Thursday, 12 January 2012

The land of the Cham

Early January. We say goodbye to Hoi An, to our family, and to the chilly weather. The night train brings us south. We skip touristy Nha Trang, and visit one of the country’s most fascinating provinces, Ninh Thuan. Few foreigners spend time here, as the tourist infrastructure is not very well developed, but it is well worth a visit. This is one of the driest, hottest and windiest places in the country. Instead of wet rice paddies or lush forest, the landscape is made up of rocky hills, cacti and low, thorny shrubs that can survive in this climate. Vineyards, shepherds and goats complement them. If it were not for the litter scattered around everywhere, one might be tempted to call the landscape biblical.

Once upon a time, the Cham owned one of the great empires of Southeast Asia, stretching from present-day Cambodia to north-central Vietnam. They traded with India, Java and China, and had great military, maritime and agricultural knowledge. Today, however, they are one of Vietnam’s most impoverished and marginalised ethnic minorities, while in Cambodia, their number and influence greatly declined because of the genocide committed against them by the Khmer Rouge. In Vietnam, there are currently about one hundred thirty thousand Cham people (0.17% of the population). Despite their poverty, traces of their great history remain. Throughout the southern and central parts of Vietnam, a number of impressive Cham temple towers (dating from the ninth to the fourteenth century) are living testimony to the artistic and architectural genius of the ancient Champa kingdom.

A significant proportion of Cham people today follow an adapted version of Islam. Historically, however, they have worshipped Shiva as their main deity, as well as deified kings (who were probably considered incarnations of Shiva); those who do not follow Islam continue to do so. Naturally, Shiva’s son (Ganesha), wife (Parvati) and bull (Nandi) were also popular, as well as a range of other Hindu deities and divine creatures. As elsewhere, the worship of Shiva was intertwined with fertility cults. Great symbols of divine fertility, and of the unity of male and female, are the so-called linga and yoni, usually made of stone. They represent a male phallus and female vulva, the unity reached through sexual intercourse, and, ultimately, divine reproduction. Most Cham temples still have their linga and/or yoni, some of which are decorated with elaborate carvings.

On previous occasions, I have visited the temple complexes of My Son and Tam Ky in Quang Nam province, as well as the lovely tower in Nha Trang. I have also visited the excellent Museum for Cham Sculpture in Danang, and seen the Champa collection of the Musée Guimet in Paris. For some time, I have had the wish to visit the heartland of Cham culture. Today, that wish has come true. Some of the greatest Cham temples can be found here, in Ninh Thuan province, around the city of Phan Rang. Unlike the towers in Central Vietnam, these are still used for worship. Most Cham people live in this area, and they continue to use the temples for their religious activities. Even those who follow Islam still take part in traditional festivals and rituals.

One of the most impressive Cham temples - perhaps even one of the most impressive religious places I have ever visited - is located near the train station of Thap Cham, six kilometres west from Phan Rang. It is called Po Klang Garai, and was built to honour and worship a legendary king from the past. The king is said to have reconquered land from the Khmer, unify different mini-states, and designed dams and irrigation projects for his people. The temple, which has been restored, is located beautifully on top of a high hill, offering great views of the surrounding countryside. Inside the temple are statues of Shiva and his bull, as well as an altar where offerings are placed. Every year in April, thousands of Cham come here to celebrate their traditional New Year ceremony.

The second Cham temple is located fifteen kilometres south of Phan Rang, and somewhat difficult to find – kudos to the Lonely Planet for giving an adequate route description. The best way to get here is by motorbike or xe om (motorbike taxi). On the way, we pass through poor Cham villages, surrounded by litter as the state does not take care of garbage collection in this area. Cows and pigs are eating the plastic, children play in the dirt, and diseases spread easily. In places like this, there is little or no money for education or healthcare. Meanwhile, the provincial capital is filled with large government buildings and Pyongyang-style monuments, built by megalomanic local officials maintaining strong personal ties with construction companies. One of the problems of Vietnam is that the central government is too weak, and provincial governments have too much freedom to decide what they spend their money on. Thus, shitty provincial capitals turn into hideous concrete parks, while no money is spent on waste disposal or basic education – especially if politically marginal ethnic minorities are concerned.

In order to reach the temple of Po Ro Me, you have to leave the concrete road, and drive the last 500 metres on an unpaved path full of stones, which is a bit of an adventure. But it is worth it. Po Ro Me is not as large as Po Klang Garai, but equally impressive, and even more mysterious. The landscape is wild, rough, deserted, beautiful. The temple is built on top of a pyramid-like construction, and offers great views of the landscape. It is currently in the process of being restored. Inside is a peculiar stone relief, consisting of a carving of Shiva with a long beard and hat, as well as a female statue (possibly a deified queen) and two small bulls. Next to the temple is a large stone linga.

On the way back to Phan Rang, we pass through a Cham village called Bau Truc. It is famous for its pottery, and sometimes visited by tour groups. We visit one of the shops. The owner is an old, friendly Cham lady, who has given demonstrations of her pottery skills in places as far away as Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur. She is a good salesperson, and we leave her shop with a small religious statue. She is also a good story-teller, who proudly shares her cultural heritage with visitors.

We take the national highway back to Phan Rang, pass through the city, and continue north for another twenty kilometres or so. The wind is very strong, and driving here is not exactly fun, as the road is used by many large trucks and buses. Finally, we arrive in the village of Ba Thap, which literally means 'Three Towers'. Two of the three are still standing, and they look impressive, even though they are not built on top of hills, but in a large field. According to my book on Champa buildings, these are the oldest remaining Cham towers, dating from the ninth century. They have been restored professionally, probably by Unesco, judging from the logo on the bricks. Unlike the other two places we visited today, however, they are not actively used. Whereas all tourist buses going from Saigon to Nha Trang pass by this place (you may have seen them from your window), none of them ever stop here.

The towers are surrounded by high walls, and a gate, which is locked. When we ask the neighbours, we are told that the person who has the key does not live here. We have little choice but to climb the gate, which turns out to be fairly easy. The towers are inhabited by bat colonies. Both have beautiful roof constructions. One of them also has fantastic carvings of Garuda, the mythical god-bird. Around the towers, cows are peacefully maintaining the grass, but aggressive dogs prevent us from entering the second tower.

We go back to our hotel, which is located on Ninh Chu - a lovely, little-visited beach, with several affordable resorts. Our second day in Phan Rang is devoted to swimming, sunbathing and relaxing. It is clear that this place has great tourism potential. It is also clear that the place has much more poverty than other areas in Vietnam - judging from housing conditions, the waste problem, and even child labour. The Cham deserve better. The problem of tourism, however, is that it is not usually the local people who benefit most. It is a so-called 'double bind'.

In any case, anybody who is interested in the great architectural and religious traditions of the Cham, had better visit this province. Its landscape and cultural heritage are very different from many other places in Vietnam, but it is a fascinating place nonetheless.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Holidays in Hoi An

The Thu Bon River delta has been an important cultural and commercial centre for centuries. Throughout history, the hot, rainy climate and regular floods have provided the population with natural abundance and fertile soil for agriculture, even though they have also caused inconvenience and suffering. The first capital of the Champa kingdom, Tra Kieu, was located in this area, while nearby My Son served as its religious centre. Their port, Dam Chien (present-day Hoi An), was one of the largest in ancient Asia. The Cham were a seafaring people, after all, who engaged in international trade and piracy. It was here that Indian religious and artistic elements were first introduced to the country, and Champa civilisation developed.

Due to a series of wars, in the late medieval period the Champa kingdom fell into decay, and gave way to northern invaders. The Chinese-influenced culture of the Red River delta gradually spread south, where it incorporated and transformed local traditions. Thus, by 1400, Hoi An had become ‘Vietnamese’. Despite the political and cultural changes, however, it continued to be a trade centre of great economical significance. In the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth century, the port town was an important international trade hub, where merchants from different parts of East and Southeast Asia met.

For instance, until the Tokugawa shogunate implemented its isolationist sakoku policy in the seventeenth century, many Japanese traders visited Hoi An. Their influence is visible in some of the old houses, and in the famous temple bridge allegedly built to tame a dragon that caused earthquakes and volcano eruptions in the home country. In addition, large parts of the population of the town were Chinese. The powerful Chinese merchant clans built their own houses, temples and community halls, which can still be visited today. In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to do business in this town, which they called Faifo. Later, the Dutch East-Indies Company repeatedly tried to arrange a trade agreement, but their attempts were not successful.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Faifo / Hoi An was struck by several natural and man-made disasters. Most devastatingly, the river became more and more shallow; as a result, large ships could no longer get access to the port. By the time the French confiscated the land, Hoi An had been more or less forgotten, and commerce had spread to nearby Danang (which the French called Tourane). Later, during the war, Danang would become one of the most important American military posts. Meanwhile, freedom fighters took refuge in the ancient Cham towers of My Son, some of which were severely damaged by US bombs.

Hoi An was one of the few places in Vietnam that was not bombed during the war. It remained a small, unknown provincial town until well into the 1990s. At the time, very few foreigners had seen the beautiful old town or the lovely nearby beach . But the ‘hidden gem’ could not remain hidden forever. Some of the first foreign visitors wrote lyrically about the place in a popular guidebook called Lonely Planet (an overrated yet highly popular series of travel guidebooks that combine sarcasm, cultural essentialism and lyrical mythmaking about ‘hanging out with the locals’, and exercises great influence on the development of tourist infrastructures), and soon the number of visitors increased rapidly.

In 1999, Hoi An was given world heritage status (and money), and the houses and temples of the old town were restored – but also, perhaps inevitably, transformed into tailor shops, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. Backpackers were followed by wealthy package deal tourists, new hotels and resorts were built, and within a couple of years the old town changed completely. It became a little gentrified Asian amusement park, where few locals can afford to spend time – so much for ‘hanging out’ with them. Today, prices in the most popular restaurants are several times what they used to be a couple of years ago. A cocktail in a trendy bar now costs about as much as seven meals in a local eatery.

As a result of the rapid changes, some successful entrepreneurs have become very rich, but many others have not. Hence, income gaps have widened dramatically. In fact, many of the wealthy owners of hotels and restaurants are Hanoians – people with capital, who can afford to invest in real estate in the old town or near the beach. By contrast, many local people moved to Danang as they could no longer afford living in Hoi An. Thus, mass tourism, increasing income gaps and domestic migration have contributed to inflation, the erosion of social cohesion and the loss of traditional rural and urban landscapes. This development is not limited to Hoi An’s old town: the once-gorgeous beaches between Hoi An and Danang are turning into yet another hideous jungle of concrete and neon letters. All of this is part of the mixed blessing called ‘progress’.

When our plane arrived at Danang International Airport, construction workers were just removing the letters from the old terminal building. We were taxied to a brand-new, large building we had not seen before. Danang is desperately trying to attract foreign tourists to stay (i.e., spend money) at one of its myriad new beach resorts, and the construction of an impressive new airport building is part of its strategy. So far, few (if any) airline companies are offering international flights to and from Danang, but the city government seems pretty convinced that this will change in the near future.

We took a shared taxi from the airport in Danang to Hoi An (for some reason, no shuttle buses operate on the route yet). It was cloudy, wet and a bit chilly, and unfortunately the weather would remain pretty much the same all week, with the exception of one sunny day. But we were happy to be back in Hoi An and spend time with our family, whom we had not seen for a year and a half.

It was Christmas, so we went to a church service. Vietnam is in name a communist country, but its population has always remained highly religious, including many people who are not affiliated with a particular religious institution. The dominant religious traditions are so-called ‘ancestor worship’, Mahayana Buddhism, the Chinese traditions (Taoism, Confucianism, yin-yang practices), as well as the cults of national heroes and local deities. In addition, however, a significant proportion of the population is Christian – official statistics suggest approximately six to eight percent, but the actual number may be higher. In fact, Vietnam is one of the countries in Asia with the highest percentage of Christians (only the Philippines, Lebanon and South Korea have more). Traditionally, most of these belonged to the Catholic Church. In recent years, however, as in other Asian countries, Evangelical churches have gained quite some popularity.

The church we visited was one of those American-style Evangelical churches with a neon cross on top of the roof. The lyrics of songs were projected on a large screen, the music was electronic and had a loud beat (clearly adjusted to Vietnamese preferences) and the members of the choir were bad singers, but they did wear beautiful red-white dresses and candles. The church was completely packed; there must have been several hundreds of people, many of whom probably do not usually come to church services. We had to sit on plastic stools in the back of the church, and we considered ourselves lucky, for many others had to stand. Most of the attendants were in their twenties and thirties, but there were many children as well, reflecting Vietnamese demographic developments and suggesting significant church growth.

The service lasted way too long. The first hour and a half or so were mainly devoted to singing songs. Silent Night and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing were the only traditional Christmas carols passing by; the others were Vietnamese versions of American songs (with alternative, religious lyrics) such as White Christmas and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, as well as Vietnamese-style folk songs, performed by solo singers. In fact, it sounded more like some sort of music festival than an actual church service, and the police officials and Party officials standing outside the church to report the contents of the service to the authorities must have felt very bored. Eventually, we did get to listen to a sermon – as far as I could tell, it was mainly about the notion of wealth, and about how to achieve true happiness. As expected, political or social critique was absent.

Except for the church service, our week in Hoi An was mainly devoted to social activities. We spent a lot of time with family and friends, and my language skills – while still limited – improved quite a bit. We also did a bit of shopping. Vietnam is still relatively cheap, so it is a good place to pick up new glasses, a coat or a pair of shoes, especially if you live in the world’s most expensive country. We did not do any sightseeing, but we did enjoy the occasional motorbike ride around the rice paddies, which brought back happy memories.

So what do you do, when you spend Christmas with family? Exactly: eating and drinking. Hoi An has fantastic food, and we enjoyed our stay to the fullest. For breakfast or lunch, we could choose from many different kinds of noodle soup – pho, bun, or one of the local specialities, mi quang or cao lau. Other simple but delicious streetfood includes chao (rice porridge), com ga (chicken rice), banh xeo (savory pancakes) and springrolls. For dinner, we could choose from different kinds of fresh seafood, such as crab or fish, eaten with rau som (mixed fresh herbs and lettuce), rice crackers and nuoc mam (fish sauce). Or, alternatively, eaten in soup, with noodles and vegetables – so-called hotpot (lau). I also love the clams steamed with lemongrass and chilli, the fish-filled tofu, and of course hoa chuoi – banana flower salad with shrimp, mint and peanuts. Three of my all-time favourite dishes, in fact. Washed away with the local beer Larue (with ice, of course), cold tea or fresh fruit juice.

Yes, did I mention the fruit? Fresh tropical fruit is one of the great delights of any visit to Southeast Asia, and Vietnam is no exception. Banana, coconut, custard apple, dragonfruit, guava, jackfruit, kumquat, lime, longan, mango, mangosteen, milk fruit, nashi pear, papaya, pineapple, pomelo, rambutan, sapodilla, soursop, starfruit, sugar cane, watermelon… The list is endless, the variety of flavours amazing.

We know that Hoi An will always be a home for us, no matter how fast she changes, and no matter how mixed our feelings about those changes. It will always be the town where my wife spend her childhood, the town where we first met, the town where we got married. There will always be fresh fruit, herbs, fish sauce and seafood waiting for us. And, last but not least, there is the sea, and the beach, with all its memories. The town is like that sea – ever-changing, yet timeless.