The Con river flows through the village of Kien My in Phu Phong-Tay Son town in Binh Dinh province. From this charming and humble setting in the late 18th century, three young men rose up to lead an unlikely rebellion that saw them defeat the local Nguyen Lords of the south and the Trinh Lords of the north, before audaciously routing a Chinese army in the capital of Thang Long (Hanoi). These three men are known as the Tay Son heroes, the most famous being Nguyen Hue, who would later rename himself Emperor Quang Trung. In the beginning heavy taxes and corruption at the local level of government motivated these brothers to rebellion. They styled themselves as the champions of the people and proved to be popular rebels. As they swept through the land their slogan had been “fairness, no corruption, only loot the rich, and help the poor”. Nguyen Hue stated his goals were to end oppression, reunite the country and restore power to the Le Dynasty emperor in Hanoi. He also promised to remove corrupt officials and redistribute land. When Quang Trung eventually took the throne as emperor he proved as astute a politician as he had been a general. In control of a united country that was much larger than any previous ruler of Vietnam, the new Emperor distributed land to the poor peasants, encouraged artisans that had been suppressed, allowed religious freedom, re-opened Vietnam to international trade and abolished Chinese as the official language of the nation. The new official language was the Vietnamese script Chu Nom. His political shrewdness and military prowess can be traced back to his scholarly upbringing. As children the three brothers were dedicated to the study of literature, history, and the military arts. A number of well regarded and erudite tutors had trained the brothers and encouraged them to fulfill their potential. Standing under the tamarind tree in the garden of the home where the Tay Son heroes were born and raised in Kien My village, I try to picture the brothers practicing martial arts outside or burrowed into works of literature inside. To think that the tamarind tree still stands and flourishes is to realize the brevity of human life - no matter how heroic or historic. There is also a well dug by the heroes’ family that is said to be sacred. It is said sick people have healed themselves by coming here to make offerings at the Tay Son temple and drink water from the well. Whether sick or not, people come from all four corners of Vietnam to taste water from the well. An old verse that Kien My villagers’ sing, goes “We will always remember the tamarind tree, the well and the yard of the communal house that have done us good”. After Quang Trung’s untimely death from an unknown illness, the Tay Son dynasty slipped into a quick decline. Slowly but surely, Nguyen Anh, later Emperor Gia Long, seized control of Vietnam with the aid of French and European mercenaries. The Tay Son family ancestral home was razed by the Nguyen dynasty’s forces. But the villagers would not abandon the spirits of their local heroes. A new temple dedicated to the Tay Son dynasty was built on the ruins of the old house. The new structure was referred to as a communal house so as to not to incur the wrath of the Nguyen dynasty, who would undoubtedly have razed the building again had they got wind of it. Today the communal house, tamarind tree and the well are all part of the Quang Trung Museum. Inside there are statues of the Tay Son brothers as well as their most esteemed officials, such as Ngo Van So, Ngo Van Ky and Ngo Thi Nham as well as Bui Thi Xuan, a fearless female general. Besides the museum complex there are other traces of the Tay Son dynasty. Nearby you will find Go Da Den (the Black Rock hill), where Nguyen Nhac (the eldest of the three brothers) set up a martial arts training ground for the Tay Son troops. Kien My villagers like to say that on restless moonlit nights, they can hear the sounds of horses galloping and the voices of Tay Son troops cheering. In Kien My there is also the remnants of an old wharf called Truong Trau where people traded betel leaves in Tay Son times. Betel leaves and areca nuts were transported elsewhere to barter for salt or farming tools. The Tay Son brothers came from a rich betel trading family and Nguyen Nhac, who was actively engaged in the trade, was known to his friends as ‘brother betel’. Villagers from Kien My still practice several traditional trades that hark back to Tay Son and presently life seems to be treating most people well. Once the village’s blacksmiths were famous for forging swords and lances for swashbuckling heroes and royal armies, but nowadays the skilled craftsmen use time-honored techniques to make shovels, spades and other farming tools. Other trades include making bun (rice noodle), rice paper, raising silkworms, spinning silk and cotton, making bean cakes and trading betel leaves. Every one I speak to seems to be proud of living on ‘royal land’. Every home I peer into has a bust of Quang Trung, the Emperor, or Nguyen Hue, the rebel hero. After the harvest, it is him who they will thank. It is because of him, they believe, that the sun still shines on Kien My.
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