Set in stone

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The "Great Wall" of central Vietnam tells a fascinating story of collaboration and ingenuity


Archaeologists study artifacts unearthed at a post on the rampart in the Chim Hut Pass area in the central province of Quang Ngai. (Photo by Hien Cu)

Archeologists surmise that it is an unusual work involving local indigenous H're people, the Kinh ethnic group and Nguyen Dynasty soldiers.

After five years of excavation and study, it has been determined that the 200km-long rampart that runs from Quang Ngai to Binh Dinh provinces in central Vietnam is around 500 years old.

Researchers from the Vietnam Institute of Archaeology and the French School of the Far East in Hanoi say the historical relic runs along the Truong Son mountain range through eight districts of Quang Ngai before running into the districts of An Lao and Hoai Nhon in Binh Dinh, separating the plains and the highlands.

The longest and largest rampart in the country and the entire Southeast Asian region winds through mountains and valleys, sometimes at altitudes of nearly 800m, is 4-5m high and 6m wide at its base.

The wall is large and diverse, made of stone in some places to avoid landslides on high slopes and mountainous areas. These parts are a testament to the amazing rock arrangement skills of the indigenous H'Re people. The parts made of earth/lay were built mostly by the Kinh people and soldiers of the Nguyen Dynasty.

The rampart's stones arrangement techniques, varying in different sections and terrains, can also be seen in structures on Ly Son Island in Quang Ngai Province.

Many researchers believe, based on notes found in the book of Dai Nam Thuc Luc (the annals of Dai Nam or the true record of the great south) and geographical records maintained during King Dong Khanh's reign (1885-1889) and other documents compiled under the Nguyen Dynasty, that the rampart with 115 guarded posts was mostly built by general Le Van Duyet of the Nguyen Dynasty in 1819 during the reign of King Gia Long (1802-1820).

However, according to Dr. Nguyen Tien Dong, chief technical officer of the Vietnam Institute of Archaeology, the wall was built more than 500 years ago by the Vietnamese Kinh people, the H're people and soldiers. By the 19th century, it was maintained as a military project, he said.

Dr. Nguyen Dang Vu, director of the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Quang Ngai, said some sections of the rampart on the mountains in Quang Ngai Province existed several centuries earlier. He speculates that these sections may have been built by General Bui Ta Han (14961568), known for both literary and martial art skills, when he was assigned to the head position of Quang Nam.

The discovery of many ceramic artifacts during excavations at some sections of the rampart also proves that the rampart was built in the 16th century, not the 19th; and the close trading relationships that existed between Vietnamese Kinh peoples and the indigenous ethnic minorities, including H'Re, Chinese, Ka Dong, Xo Dang, and the Ba Na.

One more thing that makes the rampart interesting is that it was built not only for protection and military purposes but also to facilitate trade. Along the wall, the sections which are interrupted by many rivers and streams, are the mini-forts, guarded by soldiers, to ensure and create a safe environment for the Kinh and H'Re ethnic people to do business.

Each of the forts mentioned earlier was an open gate that facilitated travel and trade. The H're people bought salt from Vietnamese people and the Vietnamese people bought rice, cinnamon and forest products from the H're.

Experts studying the rampart also say that there is evidence that it was not just the Vietnamese Kinh people, but also the Thai and the Muong from Thanh Hoa Province who were part of the migration from the north to the south during the 18th century.

During the Vietnam War, the rampart sections in Duc Pho and Hoai Nhon districts in Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh provinces respectively were also used as a branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to transport weapons and food from the north to the south of the country.

Unearth and preserve

Researchers say the conclusions they have reached over the last five years are still preliminary findings. They are looking for foreign documents about the relic, and will continue excavation works to unlock more secrets about the very unique architectural structure.

Dr. Nguyen Giang Hai, vice director of the Vietnam Institute of Archaeology, said that, "The heritage is still alive if only the locals have the heart to preserve. Therefore, there is a need to sow the seed of consciousness for protecting the relic in the community living alongside the structure."

Prof. Christopher Young, head of the UK Heritage Council's Advisory Board, said, "The general principle is that a world heritage is not something to admire, but that it is for the benefit of people. Therefore, the development of tourism related to this relic should involve benefits such as income-generation opportunities for communities living alongside."

For its part, the institute should help Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh prepare the application for the rampart to be recognized as a national, cultural and historical relic. The legal recognition will help to protect it better and will also be necessaery preparatory work for subsequent recognition as a world cultural heritage by UNESCO, Hai added.

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