In the remote countryside of central Vietnam, archaeologists discovered the "longest monument in Southeast Asia", a wall that winds through pristine, rain-forested mountains and hill tribe villages, yet still unspoiled by the imminent arrival of busloads of tourists.
Find of the century
Earlier this year, Vietnam's most important archaeological discovery in a century was announced by Dr Andrew Hardy, head of the Hanoi branch of École française d'Extrême-Orient (French School of Asian Studies) and Dr Nguyen Tien Dong, from the Institute of Archaeology (Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences). The rampart stretches 127.4 km from northern Quang Ngai Province, south into the province of Binh Dinh, and is the greatest engineering feat of the Nguyen Dynasty.
The Long Wall of Quang Ngai, as it is now known, is made of alternating sections of stone and earth, is believed to have been built in 1819 as a cooperative effort between the Vietnamese and H're ethnic minority. Much like Hadrian's Wall in the United Kingdom, Quang Ngai's wall was also built along an ancient, pre-existing road, and not only provided security but also regulated trade along the route. Most of the wall is still in relatively good condition, attaining heights up 4 metres.
Quang Ngai today
Until now, Quang Ngai was seldom visited by tourists, apart from stops at the Son My Memorial Museum, site of the infamous wartime My Lai Massacre. The province remained politically sensitive as a result of those tragic events, and as such, travel by outsiders through the countryside was somewhat restricted. Since the initial discovery of the wall in 2005, Quang Ngai has slowly opened up. Several independent travellers have now ventured to see the wall since its existence was announced earlier this year.
Quang Ngai City, the provincial capital, is a suitable base from which visitors can reach the wall. Apart from the city's only four-star hotel, Central Hotel, near the river, the city lacks anything approaching luxury accommodation. Dining is mostly street food and local specialties like ram bap (corn spring rolls), ron (tiny river clam soup) and ca bong song tra (Song Tra River mudskipper fish). As no major tour companies have offices in Quang Ngai yet, transportation consists of Mai Linh taxis (one of the few legal and reliable companies) and motorbikes for hire.
There is no need to hire a special guide (in fact there probably are none with sufficient knowledge or experience) to visit the wall at this point. Signs have been placed on the country roads to help drivers locate the four archaeological sites. Two are located in Ba Dong Commune (Ba To District) and the other two in Hanh Dung Commune (Nghia Hanh District).
Historical ethnic relations
The H're, like the rest of Vietnam's 54 officially-recognized ethnic groups, have a distinct language and culture. They were once under the dominion of the Champa Kingdom, which occupied all of central Vietnam, until the Vietnamese Emperor Le Thanh Tong conquered what is now Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh provinces, in 1471.
Coexistence between the Vietnamese and H're was not always harmonious. Military forts were built along an ancient mandarin road (79 have been located), straddling the territories of both groups. The wall was later constructed along the road for increased security and to facilitate trade between the highland H're, lowland Vietnamese and Chinese merchants.
A long way to go for the long wall
The wall was officially designated a National Heritage site by the Vietnam government on 9 March of this year. This means more investment, increased protection, international recognition, infrastructure development and more tourists are all on the horizon for the Long Wall. At the end of April, Christopher Young from English Heritage, an advisory organization, will make his second visit to the wall and lead a group of specialists on offering advice to the local government on conservation and sustainable tourism development.
Ideally the government could develop a "historical ecotourism" trail running the length of the wall, with guesthouses along the way providing lodging and meals. Detours from the hiking trail could lead through forests and farmland to ancient forts, temples, Champa ruins, hot springs, waterfalls and minority villages of the H're, Cor and Ca Dong.
The government's commitment to conserving the area's beautiful landscape has begun with its plans for a protected corridor stretching 500m on either side of the wall. However, neither the trail nor infrastructure yet exists. There are no maps of the wall and camping is not yet permitted. For now the more adventurous hikers will have to forge their own way, broken into day trips from Quang Ngai City.
Adam Bray was the first journalist to visit the Long Wall of Quang Ngai. He has contributed to 20 guidebooks on travel in Southeast Asia. Grandson of the noted Biblical archaeologist Dr David Livingston, Adam has uncovered a number of undocumented ancient Champa ruins of his own.