeping at night.  With not enough space for a proper kitchen, the families do their cooking at the doorway.  Wandering visitors, marveling at the authentic traditional rural architecture, are largely unaware of the hardships of everyday life in these preserved old houses, for they rarely venture inside the compound walls or examine the cramped living quarters.
    The villagers are certainly aware of their decline in living standards.  Two years ago 78 Đường Lâm villagers from 60 houses signed a petition asking the government to take back the national relic award.  When nothing developed the villagers this year, this time over a hundred residents, signed a new petition and sent it to the People’s Committee of both Sơn Tây town and Hanoi, as well as the Bureau of Cultural Heritage, again requesting the government to take back the award.  Then they could be free to build new houses or extend the ones they have according to their own requirements.
 Đường Lâm house compound
   The request was unprecedented.  No one representing a national relic had ever tried to have the recognition canceled.  Đường Lâm had not applied for the status of national relic; the government had selected the commune and then imposed the usual regulations for such sites.  To agree to take back the award was something the government found impossible to do.  It would entail a tremendous loss of prestige and call into question the whole notion of preserving anything traditional, if it got in the way of improving people’s lives.  If the government has the responsibility of preserving the national heritage, it also is supposed to be taking measures to raise the people’s standard of living. 
    At first, Hanoi and Sơn Tây officials claimed the petitioners represented only a minority of Đường Lâm’s households.  They claimed that, having gotten recognition as an official cultural relic, Đường Lâm was now a “national asset” and its residents had to follow the Heritage Law and preserve the commune’s status quo, because that was in the national interest.  In the end, though, the government softened its stand and the two sides reached a compromise. 
Mông Phụ resident
    The area included in the national relic site includes both the villages and the adjacent fields, ponds and farms; basically, the commune and its immediate environment.  But the preserved area, subject to the regulations of the Heritage Law, comprises Mông Phụ village and temples and đìnhs outside Mông Phụ.  Residents here must continue to follow those regulations.  But families may now construct a new house, multi-story if they want, on land within the commune’s territory but outside the existing settled area.  Admission prices at the entry gates (̣which actually do not stand at every possible entrance to the commune) will go up from 20,000 đồng to 40,000 đồng (just under $2).  The additional money will be used to repair or renovate an additional set of old houses in the preserved area, beyond the original selection of the most ancient eight.
    In coming years then, Đường Lâm will become less congested as members of the extended family start moving to new houses on the commune’s outskirts.    Within a generation cement houses of three and four stories will surround the relic area.  But the people remaining there will have more living space per capita and enjoy a somewhat easier life.  With the Heritage Law still in force Đường Lâm will continue to draw visitors, foreign and domestic, in search of cultural authenticity.   The foreigners will gain insight into traditional rural Vietnamese culture.  The Vietnamese will appreciate Đường Lâm as the kind of place their grandparents grew up in, while young couples looking for a traditional setting will keep coming here for wedding photos.  The villagers will be happier because life will get more comfortable and the government will be pleased that it found a way to reconcile preserving the heritage of the past with satisfying the people’s desire for a better life in the present.  And that’s certainly in the national interest.
public well
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