That was the description given to me by friends and relatives who had been to Vietnam. The capital – Hanoi, in North Vietnam — is almost equidistant from the international hubs of Bangkok and Hong Kong. I was told that the scenery was breathtaking, the cuisine exquisite, and that both could be experienced at unbelievably low prices. But I wanted to see the people …..
From what I knew, these were a people who had, over the centuries, vanquished some of the world’s mightiest armies . After a thousand years of Chinese domination, Annam ( as it was then called ) threw off the Sung Chinese yoke. That was in 938 A.D. It then repulsed the mighty mongols under Kublai khan in 1288 A.D. Then it threw off the Ming Chinese yoke in 1427 A.D. after a short domination of 20 years. And the French in 1954, after an occupation of 80 years . Then in 1975, in a grand finale, it sent the armed forces of the mighty United states of America and its allies packing. Who were these people who could unite 54 ethnic groups to beat off invaders time and time again? What strengths did they have ?
There undoubtedly was ingeniousness, discipline, fortitude, efficiency, and a great fighting spirit. However, it was the methods used by the Viet to vanquish each of the foreign occupiers that intrigued me. It turned out that they used hundreds of small boats each with armed men to swamp the 400 ships of the Sung Chinese on the Bach Dang river in 938. They used thousands of wooden stakes embedded in the beds of the Chanh, Kenh, and Rut river tributaries to repulse the mongol armada in 1288.They used their knowledge of the terrain , rivers and forests to ambush the vastly superior Ming forces repeatedly until they eventually departed in 1427. They tunnelled through high hills and trudged through forests carrying their heavy artillery with them, to vanquish the famed French Foreign Legion at Dien Bien Phu on 7th May 1954. And they sheltered in their numerous caves and man-made tunnels to wear down the american and allied armies with jungle war-fare till final victory was achieved in 1975. Much of this history is re-lived through paintings and relics at the National museum of Vietnamese history, The Vietnam Military History museum and the Vietnam Museum of Revolution in Hanoi.
The face of courage . image credit: Le Viet Khanh
When I visited Vietnam in 2015, I found a land largely rebuilt after 25 years of two back-to-back wars. And, as expected, a people disciplined, industrious and quietly efficient, though still recovering from the aftermath of the wars. But yet I marveled at the way the numerous ethnic groups – Viet,Thai, South Chinese, Tibetan-Burmese, Mon-Khmer, Austronesian, and others – merged to form one nation.
Yet,Vietnam remains today a largely unknown entity to much of the world. I needed the assistance of a travel agency situated in Vietnam to advise me on where to stay, what to see, how to get around, and even to get me a visa from the government. Fortunately, I and my group were taken care of from the moment we landed at Hanoi airport till the time we departed. We were even allowed to choose our own itinerary from a range of options offered to us before hand.
Halong Bay,South China sea. image credit : Hugh Mascarenhas
Vietnam is a very long country — stretching from Yunnan in south-west China, past Laos, past Cambodia, down the gulf of Thailand, and ending at the cape of Ca Mau at the southern end of the gulf — a coastline of nearly 3,500 kilometres. It is In South Vietnam that the mighty Mekong river—starting in the Tibetan plateau and flowing 4,350 kilometres through 6 countries – empties into the South China sea. The Mekong river delta is one of the largest river deltas in the world and makes Vietnam the rice bowl of Asia and a major exporter of rice. With so much water , it is not surprising that sea-food of all types is abundant, as also the existence of large duck farms. There are 2,500 species of sea fish in the Vietnamese seas and more in its rivers and streams. This enables the Vietnamese to lay out a mind-boggling variety of sea food dishes, in addition to duck, pork, beef and other meats which attract gourmets from as far away as Australia and India.
Tam Coc, North Vietnam.. image credit : Hugh mascarenhas.
Much of Vietnam is thickly forested. Amazingly, though large tracts of forest were devastated by chemicals and bombs during the Vietnam war, and many species of birds and mammals thought to have been wiped out, nature is making a stunning come-back. In fact , some 99 new species have been discovered in the last 30 years! This is probably because of the vast cave systems which sheltered the endangered species during the wars. The limestone that constitutes much of the land, is susceptible to dissolution by water and aids the formation of large caves – often high up the hillsides. In one particular area on the border of Vietnam and Laos, there is a cave – Phong Nha Ke Bang—that is the largest limestone cave complex in the world. It covers over 200,000 hectares and has fairly large rivers flowing through it. The forests of Vietnam harbour 840 species of birds and 310 species of mammals, apart from amphibians, reptiles and insects. They are a paradise for nature lovers.
South Cat Tien forest wildlife. image credit : Vietnam Airlines
However , there is more to Vietnam than natural beauty. From the 7th century the Cham people of central Vietnam had established themselves as a prosperous kingdom called Champa, with its capital Vijaya at present day Cha Ban in central Vietnam . It had the benefit of existing alongside three great empires – the Tang empire of China, the Srivijaya empire of Sumatra and the Chola empire of India. Hence the strong Indian influence in its sculptures and Chinese influence in it ceramics. Its port (modern day Qui Nhon) was an important port of call on the maritime silk route during the reign of the Tang.
gold statue , Srivijaya style Glazed ceramic . Chu Dau kiln , Viet nam image credits : National Museum of Vietnamese history, Hanoi
Apsara stone carving , Indian style image credit : Vietnam Airlines
Today Vietnam is emerging as one of the fastest growing economies of Asia. Thanks to the industriousness and skill of its people, it is rated as the 5th largest exporter of textiles and apparel in the world. Other exports include coffee, pepper, footwear and commercial goods manufactured for multinational groups. It also has considerable reserves of oil and gas in fields off-shore, The Trans Pacific Partnership agreement of October 2015 is slated to make Vietnam one of the major beneficiaries of trade between the Pacific rim countries, especially with the U.S.A. It seemed to me that Vietnam is a gem that will not be hidden for long .
( One thing that Vietnam does not have is snow capped mountains. To experience those, I had to travel to the northern borders of my own country . The mighty Himalayas and their fauna and flora are the subject of my next blog. Stay posted.)