Yesterday I drove out into the jungle to see the ruins of ‘My Son’. Along the way I recognized how true it was that Vietnam is still largely a rural nation. It’s currently the 13th most populous nation in the world and in a few decades is projected to become the 10th. There are babies and infants everywhere and pregnant women are a common sight as well. Similar to Iran there is a huge under-30 cohort in the country. This group has come of age in an era of rapid economic growth and reform. But Vietnam is still rural and it was the land, the countryside to which I was drawn. (I grew up on a farm and find rural areas quite fascinating.) The Vietnamese countryside did not disappoint.
In this part of Central Vietnam the flat farm land is found in a very narrow strip–40 to 50 miles wide–between the mountains and the sea. It is land of thick, fertile alluvial soils. As I drove inland from the coast we passed several rivers–it’s no wonder Swift Boats played such an important part in the war (my uncle died on one), but it’s only until you get here and see for yourself that you realize this. Fisherman in conical bamboo hats waded in the shallows along the banks and the islands in mid-river, while many long canoe-like boats paddled upstream and down.
Then came the rice paddies, fields and fields of them–all just recently harvested–with water buffaloes languishing in the muck left behind. Egrets sitting atop the big, strangely calm and silent animals, herons hunting in the muddied waters of paddies, ducks, geese and moor-hens were everywhere. Often I caught the reflection of the mountains in the distance in these semi-stagnant pools of water.
The roads were clogged with bicycles; school children riding home, others with parasols jerry-rigged for shade from the withering sun and women wearing the elegant ‘ao dai’ blowing gently in the soft breeze.
Sometimes a farm house sat in the middle of an immense field of rice paddies, raised up on a dyke-like formation. Shaded by banana trees and other palms, the thatch-roofed houses were made of red-bricks, fired from the luxuriant red soil of the region. Some were surrounded by water-cress fields, and cabbage patches and melons and orchards. And even though it was the heat of the day and all the beasts of the land were laying in the shade the Vietnamese were hard at work. Ceaseless. One man patched a roof with his friends. Another fixed a flat tire on his moped. Women cooked lunch on a front yard grill and the children separated the rice from the chaff or tended to the animals.
The population density here is intense. It’s hard to travel more than a kilometer without passing through another village, much like rural China. Even in the empty spaces farm houses pop up out of the paddies, dotting the landscape all over. Rolling green hills, terraces, duck ponds and pig pens were everywhere to be seen. Humanity has placed a giant footprint here and it was only when I drove on into the mountains that the jungle closed in–and fast.
Soon I parked. The canopy overhead, dense and disturbing, darkened the path forward. Warning signs punctuated the path at key points. One read: “Caution! Unexploded ordinance in the area. Stay on path!” Such portents were a common, if grim reminder of a darker time in Vietnam’s recent past. I continued on for another kilometer. The shade provided by the canopy overhead provided little relief from the heat and amplified the humidity to a stifling level. I continued climbing upwards but my slight pant and heightened heart-rate were soon greeted by the ruins of ‘My Son.’
The bricks looked as if they were fired yesterday–the same hue of ochre as the farm houses further down the mountain. But the architecture was stunning–so very Hindu. The sensual ornamentation of full-breasted Hindu goddesses and the sleek elegance of Hindu warriors graced each temple and building in the ruins. They filled the site with a strange feeling of displacement–as if I were off some untrod path in Kerala instead of in Central Vietnam.
But the jungle rules here, hanging as it does from the tops of temples much as it does at Caracol in Belize. Unlike Central American sites the water is plentiful here. Streams, brooks and small rivers criss-cross the 12 square kilometers of the site. ‘My Son’ was inhabited for close to half a millenium and it is no wonder. ‘My Son’ is strategically placed in an emerald bowl of jungle clad peaks with only a single, narrow, valley entrance. In an age of swords, horses and the bow it was easily defended and not easily besieged. The surrounding land, although cratered and littered with UXOs now is fecund. Farms must have been plentiful then and with plenty of water ‘My Son’ could withstand any attempt at a siege, wholly self-sufficient as it was.
Sadly, like most of South-East Asia and China, excepting parts of Indonesia, the landscape is denued of any large wildlife. The Indo-China tiger is all but gone from the area and so is its prey. I heard half a dozen different song birds, but the jungle canopy prevented seeing any of them. Little is more frustrating than hearing a haunting bird-song whilst unable to see the singer. Loud croaking from frogs echoed all around me but I was unwilling to hunt them out–for leaving the path was too dangerous.
Driving back I watch the country-side pass before me. A lone figure pulls out weeds from a rice paddy. Another tosses a fish net into a river. A black dog tramps through rows of carefully cultivated cabbage, sniffing something out. Pigs wallow in the mud. Water buffaloes are ever present, as are cows. Banana and palm trees fill the low, flat horizon and the green is everywhere except in the sky overhead, pastel-blue, studded with thick white clouds and the sun breathing life into everything.