The headline almost read like hyperbole: "Vietnam's Version of Great Wall Uncovered." Sitting at my laptop in steamy Bangkok, I quickly scoured the web for more information. Nothing. Well, almost nothing. Just another news item that posed more questions than it answered. But it was enough to excite my inner Indiana Jones. Weeks after stumbling upon the newspaper article, I was still thinking about the Vietnamese province and its wall. And the teenager in me that went to college to study anthropology couldn't resist—I had to go.
Throughout history, empires have left their mark on the landscape by establishing roads, building fortresses, and constructing walls. Hundreds or thousands of years later, a few famously massive defenses still dominate the landscape, luring travelers and history buffs alike. But while China's 5,000-mile architectural feat is a familiar name the world over, a stone and earth barrier in central Vietnam was known to just a handful of archaeologists until as recently as last year. This in spite of the fact that it approaches the length of Hadrian's famous wall in northernmost England.
"When we first saw it, we were translating this nineteenth century geography. There were maps in this book, and we didn't know all of the words until we looked them up in a dictionary. I thought, 'What is this, and why don't I know about it?'" asked Dr. Andrew Hardy.
Few English speakers know as much about the Long Wall as Dr. Hardy, head of the Hanoi center of the Ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient. In short, declarative sentences, he'd politely responded to my emails about his research, rationing facts about a discovery that stoked the curiosity of an archaeology geek like me.
Disappointingly, however, his messages were often light on detail, no matter how many times I pressed for more information.
"This question would undoubtedly require me to write a long paper," he typed in reply at one point.
Getting Feet on the Ground in Central Vietnam
I wanted to understand something about the Long Wall, and the only way to do that was to travel to Quang Ngai province. This was a Vietnam that didn't correspond with textbook summaries or the conical hats of tourist brochures. Maybe there I could see Vietnam as more than a collection of glimmering beaches or the battleground of a controversial war.
Naturally, there were complications. First of all, while large sections still stand two centuries after its completion, the Truong Luy, as the wall is known in Vietnamese, is no longer fully intact. Abandoned by the Dai-Viet dynasty that built it, partially dismantled by the French in 1905, and left to the elements, somewhere between one third and half of the wall have vanished beneath jungle and farmland. Meanwhile, the remaining pieces hold secrets historians have yet to crack. As Dr. Hardy explained, most records from the Nguyen court (1802-1945) have been lost. "Of course, that's the essential period to understand," he said with a chuckle. "But then, all history is incomplete."
Incomplete yes, and occasionally forgotten. Finished in 1819, the Long Wall once linked dozens of small forts and temples along its winding course from Tra Bong in the north to neighboring Binh Dinh province in the south. Despite its size however, the Long Wall faded from aging minds over time. Even now, after years of surveying and excavating, only one contemporary survey of the wall's route has made it into print. At the same time, provincial tourist maps are printed at unhelpfully small scales. And in Vietnamese.
Unfolding a national map on the bed in my room, I followed Route 1A, the coastal highway, north with my index finger. Halfway to Hanoi I spotted a little red star indicating Son My Village as a place of interest. Directly beneath this symbol, in bold black letters, I found the name I sought: Quang Ngai.
A Deal Struck by Google Translate
Seen in the sun's mid-morning glare, the city of Quang Ngai is unlikely to impress. Three wide, dusty avenues hum with motorbikes, bundles of thin black electrical wires dangle precariously across intersections, and gazing down from an enormous billboard, Uncle Ho silently presides over the town's lone park—a small, fenced-in triangle of grass and concrete. The heat in September is inescapable and for the visitor, there is virtually nothing to do. My goal was to persuade someone to take me to the wall.
Tu met me at half past seven the next morning, dressed sharply in dark slacks, loafers, and an Oxford shirt. Grinning, he handed me a shiny helmet.
"Ben, we go to luy now."
Since my arrival I had mimed my way through interactions with several people, none of whom knew what to do with a sweaty American asking about old monuments. Yet something vaguely resembling strategy had taken shape. Sitting on either side of a boxy desktop computer, Tu and I had used Google Translate to reach an agreement. He would take me south to a place called Thien Xuan. He would leave me with a cell phone, in case of emergency. I would contact him again after I'd found my way back to Quang Ngai City. Money would be exchanged. After nearly an hour in a clammy office together, this was the extent of my understanding.
I'd been hunched behind Tu on the back of his motorbike for the better part of the morning when he abruptly swerved off the paved road onto a dirt track. More than once on our journey he had pulled over to consult my tourist map so I wasn't sure that out latest digression was intentional. But to my left I caught a glimpse of a historical marker so new, the cement appeared to have set that day. As we zipped by, I mouthed the sign's block lettering: "Di Tich Quoc Gia. National Monument." The Long Wall was 200 meters away.