Visiting South-Central Vietnam
Tourism tends to divide countries to suit the ease of travel for visitors. Shaped by its shape, geography, and a striking history, Vietnam is divided into northern, central and southern regions with population concentrations occurring around the river delta regions at either end. The central areas a long slither of coastal land that joins the two polar ends. Travellers to Vietnam tend to concentrate around the two delta regions, the Mekong and the Red River, which are associated with Ho-Chi-Minh City and Hanoi respectively, with little or only brief attention given to the central area.
However, travellers should consider visiting the south-central area as it has a variety of attractions that are steeped in history. During ancient times, the central area was a flashpoint between Indian and Chinese cultures, and significant conflicts occurred between adjacent peoples. The importance of the region is recognised by the fact that three UNESCO heritage sites are located in fairly close proximity, each with its own distinct historical and cultural context.
The UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Hoi-An is perhaps the best known and tourists are often shepherded through the town by tour operators to spend a pleasant day there amongst its well preserved timber buildings that are associated with a mercantile past. Hue, with its often talked about imperial city, was a focus of the earlier unified Vietnam under the Vietnamese Nguyen dynasty, but also contains remnants from its French Colonial past. Finally, but perhaps not least, My Son, the hidden and re-discovered spiritual capital of Champa, the small kingdom that was wedged between northern Vietnamese in Tonkin, and the Khmer Empire that spread over what is most of Cambodia and Laos.
That is not to say that central Vietnam should appeal only to historical purists, and travellers can take as much or as little as they like out of visits to the historical sites. Having some understanding of the history of the region provides a richness and authenticity to the visit that would otherwise be lacking. It also provides context as to the interaction and relationship between Hindu, Buddhist and Chinese derived cultures.
Ancient History - A Tale of Three Kingdoms.
Indochina from Myanmar through to Vietnam is molded by a distinctive geography, originating from the Mountainous province of Yunnan in Southern China and which is largely covered in dense forest. A number of enormous rivers flow to the sea creating a series of alluvial plains and deltas around the curved coastline of Indochina. In between the alluvial plains lay fairly rugged hilly regions, and as a consequence ancient kingdoms developed separately within the alluvial basins. While the peoples living in the forest covered mountainous regions retained a relatively simple and subsistence life, communities along the fertile plains flourished, creating sophisticated societies, full of social organisation, creativity, and political ambition. A variety of building structures and art has emanated from the region including massive architectural complexes through to intricate statutes.
Much of the early history of Vietnam surrounds the Dai Viet domiciled in the North of present-day Vietnam, The Khmer Empire which controlled most of the Mekong Basin, extending through to the Mekong Delta, and the Champa Kingdom wedged along the south-central coastal fringe of Vietnam.
Geography and its Impact on History.
Much of what has shaped Vietnam over the ages has been determined by the region's geography. In ancient times the Khmer Empire extended past the greater Mekong Basin area, taking in much of present-day Cambodia and Laos. Lying between the basin and the Vietnamese coast is the rugged Annamite Range, which runs parallel to the coastline. The long slender stretch of the central Vietnamese plains rises steeply with most of the mountain peaks situated inside Laos. The Mountains create a natural barrier which roughly mirrors the political boundaries with Vietnam’s neighbouring countries although the Central Highlands to the south are located on the western side of the divide. In places along the coast, the mountains extend all the way to the coast with rocky outcropping pitching into the sea, making north-south movement difficult. The Hai Van Pass, located north of Hue, was strategically important throughout Vietnam’s history and presented a major obstacle for any land-based army moving southward from the north. The pass formed the extent of the Chinese Han empire, and later provided a natural border between the Dai Viet and Champa kingdoms.
Along the coastal plain, no point extends much beyond 60 km from the coast, and the mountains themselves are drained by a series of short rivers. Despite the plains being fairly rocky and saline, the area possesses a highly developed rice culture.
The Champa Kingdom.
Jérémy Couture [CC BY 2.0]
While most of early Southeast Asia was made up from peoples migrating from greater Asia, the Cham, a seafaring people arrived from Borneo and settled along the outlets along central and South Vietnam. The seafaring race dominated coastal trade and was not initially concerned with the acquisition of land, resulting in the extent of Champa remaining fairly static. As a result of increasing trade with the sub-continent, the Cham became increasingly influenced by Hindu culture, and while the temples at My Son lack the architectural grandiose of those of the Khmer Empire at Angkor, there are many smaller Cham Hindu statues and temples dotting the countryside, although today, most are in the form of ruins.
The Cham kingdom extended from north of Hue down to much of the southern part of Vietnam from around AD 200 through to the 1470’s, with remnants finally annexed by the Vietnamese in the early 1,800’s.
The Cham Kingdom was organised as a loosely bound set of city-states in much the same fashion as ancient Greece, that centred around their port cities, and like Greece, conflict and intrigue was also not unknown. Prior to the 10th century, the Cham provided the highlands with salt and other commodities, and a variety of goods including timber, and spices. However, over time sophisticated societies developed within the many coastal plains and river valleys. They developed a system of sophisticated irrigation that enabled them to grow two crops of rice a year.
The coast became increasingly important through the spice trade from the 10th century onwards, and interaction with traders from the Middle-East through to South China led to many converting to Islam. Most of the river mouth ports were involved in mercantile trade, but Hoi An is of particularly of interest because of its degree of preservation from its earlier times.
When times were less prosperous, Cham ports were known to turn to piracy and looting of their neighbouring Cham ports and Vietnamese ports along the coast. The pillaging behaviour eventually contributing to the Vietnamese aggression southwards. With increasing pressure from Vietnamese people from the north, the kingdom shrank and the capital was shifted further south to Binh Dinh, and over time was annexed by the Vietnamese. At that time, most Muslim Cham fled to Cambodia, Hindu Cham remained in Vietnam, and others scattered to other regions.
Significantly, the developed agriculture, along with some attributes of Cham society were later adopted and adapted by the Vietnamese.
Dennis Jarvis [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Khmer empire extended over most of present-day Cambodia and Laos and was largely centred around the Mekong Basin with its capital at Angkor. It came into existence around AD 800 as a strong Hindu culture based on extensive rice-growing communities. It developed from a network of regionalised cities and the surplus of agricultural production allowed the development of sophisticated urban society, which was based on a Hindu caste system. Through its ability to sustain large urban population it was able to carry out large architectural works such as Angkor Wat, as well as maintaining a significant army. It had a particularly intense rivalry with Champa for domination over Indochina around AD 1100-1200, and after significant struggles were able to repel the advancement of Champa.
Its conflict with Champa was only surpassed by later hostilities with the Siamese who revolted from the empire causing it to split, with the abandonment of Angkor in favour of Phnom Penh in the mid-1400’s. While Buddhism formed a part of its culture alongside Hinduism, the gradual domination of Buddhism from the 1300’s onwards contributed to the demise of the empire.
The Vietnamese People.
The Dai Viet, one name (amongst many) given to the Vietnamese people from the northern region of Vietnam stems from the original migration of peoples over the land bridges from Indonesia, and subsequent mixing with maritime peoples from the Philippines. Subsequently, a society centred on rice cultivation developed, with dry cultivation occurring in the hilly terrain, while wet cultivation occurred around the Red River Delta area. Much of the early Vietnamese surrounded nature and the soil, water, and the sun are important elements in ancient mythology. Traditionally, the triple religion that combined Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist beliefs were practised with various emphasis placed on each.
Politically, Hanoi had been a major centre since much earlier times and became the seat of Vietnamese Rulers. The early Vietnamese had an extended association, and conflict with southern Chinese peoples and various waves of Chinese sought control of the region.
The Dai Viet successfully repelled attacks that occurred from the Khmer Empire in the early 1100’s and enabled expansion southwards into Champa. A brief period of some decades under Chinese domination occurred in the early 1400’s. Under the Nguyen Dynasty, unification of north and south occurred and the imperial seat was shifted to Hue, being in the centre of the country. Hue became the capital from around 1800 through to the second world war.
The Importance of Indochina’s Ancient Past
For tourists, travel destinations conjure up a variety of images and expectations. As an “imagined place”, Vietnam is often portrayed as what Thailand used to be like thirty or forty years ago, and its mystic has only been enhanced by the relative isolation that occurred after the first Indochina war. Vietnam’s appeal to visitors, in part, is due to their imagined conception that life is a polar opposite to that lived in their own countries. Expectations of experiential travel and life of the road “untrodden” abound, and cultural differences manifested in cuisines and religion are clear to see. For some (or many) a superficial interaction with the destination based on a series of “selfies” standing in front of iconic attractions is enough. For others, the need to gain a greater understanding of “how” and “why” Vietnam is what it is, leads to travel that has a greater richness and depth.
As for most destinations, Vietnam’s history forms a significant part of its story and by knowing what has happened in the past provides insights into why places are the way they are. There are three UNESCO heritage sites within close proximity of each other, seemingly unrelated. Taking the time to look at the region's history not only makes sense of it but provides greater understanding of how the earlier peoples living in Vietnam lived their lives.
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