How I explored the Long Wall of Vietnam
While in Hanoi on a research trip in November 2010, I visited Dr. Andrew Hardy, head of the Hanoi branch of École française d'Extrême-Orient (French School of Asian Studies: EFEO).
EFEO was the same renowned archaeological organization that was instrumental in excavating and preserving the ancient ruins of Champa (Vietnam) and Angkor (Cambodia).
As we chatted over tea in his office, surrounded by an extensive library of scholarly manuscripts, I felt like I was in the opening scenes of an Indiana Jones film, back at Marshall College and being prepped for my next adventure.
Dr. Hardy explained that over the last five years, he and a team of archaeologists had uncovered a rampart spanning 127.4 kilometers, beginning in Quang Ngai Province (central Vietnam) and winding its way through mountains, jungles and farmland, south into the province of Binh Dinh.
Built in 1819, the “Long Wall of Quang Ngai” was the longest monument in Southeast Asia and the most important archaeological discovery in Vietnam for the past century.
I was already planning to head south in a few days. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try to find the wall myself.
Spirits and Swastikas: Journey into Hrê territory
As my train neared the ancient port town of Hoi An, I encountered the worst rainy-season flooding that I’d ever seen. The train glided across churning brown seas.
Lotuses and swastikas, adorning the tip of submerged tombs, poked out from the waves.
A friend of mine named Bich met me at the station in Quang Ngai City. There were neither maps of the wall nor any signs at the time, and most of the wall wasn’t accessible by road, so he would help me find my way.
We drove through forested hills and small villages, passing Hrê longhouses on stilts. Thatched roofs hung over latticed walls backed by woven grass mats.
Spirit alters laden with fruit stood by the road, resting atop tall bamboo stalks and decorated with tufts of grass.
Dr. Hardy had told me that the Hrê ethnic minority might have built the Long Wall in cooperation with the Vietnamese, partitioning the two communities for the purpose of mutual security and regulation of trade.
The Outpost at 'Deo Chim Hut'
Heavy rain made the drive difficult. A flash flood destroyed the bridge ahead so we took a long detour over the mountains at Deo Chim Hut (Sucking Bird Winding Road).
As I drove we heard rocks tumbling and trees snapping on the slopes above. Landslides crisscrossed over the road ahead. Bich nervously suggested we turn back and ask directions before proceeding, which turned out to be fortuitous.
A farmer showed us that the very wall we were looking for was just behind the road, hidden by foliage. A few ancient pottery shards lay scattered on the ground. Ceramics were among the many items traded along the wall.
I stood on the cornerstone of a ruined fort near the wall. Armies of black biting ants ran up and down the thorny tree beside me.
My eyes followed the two-meter-high stone wall down into the valley. I wondered what it was like to be a soldier guarding this post, almost two centuries ago, at the edge of a jungle inhabited then by elephants and man-eating tigers.
Up to our knees with snake and sickle
Next we drove south to Thien Xuan Village, parked our motorbike and waded across a river.
A green vine snake dropped out of the tree in front of me. The mildly venomous snake’s exaggeratedly long, pointed snout pushed through the tall grass, reminding me there may be more dangerous creatures lurking in the undergrowth.
We soon arrived at a four-meter-high stretch of the wall, this time made of earth, and followed it for an hour through flooded farmland and rice fields, wading up to our knees.
Water buffaloes wallowed in mud as farmers tended to their rice in the distance, below forested mountain peaks. This will be a spectacular hike I thought, once there is a decent trail.
I stopped to talk to a farmer but jumped back when, clearly mentally disturbed, he raised a long, sharp sickle above his head. With his other outstretched hand he kept chanting “Money, money.”
I gave him a few bills, hoping to diffuse the situation, and we turned to leave. For the next 20 minutes he followed behind as though in a trance, hand outstretched and sickle held high in the air, until we managed to lose him at the river.
We hopped on the motorbike and drove back to Quang Ngai City. Reflecting on the day’s adventure, I hoped to return to the great wall soon; once more infrastructure is in place.
Although there were a few challenges at the time, the wall has the potential to be one of Southeast Asia’s greatest tourism assets.
Editor’s Note: The Long Wall of Quang Ngai was designated a National Heritage Monument on March 9 and an inauguration ceremony was held on May 8. Four archaeological sites at the wall have now been signposted along nearby roads, making it no longer necessary to wander through the underbrush in order to visit the wall. Intensive discussions are now underway between the government and international experts regarding how to conserve and sustainably develop the wall and surrounding countryside for tourism.
Quang Ngai Province is located in central Vietnam between the UNESCO World Heritage Town of Hoi An and Quy Nhon (known for pristine beaches and ancient Cham temples).
Most visitors will arrive at the Danang airport or train station, just north of Hoi An, and continue by train (or bus) for two to three hours south to Quang Ngai City.
A few points along the Long Wall, and nearby forts, are now accessibly by taxi or motorbike about an hour from Quang Ngai City.