Gateway to the Past
Historians can wax poetic about this veritable wonderland of a thousand, no… more, years of warlords and dynasties, temples and treasures as delicate as a butterfly’s wing.
But, in direct contrast to this illustrious past marches a youthful population of Vietnamese teenagers who giggle and wiggle to the hottest new boy band. To them anyone older than, say, Tom Cruise is ancient history. Old news. Not a part of the Nike / DKNY / cell phone scene catapulting this nation into the present at warp speed. And it’s this youthful cadre (60% of the population is under 25) that will usher Vietnam out of the pages of the history books onto the world’s economic scene, their faces fixed on the future. Their destiny in the firm grip of their hands for they’re the first generation in too many that has not known war.
We being a tich older than, oh, Britney Spears may already be knowledgeable about this sliver of land that has factored into many of our own private histories. And even if our nation’s call didn’t personally bring us here almost a lifetime ago, we probably have an interest in and curiosity about such important sites as Hue, Marble Mountain, China Beach, and Da Nang anyway.
Chan May, therefore, is the ideal gateway to these destinations. We simply need to pass through for our own personal exploration.
The Ancient City Of Hue
Timeless. Imperial. Hue whispers of a time when nobles ruled this land from the South China Sea to the distant mountains. In 1601, nobleman Nguyen Hoang proclaimed that this would serve as his capital ordering the construction of the Phu Xuan citadel. In time the Nguyen lords battled with rivals from the Trinh family. The Nguyen’s feudal warlords ultimately won and ruled from Hue for 200 years. In 1802, a Nguyen proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long taking the first step down a 143-year journey for the Nguyen Dynasty that lasted till 1945.
Occupying foreigners followed. First the French, then the Japanese, finally the Americans. Hue ultimately became part of South Vietnam following the UN’s division of the country. Old newsreels captured the anti-Buddhist movement that followed with protests by local monks who set themselves ablaze for the world to witness. That was 1963. Five years later, with the Tet Offensive under way, the imperial city and citadel of Hue suffered massive damage. The scars of battle are still visible though much of the original stone and tile work, temples and flower gardens, red lacquer and gold inlay, bronze urns and painted bridges remain to dazzle the visitor including the Imperial Enclosure, the Esplanade of Grand Salutation, and the Palace of Supreme Harmony.
Other sites of interest in the area include the Thien Mu (Celestial Lady) Pagoda with its seven tiers, one for each reincarnation of Buddha. Tu Duc’s tomb was built in 1864 to resemble a miniature royal palace with pagodas, pavilions and stone statuary. Minh Mang’s tomb, a bit further on, was completed in 1843. This emperor’s mausoleum features graceful stone work and tranquil lakes laced with colorful lotus flowers.
A visit to Hue wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Dong Ba market with its wizened vendors hawking rice and spices, fruits and vegetables, even chickens ready for the pot.
The city of Da Nang lies midway between Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi. The Cham civilization flourished in this area. In fact, a Cham king presented Da Nang as a wedding gift to princess Huyen Tran in the 14th century. Beats steak knives, wouldn’t you say!
The Spanish and French also had an interest in Da Nang because of its safe harbor and commercial opportunities. In 1954, the French withdrew from the country and the Geneva Accord plunked Da Nang into the hands of the South Vietnamese. It literally became the dividing line between the South and North factions and was smack in the crosshairs of the conflict that raged between the US and Allied troops with the South Vietnamese against the Viet Cong and the Northern military. In 1975, the city fell to the V.C., a signal that their victory was won.
Visitors to Da Nang today can explore the Cham Museum, which features 300 sandstone and terra cotta sculptures from the 4th-14th centuries plus other important artifacts.
Nearby Marble Mountain is really five mountains named for the elements – earth, fire, metal, water and wood. A 153-step climb affords you a great view of Da Nang, the vast Pacific Ocean and China Beach, the backdrop for GI’s R&R as well as film and TV productions.
The ancient city of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a maze of tiny streets that wend past well-preserved homes, temples, and meeting halls. The architecture speaks to the Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese merchants who were based here selling fish and silk, spices and such. For many centuries, Hoi An served as one of Southeast Asia’s most important trading ports incorporating the cultures of the Westerners who did business here. Today, the city’s old quarter has been lovingly restored with carved wooden doors preserved, and tile roofs polished. Many gracious residents will invite you inside their homes for a closer look.
As your day draws to a close in Chan May, sip a cup of ca phe phin coffee and reflect on this area’s rich heritage, one you’ll have shared today.