Stories in Stone: Walking Vietnam's Long Wall—Page 2
by Ben Keene

Quang Vinh

"Ben, Hanh Tin Dong...Quang Ngai one day?"

Interpreting his statement as a question, I nodded in affirmation. I did intend to return to the city on foot.

"Whoa," Tu replied, smirking as he rebuckled his helmet. He rode off without pausing or looking back, yet I waved at him, clumsily. My plan basically ended here.

Behind me, a tall, orderly pile of dry-stacked stone led off into the vegetation in two directions. Signs of human activity—litter, tree stumps, the occasional footprint—spoiled the scene somewhat, but I'd found what I was looking for. Cicadas buzzed in the canopy above. Reaching out a hand, I leaned on the wall's cool, rough surface.

I remembered something Dr. Hardy said about the Nguyen Dynasty's likely motives for such an ambitious project: the Long Wall was built to maintain good will, not necessarily to keep enemies out. In essence, he and his colleagues believe it worked almost like customs checkpoints do today. Rather than a military defense, it served to keep the peace between the Ca Dong, Cor, and Hre ethnic groups, and the Viet people, the cultural majority that ruled the coastal lowlands. For the 86 years this rampart stretched across the foothills of the Truong Son range, highland tribes traded farm and forest goods for items like bronze gongs and ceramic jars that the Viets manufactured.

In time, his theory may prove true, but looking out across one iridescent rice paddy after another, my mind unearthed memories of newer scars hidden beneath this same landscape. Throughout much of its history, Central Vietnam maintained a spirit of fierce independence. Quang Ngai City, almost equidistant from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, was a center of resistance against French colonizers in the early twentieth century, and then during the Vietnam War, American ground forces. After landing their first marines north of Quang Ngai at Da Nang, the U.S. military went on to punish the area with some of the conflict's most intensive bombing campaigns. Add to that the infamous My Lai massacre at Son My Village in 1968, and it's easy to say that the Long Wall passes through a part of the country with an extremely sensitive past.

The Vietnam War was a period of time I didn't fully comprehend, and maybe never would. My father had been lucky in the draft lottery, and in high school my U.S history teacher spent less than a week on the subject. What little I knew came from a handful of books, novels mostly. That afternoon, as I slowly began to follow the wall from Thien Xuan, scenes from one of them stood out.

Vietnam travel

"Below, in the earth, the relics of our presence were no doubt still there, the canteens and bandoliers and mess kits," Tim O'Brien wrote about returning to Vietnam as a veteran in The Things They Carried. "This little field, I thought, had swallowed so much."

It occurred to me that my own feet were treading on forgotten mess kits, too. The physical remains of hard lives lived in these same hills. Walking north, I began to notice shards of glazed blue and white ceramic, but I had no way of determining their age. Without Dr. Hardy's expertise, I was left to wonder. After lying silent for more than a century, Truong Luy was proving a reluctant storyteller.

Following a Forgotten Wall
It also doesn't like being followed. An hour into my hike, the coarse, gray stones tumbled down a steep slope and a thick tangle of underbrush blocked my way forward. I paused for a few gulps of water. The heat had grown more intense as the day wore on, and perspiration stung my eyes. In the terrain ahead of me, there didn't seem to be anything else to pursue. Pushing through brittle shrubs and snarls of vines, I worked my way around the obstacle, only to lose the wall again after descending a short distance.

Without another option, I turned around, backtracking to the south. I'd stick with the wall, even if it carried me further from Quang Ngai. Progressing in this direction was easier, and the trees thinned out enough to give me sweeping views over the Song Ve valley. The only noise interrupting the calm was the occasional buzz of a motorbike on the two-lane road below. With so little known about the wall, it was naïve to think Truong Luy would reveal something to me after a single visit. How much can anyone learn in a day? So I set off again, downhill, toward that sun-baked strip of asphalt, trekking for hours until nightfall caught up with me.

walk back

As I walked, nearly everyone I met greeted me warmly. Old women filling enormous sacks with rice paused to smile as I passed. Groups of shirtless men waved at me from their card games. Little boys on rusty bikes rode after me shouting "Hell-O!" and teenagers flashed peace signs as they sped by on scooters.

During a late afternoon thundershower, an attractive woman pulled over to press a checked yellow poncho into my hands.

"Cam on," I managed to reply before she pulled away. "Thank you."

"What your hotel?" inquired a young father, his tiny son perched on the handlebars in front of him. "I can take you."

In all, 16 people stopped to offer me a ride as I slowly covered the miles back to Quang Ngai City. On the other side of the road, not far from where I started, I'd stumbled across another section of Truong Luy, but failed to find any other trace of the historic barrier. Luck alone wouldn't lead me to the rest of the Long Wall. What I really wanted to discover I realized, was Vietnam itself.

The next morning, I felt like much had changed. I was further west now, in Hanh Dung commune, searching for another fort among the fig trees and bamboo thickets. Finding it required some bushwhacking, but the pile of earth and stone that finally emerged from the greenery looked different. After meeting so many locals in its vicinity, I now longer saw Truong Luy as an artifact from a forgotten past; it seemed like a piece of Vietnam's future.

Last spring government officials declared The Long Wall a National Heritage Monument, and in consultation with international experts, announced long-term plans to develop heritage tourism around it. What this could mean is that 200 years after it was built to ease differences and encourage trade, the Long Wall is poised to bring people together again. To me, that made the old stones shine with potential.

Ben Keene has contributed to a wide range of publications including Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, Time Out New York,, the Village Voice, Penthouse, and the San Francisco Chronicle. His articles on craft beer have also appeared in DRAFT, Beer Connoisseur, All About Beer, The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge, and the Oxford Companion to Beer. These days, when not hunched over a laptop in an airport or a hotel room, he's often leading trips as a New York State Licensed Guide for Discover Outdoors in New York.

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