Da Nang – Where North Meets South in Vietnam
This is my fourth post from the 2023 Adventures Abroad tour of Vietnam which Alison and I did as part of a three country tour that also included Laos and Cambodia. In the last post we departed Hanoi and headed into the countryside where we learned how to plant rice and make spring rolls. In this post we’ll leave the north of the country and fly to the city of Da Nang which is found at the mouth of the Han River almost in the dead centre of the country. Here we will visit two completely different sites, one inside and one outside and both equally interesting so please join us for yet another great day on this tour of Vietnam.
We catch an early morning flight from Hanoi to Da Nang which takes about ninety minutes. If you have any recollection of the Vietnam War the name Da Nang will ring a bell as it was here that the United States had a major air force base on the same spot as we just landed. It was also well known as the most popular R&R spot for US troops during the war, frequently referenced by Robin Williams’ character in the movie Good Morning, Vietnam. The TV series China Beach took place here as well. Today that long stretch of beach is dotted with five star resorts and golf courses most run by American based chains; not a hint that this is supposed to be a Communist country.
This city of just over a million residents has an ultra modern skyline highlighted by the Dragon Bridge which was designed by, you guessed it, an American engineering firm. Opened in 2013, we cross it to get to our first stop of the day, the Da Nang Museum of Cham Sculpture.
Da Nang Cham Sculpture Museum
I have to confess that before coming to Vietnam I had never heard of the Cham people or the Champa Empire that lasted from the 2nd century AD until 1832 when its last remnants were absorbed by its Viet neighbours to the north. The area controlled by the Cham coincided fairly closely with the boundaries of South Vietnam before the war. This map shows the Champa Empire in yellow along the coast of Vietnam in 1306.
What is most interesting about the Cham people is that they did not come from the mainland as did the Viet, but rather by sea from the islands of modern day Indonesia, most notably Borneo. Their language is the oldest confirmed Austronesian variety still in existence as verified by a 4th century inscription found not far from Da Nang. The inscription also showed that the Cham people were heavily influenced by Hindu belief systems and that religion, along with Buddhism predominated the area under their control until a late conversion to Islam. At its most powerful between the 7th and 10th centuries Champa controlled the spice trade between India and China and was a major maritime power. Later on this tour we will visit Mȳ Son, a major Cham archaeological site that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Champa Empire was in almost constant conflict with its neighbours and had to fight off repeated invasions from the Viets to the north, the Khmers to the west and the Javanese to the south, not to mention the Mongols a couple of times. Eventually it all became too much and by the 14th century the empire was in irreversible decline and Champa became one of the greatest empires no one has ever heard of.
Today there are less than 100,000 people in Vietnam who can still speak the language.
The museum was designed and built by the French in 1915 to house a collection of Cham artifacts that had been collected by French archaeologists almost from the time they arrived in Vietnam. The collection of over 300 sandstone and terra cotta works is the largest in the world, housed in ten galleries, each one containing finds from a separate Cham site. So let’s go have a look and I’ll highlight just a few of the best pieces. Hold on to your hats because you are going to get a crash course in Hinduism.
In the middle of this photo is a pedestal upon which a statue of a Hindu deity would once have stood. The dancing figure is an Apsara, a celestial dancer akin to nymphs in more western mythologies. They are beautiful, sexy and unlike anything we have seen in the Chinese influenced parts of Vietnam. We will be seeing a lot more apsaras when we get to Angkor Wat. Beside the apsara is a Gandharva or celestial musician.
These fearsome creatures are Dvarapalas or gate guardians from the Buddhist temples of Dong Duong not far from My Son that date from the 9th or 10th century. Note that they are standing atop two creatures that are disgorging the humans they have devoured, something akin to the Greek myths involving the titan Cronus and his children.
This appears to be an elephant at first, but is actual a hybrid elephant/lion known as a Gajasimha a figure quite rare outside of Cham sculpture and this one from Thap Mam is considered to be the best in existence. Which raises the question, why are there lions represented in a country where there are no lions and none to be found for a long, long way?
Here’s something else I didn’t know until just a few years ago – there are lions in India and always have been. I knew they used to range well into Europe and Turkey, but had no idea that they ranged as far east as India where there is a small but actually increasing population. So the fact that the idea of lions was introduced to Vietnam with Hinduism answers the question. What is a bit weird though is that there are no representations in the Cham Museum of either tigers or leopards that are native to the country.
There are a number of representations of dancing Shiva in the Cham Museum of Da Nang including this one with eight arms. Others have many more, while the most common ones seen in southern India usually have only four. Hinduism is rife with symbolism far too complex for me to describe or even understand. Suffice it to say that Shiva is both the god of destruction and of resurrection in the eternal circle of life and death. What really surprises me is finding this god, so closely identified with India, here in Vietnam some 3,000 kms. (2000 miles) from the borders of that country.
I won’t go into any more detail about individual pieces we saw in the Cham Museum of Da Nang, but here is a gallery where you will find many other common gods and other figures associated with the Hinduism that flourished in Champa for well over a thousand years. Double click to open and then again to enlarge.
Note the last photo in the gallery. Yes, those are polo players, a game that originated in ancient Persia and spread to India and apparently at one time, even Vietnam.
Lastly have a look at this figure, identified only as an unidentified male deity. If I didn’t know I was standing in front of this in Da Nang, Vietnam I would swear that it was a Mayan piece from somewhere in Mexico or Central America.
So the visit to the Cham Museum of Da Nang has taught us that Hindusim once thrived in Vietnam, that lions still exist in India, that they used to play polo in these parts and that the Cham people and the Mayans might have been cousins. That’s quite a lot for one day, but there’s more to come as we enter a completely different world only a short distance from here.
Not far inland from Da Nang there are five small mountains that rise dramatically from the floor of the Han River valley. They are made of limestone and its metamorphic state, marble and these have been quarried here for thousands of years. They have also been considered sacred by a number of religions, most notably Bhuddism. Only the highest mountain, Thuy Son, is accessible to the public and you can climb to the top via 156 stairs or if you are too lazy or infirm to do that, take an elevator. That’s Tam Thai pagoda in the photo, the tallest of the many pagodas on Thuy Son.
Alison and I along with most others opt for the stairs.
One of the reasons to take the stairs is that this is where you will find many of the Buddhist shrines on Thuy Son, starting with this one depicting the Buddha in a meditative state in a very tranquil setting that was close to mesmerizing. If you couldn’t chill out here you probably couldn’t do it anywhere.
Not so tranquil is this collection of nagas that you come to next on the ascent. However, if you are pure of spirit you have nothing to fear as nagas supposedly only attack truly evil people. Everyone in our group gets a pass.
We now arrive at the first of the many temples or pagodas and they are all not only exotic, at least to a westerner, but really beautiful as well. They blend seamlessly into the mountain landscape and actually enhance it. This is Non Nuoc Pagoda which is relatively new at only 300 years old.
Here is Alison at the second pagoda.
And the temples just keep on coming the further up you go.
As you near the top there are trails going everywhere and suddenly Alison and I find ourselves alone in this enchanted place with this stunning blue pagoda.
We are running out of allotted time before needing to head back down to join the rest of the group so we only have time to check out one last pagoda on Da Nang’s Thuy Son mountain. This one is bi-coloured and has an image at its base that is usually mistakenly called the ‘fat Buddha’. This is actually a famous Buddhist monk nicknamed Budai who was known for his jollity and love of children. You can see he is covered with them. We will be seeing a lot more of him when we get down from the mountain.
After going down a few trails that end precipitously we do find the path down the opposite side of Thuy Son from the one we came up on. Reunited with the group we have some free time to explore one of the dozens of marble sculpture outlets that are found in this suburb of Da Nang. See if you can spot Alison and Claude amid this myriad of marble merchandise.
There are actually lots of smaller items at very reasonable prices that would make great souvenirs, but the problem with marble is that it’s bloody heavy and with two weeks still to go I don’t fancy lugging one around so it’s no sale.
It’s time now to leave Da Nang and head to Hoi An where we will spend the next three days exploring two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I hope you’ll join us.