Passage to the south

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Hanh Trinh Mo Coi took place on Vietnam's largest-ever stage, a six storey structure of around 500 square meters built between the Hue Citadel and its moat

Vietnamese history is a history of going south, whether it was the settlers' "great march south" in the 10th or 17th centuries, or the Vietnamese people's "great spring victory" that finally liberated the southland and re-unified the country.

Both southern journeys came to life at the Hue Festival last week during Hanh trinh mo coi (Journey to expand the country), a kind of impressionistic reenactment of 1,000 years of Vietnamese history through traditional and modern opera, song and dance.

The play with a touch of Vietnamese operatics took place on Vietnam's largest-ever stage, a six-storey structure of around 500 square meters built between the Hue Citadel and its moat.

The most ambitious of all the Hue Festival events, Hanh trinh mo coi illustrated the ambitions of various Vietnamese communities throughout history and painted portraits of heroes and common folk, throwing into relief the daily lives of commoners during peace and war.

The play's historical focus was Vietnam's long and hard struggles for self-preservation in the face of numerous foreign invaders. The show championed ancestral pride and showed how today's young generation can learn from the past to build an even stronger nation.

Its three main chapters focused on the early settlement of the south, the reunification of the country, and the celebration of the liberated and reunified nation.

Cramming some thousand years of history into one show, Hanh trinh mo coi moved swiftly and quickly.

It began with the marriage of princess Huyen Tran to Cham King Che Man in 1306. The sad first scene is that of her farewell to Vietnam as King Tran Anh Tong had offered her to Che Man in return for two provinces: O and Ry (stretching from modern day Quang Tri Province to the Hai Van tunnel near Da Nang).

The journey south continued with Nguyen Hoang, a talented general in the Le King Empire. He left the north in 1611 and began settling in what are now the southern provinces. Gradually he expanded the country further into what is now Phu Yen Province.

Though this was a time that began to divide Vietnam between the southern Nguyen Lords under Hoang and the northern Trinh lords, the lyrical play depicted this as a joyous new page of Vietnamese history, with new and enthusiastic communities emerging in the south. This section features scenes of hard working women in the fields and depictions of the army ensuring national security.

In the middle of 18th century, a 45- year war began between the Trinh and the Nguyen and people became very poor. The peasant revolt known as the Tay Son uprising then changed the course of the nation's history.

The Nguyen bothers (Nhac, Lu and Hue) led the Tay Son rebels from what is now central Vietnam to overthrow the Nguyen lords, and they then marched north to overthrow the Trinh. Having successfully ousted the feudal leaders of Vietnam, the Nguyen brothers implemented a series of far-reaching egalitarian reforms and ruled over a fully unified Vietnam for the first time since Nguyen Hoang marched south.

Hanh trinh mo coi depicted the Hue brothers' great victories with pomp and splendor.

But after reunifying the country, Nguyen Hue had to lead his troops back down south to repel a Siamese invasion launched to restore the Nguyen lords as Siamese puppets. Having successfully defeated the Siamese, Hue and his army had to rush back north to defend Hanoi (then known as Thang Long) against an invasion by nearly 300,000 Qing Dynasty Chinese troops who sought to restore the Le Dynasty under Chinese protection.

Finally having solidified his control over the country, Nguyen Hue, now known as King Quang Trung, began redistributing land to the poor, promoting industrial development and opening policies to welcome the cooperation of foreigners in Vietnam. He also replaced Chinese characters with Nom Vietnamese characters as the official writing system and language of Vietnam.

He is remembered as a kind of Robin Hood in Vietnam by many people today.

But the peace did not last for long. The Nguyen brother's ambitious Tay Son project to create a just society was eventually derailed by sabotage by the former royal families in collusion with Vietnam's neighbors, as well as infighting among the brothers. Soon, the powerful Nguyen lord Nguyen Anh restored himself to power by overthrowing the Tay Son Dynasty not long after it had reunified the country.

And not long after that, the French arrived in Vietnam, opening up another era of suffering and bloodshed in Vietnam. Hanh trinh mo coi briefly revealed scenes of the long wars against both the French and Americans, as well as scenes of official 1945 declaration of independence from France.

Although the different historical periods were not linked so perfectly with each other, and some details of history were left out, Hanh trinh mo coi was an epic that set out to remind Vietnamese people of their magnanimous past through traditional dancing, ceremonies, music, meticulous costumes and elaborate sets.

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