In the early nineteenth century, Nguyễn Dynasty official Lê Quang Định compiled a kind of geographical text called the Hoàng Việt nhất thống dư địa chí. Essentially what this work did was to describe the road system throughout the empire. That might not sound very interesting, but it is actually a fascinating work as it gives detailed information about the areas that roads passed through.
Over the past few days I have spent hours and hours trying to connect the places that Lê Quang Định mentions in his text with places on modern maps. It’s very difficult, but I finally was able to begin to do it.
Here is an example of a passage from Lê Quang Định’s book:
“It is 526 fathoms [tầm 尋; 1 fathom was a probably a little less than 2 meters] to Khe Cống Bridge, which is 5 fathoms long. To the east of the road is a mountain range that is colloquially called Đèo Ứng. To the west are abandoned fields and many tigers and wolves. Travelers have to be careful.
“From there it is 116 fathoms to Khe Giữa Bridge, which is 4 fathoms long. There are rice fields on both sides of the road. This waterway is used to release rainwater. There is no rising or falling of the level and no source.
“100 fathoms further is Rào Bridge, which is five fathoms long. On both sides of the road is wild grass interspersed with rice fields.”
In the above passage, Lê Quang Định just mentions the names of bridges, and the local name for a mountain range. This information is too local, and at too small of a scale, to appear on most maps.
I consulted a work that was produced by the US Hydrographic Office in 1944 called French Indochina and South China Sea. It contains the names of thousands of villages in Vietnam along with their latitude and longitude coordinates, however very few of the villages that Lê Quang Định mentions in his text appear in this work.
So after trying in vain for days to map the places that Lê Quang Định talks about on a modern map, today I finally succeeded in doing so. In particular, I was able to find where the above passage fit on a map of Thanh Hóa Province.
The above passage is describing an area of Thanh Hóa just after crossing the border from Nghệ An Province.
In mentioning all of these bridges, at first I thought that Lê Quang Định was crossing different rivers. Indeed, in some maps from the nineteenth century it is clear that the road passed over rivers and that there therefore must have been a bridge over each river.
However, in using such maps I came to realize that Lê Quang Định mentions many more bridges than are on these maps.
It then dawned on me that Lê Quang Định was following a road along a river, and that the road passed back and forth over the same river. Anyone who has ever gone hiking on a trail has noticed that hiking trails do this. People who build modern roads, on the other hand, try to reduce the number of times the road has to cross a river, because building bridges is expensive.
Bridges at this time in Vietnam, however, were probably built and maintained by local communities so that they could move back and forth across a river. Bridges were therefore probably less for the purpose of assisting long-distance travelers and more for the convenience of local peoples.
The above detail from a topographic map shows the area in southern Thanh Hóa Province that the above passage is referring to. When Lê Quang Định says “To the east of the road is a mountain range that is colloquially called Đèo Ứng,” he is referring to the green mountain to the right of the red road at the bottom of the above image.
And as for the various bridges, I’m concluding that they all must have been on that waterway between the mountain at the bottom and the green area to the right of Sơn Châu (Lê Quang Định goes on in the text to mention those mountains in that green area). In Lê Quang Định’s time, the road does not appear to have gone in a straight line to the west of that waterway, as it does today, but instead, must have followed the waterway and at times crossed over it, via the Khe Cống, Khe Giữa and Rào bridges.
Throughout his work, Lê Quang Định mentions bridges a lot. They were one of the main “landmarks” that he used to “map out” the road for travelers. Therefore, it appears that journeys in early nineteenth-century Vietnam were to a large extent viewed in terms of the bridges one had to cross along the way.
That is an interesting way to conceptualize a road or a journey, and I suppose that it tells us something about the landscape, and people’s relationship to it, at that time.