01

Jan
2023

The Vietnamese have no stories recounting the formation of the world – Page 1

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The Vietnamese have no stories recounting the formation of the world, the
creation of human beings, animals and all the things that people usually refer to
as the universe. For example, unlike the Chinese, they do not have Pan Gu
whose dead body generated the whole world with all of its components: his eyes
became the sun and the moon, his breath the atmosphere, his blood the oceans
and the rivers, his bones the mountains and from the lice of his body sprang all
the animated crea tures, the insects, the animals and the humans. Neither do they
have a myth to explain, as the Filipinos would do, the color of their skin: the
Creator under baked the first batch of clay images and these people turned out to
be too white. S/he over baked the second batch and they be came black. Now
endowed with experience, s/he produced a perfect batch into the brown people
that were the Filipinos. Again, they are not as fortunate as the Japanese to hold a
legend that bares the secret of the configuration of their country. Every child of
Vietnam, nevertheless, would know that their country follows the curves of an
elongated letter S, its two enlarged extremities filled by the fertile deltas of the
Red river in the north and of the Mekong River in the south. Central Vietnam is
constituted by very narrow stretches of coastal plains hemmed in, on one side,
by the chain of mountains called the Long Mountains (Truong Son) or, in the old
days, the Anna mitic Chain and, on the other side, by the Pacific Ocean. The sty
lized profile of the country as it is drawn on maps evokes the image of a long
bamboo pole with two baskets suspended at both ends which are usually carried
by peddlers, street hawkers, or peasants in the countryside on their way to and
from markets.

Vietnam is not a big country. It can fit snugly into the state of Califor nia,
although Vietnam would beat California hands down when it comes to
population: there are indeed three Vietnamese for every one Cali fornian. The
General Statistics Office in Hanoi gave Vietnam a popula tion of 84 million in
2006.
In length, from the northernmost point at the frontier with China down to the
southernmost spot on the Gulf of Thailand, the country stretches over
substantially more than one thousand miles. The widest expanse of land extends
slightly more than 350 miles, whereas the narrow est stripe covers barely 25.
The two main rivers of Vietnam are the Song Hong (Red River), which is
also called Song Nhi (Second River) or Song Nhi (Ear River) in the North and
the Song Cuu Long (Nine Dragon River) also known as the Mekong River, in
the South. The Red River owes its name to the various red dirt and other sedi
ments it carries over its long course all the way from the southern Chi nese
province of Yunnan to finally empty itself into the Gulf of Tonkin via many
different branches: the two main ones are the Song Lo and Song Da. As many
other rivers in the world, the Red River assumes at the same time the role of a
life-giver and that of a life-de stroyer for the millions of beings who choose to
live and work along its course. Its water fertilizes and irrigates thousands of
acres of rice fields, while its floods –almost an annual occurrence– are
legendary for ra vaging entire provinces of North Vietnam. In order to prevent
the river from overflowing out of its bed, the Vietnamese people have learned to
build dikes over long stretches of the riverbanks.
According to some scholars, these works of water control required such
concerted effort that a centralized authority emerged early enough in the history
of Vietnam and a unitary state –characterized by some as a hydraulic state– was
the ultimate outcome of the common struggle against natural calamities. In
addition, as the level of water fluctuates, the dikes must keep up with the rising
tide so that many portions of them stand substan tially higher than the
surrounding land. In the vicinity of Hanoi, for example, the river in certain years
reach the level of 12.30, while some quarters of the city lay well underneath at a
level no higher than 4.
The Mekong is a long river: in terms of length, it only yields to the Chi nese
river Yangtze. But it can boast about the role it plays in linking together all the
five countries of mainland Southeast Asia — Myanmar, Thailand, Laos,
Cambodia, and Vietnam– with the province of Yunnan in southwestern China,
after it takes its source from the Tibetan plateau. In the nineteenth century, the
French colonialists discovered to their cha grin that they could not use, as they
had hoped, this river as an access way to southwestern China they considered an
Eldorado that had re mained untouched by other imperialist powers. Cut in many
places along its course by many turbulent rapids, the Mekong becomes rather
tame on its southern end. From the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, it di
vides itself into two main branches, which flow briskly but steadily to ward the
ocean. These branches with their countless tributaries consti tute the main
highways and byways on water connecting Vietnam with Cambo dia and
beyond. Merchants of all kinds traveling in both direc tions have always heavily
used these means of transportation.
The mountains of Vietnam are not high: in general they fluctuate be tween
2,000 and 5,000 feet, except for its peak, the Fan Si Pan, si tuated in the north
west, which rises up to exactly 10,038 feet. They run from the North West to the
southeast to stop short about one hundred miles north of Ho Chi Minh City or
Saigon as that city was called before 1975. From there to the south, the
landscape is monotonously flat: the land hardly rises but a few feet above sea
level, most of it a gift of the Mekong River and its sediments.
There are only three exceptions: one of which, the Black Lady Moun tain
(nui Ba Den), located about 75 miles west of Saigon, in Tay Ninh province, near
the Cambodian border, is a renowned site of pilgrimage for worshippers of the
Black Lady. The two other exceptions are situated further south, also near the

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