Everyone Has a River in the Heart

Rivers have for long been known as the mothers of civilizations, but a Vietnamese poet took it further when he said: “Everyone has a river in the heart”.

River Mystique: house boats on the Da Te Lake in Lam Dong province (Photo: Hoang Thach Van)

The Vietnamese affair with rivers, then, has a long and fascinating history, one that is marked as much by love as by the natural settling, worldwide, of human inhabitants by riversides through the ages. It can be said with utmost confidence that Vietnamese culture is a river culture, more than a coastal, mountainous or steppe culture. The national icon of a comely damsel clad in an ao dai has its grace augmented by the setting of a river and a bridge.

King Ly Thai To, who founded the Vietnamese capital of Thang Long- Ha Noi chose the Cai (Mother) River to establish the kingdom of Dai Viet, as Viet Nam was known from 1054 to 1804. Legend has it that he dreamed about a flying dragon contoured like the Cai River. In ancient times, the Hong (Red) River was linked to the Guom Lake and the West Lake, but a section of the river was filled up in order to build the city of Ha Noi. Until the beginning of the 20th century Ha Noi did not have a dyke, nestling in the embrace of the Red River.

The first wave of urbanization in Viet Nam, lasting from the beginning of the 20th century through two wars against foreign invaders, saw the creation of many small and medium-sized cities in the country. Almost all of these were built along rivers, and the uncommon diversity found in these cities is a salient feature of Vietnamese culture. Along the entire length and breadth of the country, from the north to the south, Vietnam is dotted by riverside cities - Hai phong, Pho Hien, Sai Gon-Ho Chi Minh City, Dong Nai, Can Tho, Rach Gia are river cities neacuse they were born by rivers.

Floating market: hustle and bustle at a Can Tho pier (Photo: Hoang Thach Van)

It goes with saying that the mushrooming of river based cities and villages in Vietnam has also been based on the practical needs of commerce for transportation of goods and people, but rivers have also been huge benefactors of the Vietnamese farmers, depositing silt that has fertilized rice fields and orchards for centuries.

The interlacing river system has continued to nourish both Vietnamese culture and the national economy, inspiring unique cuisines and numerous art forms, and generating income through agricultural and aquacultural produce.

No wonder, then, that the local governments of the two major national cities are working to further emphasize the relationship  of  Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh City with the rivers that have mothered them.  Ha Noi is fashioning a Red River City  and Ho Chi Minh City wishes to reintegrate canals inside the city and link them into a network with small bridges and streets along the canals.

By Dan Que

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