Story: NGO QUANG MINH Photos: NGUYEN HAI
Join us in discovering a sacred river at the heart of Quang Binh Province
In a clear account of its geography, Quang Binh can honor the Gianh River as having withstood the rise and fall of ages to flow forever as a witness to history.
The 150-km long river originates from the Truong Son Range, then flows solely through Quang Binh Province, before pouring into the East Sea. It is the largest of this province’s five rivers. Its people have a folk poem that reveals their pride in this river, which is intertwined with their origins:
The Gianh River has three sources in all:
The Nan, Nay, and even the Son
Be honest, passionate, and faithful
Build your future so your descendants can benefit.
In fact, the Gianh River was also created by a fourth source, the Tro. The stretch of the Son River that runs past Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park is especially famous. As elegant as a green silk ribbon, this river helped to carve karst caves that are natural masterpieces. If the North-South railway takes you to Quang Binh, once you see majestic limestone mountains on one side and a romantic river with a road resembling an undulating dragon on the other, you’ve arrived in the middle of the Gianh River – the most beautiful part of your entire journey.
According to feng shui beliefs, a dragon’s head is said to lie in Le Son, the most famous of the Bat danh huong, the eight best-known villages in the province: Le Son, La Ha, Canh Duong, Tho Ngoa, Van La, Vo Xa, Co Hien, and Kim Nai. These places gained renown not only for their magnificent natural beauty or rich depths of culture, but also thanks to their sons’ rousing success in the official imperial exams.
History continued to flow with the river until the Southward expansions of Lord Nguyen Hoang in the 1600s. He crossed the Hoanh Son Range to defend Thuan Hoa and gave new life to a vast and diverse territory. The Dai Nam thuc luc tien bien (First Chronicles of the Great South) recorded Lord Nguyen Hoang’s impressions as follows:
“Thuan Quang has the Ngang Mountains (the Hoanh Son Range) and the rough (Dai) Linh Giang River in the North, and the sturdy Hai Van and Da Bia Mountains in the South. The mountains have reserves of gold and iron, the seas have fish and salt. This is truly a land for heroes to show their mettle.”
Here, “Dai Linh Giang” means “the sacred Dai Linh River”, an outdated name for the Gianh River, part of the Tan Binh phu (modern-day Quang Binh Province). It should not be mistaken for the Linh Giang (Linh River), the former name of the Huong River in Trieu Phong phu (modern-day Thua Thien Hue province). Between 1570 and 1786, the Gianh River became the natural border between the Dang Trong and Dang Ngoai regions. It witnessed the civil war between the Le emperors and the Trinh lords in the North, and the Nguyen lords in the South. Traces of important ramparts (Truong Duc and Thay) remain on the Southern shore of the river, as they were constructed by Dao Duy Tu under Lord Nguyen Phuc Nguyen. They demonstrate our predecessors’ military prowess and personal strength, as shown in the saying: “Who built the Thay Ramparts so high? Who dug the Gianh River so deep?”
Also during the Trinh – Nguyen War, Trinh forces took Ngang Pass. Qua Deo Ngang (On Ngang Pass) by Ba Huyen Thanh Quan described this pass as a realm where “plants jostle with their leaves and rocks squeeze between flowers”. Ngang Pass was also described as “a mountain road for officials” with great strategic importance in Dai Nam nhat thong chi (Comprehensive Encyclopedia of the Great South).
Trading with Dang Ngoai was done on the North side of the Gianh River. Soldiers posted to the three stations of Phan Long, Xuan Kieu, and Trung Ai met with their families and locals here, creating an ancient market named Ba Don (Three Stations). Today, it’s a bustling town in Quang Trach District, Quang Binh Province. The centuries have turned it into a charming old space typical of local urban markets. The Gianh River itself became a line connecting people, cultures, and economies across the region, and a living environment that nurtured many generations.
In Quang Binh dia du tien doc (A Geography of Quang Binh for Easy Reading), Tran Kinh, the former Educational Commissioner of Quang Binh Province, described the old Ba Don Market, which gathered three times a month, on the 6th, 16th, and 26th days in the lunar calendar, as follows:
Ba Don has been a market for a long time
People and goods gather here every ten days
Flanked by South Street and Guest Street
At its peak, it hosts a few thousand people at a time
In the early- and modern periods, the Gianh River bent against the fire and bullets of warfare. The river mouth of Gianh Port was strafed day and night as it was the start of the Ho Chi Minh Sea Trail. Xuan Son Ferry Terminal on the Son River was also a hotspot for bombs and mines. Nameless boats ceaselessly sailed downriver, crossing waterways and checkpoints to join the unbroken 20 Quyet Thang route and provide support for the Southern battlefield. The Gianh River quietly and heroically inscribed partings and losses into its core, embracing the countless youths who laid down their lives in Quang Binh.
Today, water traffic is smooth, the war is over, and geographical distances are erased by Gianh Bridge, which lets people cross without waiting for a boat. As the winds of peace blow serenely over the river basin and the water’s edge, one can hardly imagine that this place marked the “coordinates of fire” of such suffering, perseverance, and glory.
Sacred lands give birth to extraordinary people. Each age contributed its steadfast, famed patriots. First and foremost, there was Nguyen Huu Canh, the Marquis of Ritual Completion (1650 – 1700). He was a high-ranking general under Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu, who is credited for the expansion and affirmation of Vietnamese sovereignty over Gia Dinh and Dong Nai. Closer to our time came the Commander in Chief of the People’s Army of Vietnam, military genius General Vo Nguyen Giap (1911 – 2013). It would also be remiss not to mention an outstanding child of Quang Trach, Lieutenant General Dong Sy Nguyen (1923 – 2019). In wartime, he was the soul of the Truong Son “labyrinth across the dense forests”, while in peacetime, he made tireless contributions to national reformation and reconstruction. These scions have all come home to their ancestors, resting with the land and river that they dedicated their lives to preserving. An excerpt from Lieutenant General Dong Sy Nguyen’s memoir Tron mot con duong (Completing the Journey) goes like this:
“Many things inspire love and longing for my homeland and childhood, but the most moving of them is the Gianh River. I grew up by this river, which has gone down in the annals of history and contains countless tales and legends.”
As thousands of rivers of varying size stretch from Vietnam’s North to South, it might not be hyperbolic to say “everyone in my homeland has a river by their house”, as in the song “Tro ve dong song tuoi tho” (Return to the Childhood River) by Hoang Hiep. Quang Binh also has the Nhat Le River (the confluence of the Long Dai and Kien Giang Rivers, with the latter flowing through General Vo Nguyen Giap’s birthplace in Le Thuy District), the Ly Hoa River, the Loan River (or Roon River), and the Dinh River. However, the Gianh River stands out for many generations. It has become an eminent symbol, a historical crossroads, and a testament to the vitality on both its banks, despite the rise and fall of ages.