Vietnam Travel: A glimpse of Quy Nhon

Away from the noise and bustle of Highway One, away from the crush of development, Quy Nhon offers the peace and tranquility of bygone times. As I walk down a side street I hear a song emanate from a radio and its lyrics engrave the essence of Quy Nhon in my memory:…Today the streets are encased in sunlight, I am alone on an empty street. Far away, waves sing softly the song of my longing for you….

I’ve been drawn to Quy Nhon for a long time. In my imagination, this is the place of the ruined Do ban citadel from which the rulers of Chiem Thanh city ruled unchallenged for so many years. In my mind I can hear horses neighing and solider shouting as they fight the deadly battles between Cham soldiers and those of the Vietnamese dynasties that imposed their might from the north. Later, once the area came under Vietnamese control, it gave birth to powerful military heroes (Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Hue and Nguyen Lu all hailed from this region).

There were artists too. Van Cao, a famous poet, painter and composer, came from here and wrote about the Cham towers that take cover under the blue sky. His poetry inspired me to visit some of the towers, which draw thousands of tourists every year.

The twin granite towers in Thap Doi, just outside Quy Nhon, are as red as lipstick. They’re relatively small and are humbled by the powerful sunlight that beats down on them, but they are unique from other towers in one way: their creators were heavily influenced by Hindu architecture and each tower is carved with Garudas, mythical birds still revered in Indonesia. North of the towers are two bridges where lovers have traditionally opened their hearts to each other with poems like this:

Two towers stand together,
two bridges stand together,
So why can’t I get close to you?

Like the Egyptian pyramids, no one knows how the Cham were able to build these towers. Each brick was compacted tightly next to its neighbor before another was added above, yet none were tied with mortar. Without this glue, how did these monuments withstand the test of time and survive hundreds of years of rain and heat? The secret of their resilience increases their appeal.

Out of the city and along Highway One, four more beautiful towers come into view. These are the Banh It towers, named after a type of rice cake whose shape they resemble. The main tower is to the East because the Cham believed that an island in South China Sea (known in Vietnam as the Eastern Sea) was home to their gods. From the top of a nearby hill you can see each tower clearly. They are like four sunbeams falling from the sky, each one mighty in its lonely solitude.

Not far away are the Duong Long towers, a group of three exquisite buildings. They stand close to each other, with the tallest reaching 36 meters (120 feet) into the sky and the others an impressive 29 meters (95 feet). Some say they are the most beautiful of all remaining Cham towers, made so by the plethora of engravings that depicts gods, dancing girls, elephants, dragons and nagas (mythical snakes).

Quy Nhon is the capital of Binh Dinh province; know for its martial arts prowess. But from here too have come poets. One of its best known was Han Mac Tu, who died of leprosy in the early 20th century. I visited Quy Hoa hospital where he ended his days in peaceful repose, creating his life’s last masterpieces. One night, as he gazed at the shimmering moon, he wrote this tribute to love:

Far away, a girl sits by the Nhan River washing silk dresses.
Water becomes the moon and the moon becomes water.
The silk is dampened by the watery moon.
The girl is wrapped in moonlight,
Only her cheekbones shine red.
I want to hold the moon in my arms,
I dream of the moon and pick at the moonlight.

When Han Mac Tu died, his remains stayed in Quy Nhon and his grave became a place of pilgrimage for many people. I visited it at nightfall, as the fading sunlight fell behind a mountain and splashed its dying golden rays over the sea around Quy Nhon. It was to the sound of waves crashing on these beaches that Tu was lulled into his unbreakable sleep. Behind his grave a painter, Dzu Kha, engraves Tu’s poems on wooden palates for visiting tourists.

I had only a glimpse of Quy Nhon but I won’t forget its pull; the ancient moss-covered towers, the gentle sounds of Tu’s resting place in Gheng Rang, and the quiet rhythm of the sea.