Vietnam: Journeys of Shiva, spices and Samar
Lord Shiva looked at the boy from Babhnan visiting him. Don’t get surprised, we all have had our journeys, long and beautiful, he seemed to have said. Both smiled amidst the heavy rains. The boy was in Mỹ Sơn, the ancient temple site of the the Champa empire that ruled what is now central Vietnam from the 4th to 18th century AD. The ruins tell a gritty tale of the journeys that brought first Shiva and Hinduism and then spices to the region.
Interestingly, Hinduism reached Champa through neighbouring states like the Khmer empire in Cambodia and Funan, or Nokor Phnom. Even more interestingly, not much is known about Funan, not even its original name, Funan is what the Chinese calligraphers and historians called this indianised state, a loose network of states, Mandala.
Vietnam has always fascinated the small boy growing far away- actually three seas and an ocean away. He first learnt about the country through his father. His father was an ardent admirer of Ho Chi Minh, the only Asian man who militarily defeated two colonial powers, France and USA. His eyes would shine with a pride emerging from the idea of solidarity, the boy would note. He read about the country in Geography books as history ones would have little of it. Look East was yet not the official diplomatic line of the governments then- despite very friendly relations with them. India was one of those very few countries which helped the Viets in their war against the USA.
It was natural, then for the boy to run to the country, yet another soul place, on the very first opportunity. He started safe with Hanoi and was amazed at the warmth of the people and place. Countless trips to museums, including The Hanoi Hilton, as US prisoners of war called Hanoi Prison would end with the traditional Bia Hoi- gallons of freshly brewed beer served, literally, out of gallons in unassuming streetside shops. Aah, to be in Vietnam is bliss, to be in Bia Hoi just divine. Divine, the atheist boy feeling divine in a communist country sipping beer- journeys, he thought of and smiled.
Hanoi would take him to the The Văn Miếu , roughly translated as the Temple of Literature. It was Vietnam’s first university, built in 1070 AD and dedicated to Confucius. A university built in 1070, that too in Asia, the boy was impressed. Though no longer functional, students still come to the Temple of Literature to celebrate their graduation.
Halong Bay was the next among countless trips taken in and from Hanoi. The bay, literally translated as the “Bay of Descending Dragons”, has thousands of limestone hills rising from the sea look like someone has built a wall on the sea! Named as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the very touristy way is a must see, go early or stay in the town to beat the crowds but do go.
Next for the boy in the Nam was Hoi An, now overshadowed by the nearby megapolis Da Nang at the coast of East City turned into a resort city. Give that a miss though, nothing much to see or explore there. Go to Marble Mountains instead- a cluster of 5 mountains of hill and limestone with beautiful caves with temples whom Viet Minh turned into bunkers to fight first the French and then the US forces. Buddha next to bullet holes, journeys, again, the boy thought.
Hoi An, a beautiful Universal Heritage city was once the commercial capital of the Champa Empire that controlled the spice trade at its zenith. The boy was back home, the land of Shiva. Hoi An, one of the world’s most important ports from the 15th to 19th century is exceptionally well preserved despite the two decade long wars Vietnam suffered. The city’s importance waned sharply at the end of the 18th century. Some believe it that Tây Sơn Rebellion opposed to foreign trade was the reason, some claim it was silting up of the river mouth rendering the port worthless. Whatever is the truth, nearby Da Nang soon became the new centre of trade and the city got almost forgotten. That was a blessing, perhaps.
Lost among the lanterns, the boy was tired and sleepy. To get ready for Hue, another ancient capital of the Nam, a long journey next morning. Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, were the next on line. He waved his byes to Lord Shiva, promising that he would come back soon. Hong Kong is just 2 hours away, after all.