Back Heritage » Vietnam » In Bình Định, a Museum Retells Nguyễn Huệ's Glorious Life via Vivid Murals

In Bình Định, a Museum Retells Nguyễn Huệ's Glorious Life via Vivid Murals

About 45 kilometers from downtown Quy Nhơn stands the Quang Trung Museum (Bảo tàng Quang Trung), one of Vietnam’s finest museums.

It chronicles the life of Nguyễn Huệ: the rise of the Tây Sơn rebellion in Bình Định that he led with his brothers, and the stunning defeat of the Nguyễn Dynasty in the south and the Trịnh Lords to the north via a series of battles, that established him as one of the nation’s most revered military minds. And finally, the museum honors his eventual self-coronation as Quang Trung when the nation was briefly reunified. In addition to providing ample information about a figure who has attained near-mythical status, it introduces facets of the region’s not-too-distant past.

The museum was built in 1978 but the spacious grounds and airy buildings feel much newer thanks to the careful upkeep, wealth of artifacts and general love and resources that accompanied its creation. Whenever anyone requests advice on where to go when visiting Quy Nhơn, I put the museum at the top of the list, particularly because the drive there offers a charming and colorful jaunt through pastoral serenity. 

Ancient weapons, coins, musical instruments and earthenware, alongside dioramas, model architecture and detailed maps help one envision life during Nguyễn Huệ’s staggering ascension to power. Unlike many museums in Vietnam, the artifacts and images are accompanied by detailed text descriptions in both Vietnamese and English which enhances the museum experience and enables one to spend several hours slowly strolling the cool rooms, imagining the bygone era.

Saigoneer first visited the museum with low expectations, however. Having been disappointed by museums even in major metropolises, we didn’t foresee one situated seemingly in the middle of nowhere fostering such an engaging and informative experience. We were thrilled to be so wrong. 

The most impressive elements at the museum are the enormous murals that depict important plot points in the Quang Trung story. Some of them stretch across entire cavernous rooms, with the smallest background details such as burning ships, flailing soldiers and voluminous clouds that symbolize auspicious futures having received beautiful brushstrokes. The site should certainly be used if anyone wants to pitch a big-budget historical Nguyễn Huệ animated film.

While these photos don’t do justice to seeing the murals in person, and the museum’s other exhibition items demand witnessing as well, they offer an appropriate introduction to the museum’s focus and stellar presentation of an important figure whose history is too often summed up with a few simple sentences. Below are some of our favorite murals from the museum along with the surrounding narratives that the museum offered to introduce them:

Positioned between the Nguyễn Lords who controlled southern Vietnam and the Trịnh Lords in the north, since the mid-16th century, modern-day Bình Định was subject to an oppressive system of corrupt mandarins. Selfish local leaders lived lascivious lives while peasants remained impoverished. Unfair taxes coupled with harsh living conditions resulted in rampant destitution, starvation and death. Within this context, farmer insurrections were not uncommon.

One of the area’s most notable insurrections of the era occurred in 1695 when Mr. Lía, born Võ Văn Doan in Phù Ly District, Quy Nhơn province, united with other peasant rebels in the area. Even though he was born an orphan, circumstances led him to become a strong and charismatic leader who gained support from his compatriots including a number of ethnic minority groups who the Nguyễn lords similarly oppressed. After some initial victories, he was defeated, but his efforts became legend and a popular lullaby honoring him exists today:

Every afternoon, swifts hover in the sky of Truông Mây,
Feeling pity for Mr. Lía surrounded inside the citadel.

The mountainous region in the west of 18th-century Quy Nhơn Province (modern-day Bình Định Province) was known as the Upper Tây Sơn (literally Western Mountains). It was there that the namesake rebellion began, led by three brothers; in descending order: Nguyễn Nhạc, Nguyễn Huệ, and Nguyễn Lữ. In 1771, Nhạc began to prepare the peasants in the area, including members of Bahnar ethnic minority group with whom he had become close via the trade of betel leaves and areca nuts.

From the strategic position protected by natural barriers, they consolidated their resources and trained for their eventual movements to Quy Nhơn City to the southeast. It is said that Nhạc, a tax collector, had amassed a great deal of wealth by withholding the tax payments he was tasked with gathering and instead using them to fund his growing army. Vestiges of the group’s activities remain in the form of coins and artifacts which bear the markings of feudal dynasties before their reign. 

The Nguyễn Lords in the south used the Quy Nhơn Provincial Citadel as an important provincial base for administrative and military activity. Nhạc was wanted for his failures to deliver collected taxes with a bounty placed on his capture. Taking advantage of this, he pretended to have been captured and his men brought him into the citadel in a cage. Once inside, he sent up a signal flair to alert his waiting army who staged an ambush attack on the citadel. The Trojan horse tactic worked and the victory against the provincial government allowed the rebellion to progress toward their goal of attacking the Nguyễn forces.

In 1775, the Tây Sơn were caught between the Trịnh forces commanded by Hoàng Ngũ Phúc from the north and the Nguyễn led by Tống Phước Hiệp in the south who had recaptured the Phú Yên Citadel from the Tây Sơn. Nguyễn Huệ commanded a force that was greatly outnumbered by Tống Phước Hiệp’s soldiers and thus staged a false compromise, pretending to assist them against the Trịnh. But during the negotiations, Nguyễn Huệ launched a sneak attack on Xuân Đài Gulf. The Nguyễn were lured out of the citadel and promptly defeated. In the aftermath, the Tây Sơn re-secured control of the Phú Yên Citadel and by extension, the region. The Nguyễn retreated south, the Trịnh fled north and Nguyễn Huệ emerged as the highest-ranking general of the insurgent army at the age of 22. It proved to be an important moment in the establishment of his legacy as a military genius and the displayed prowess sent the Trịnh and Nguyễn into a panic.

After the battle for the Phú Yên Citadel, The Tây Sơn army set its attention on wiping out the Nguyễn Lords in the south, beginning with their troops at Gia Định. They originally defeated them and took control of the Gia Định Citadel in 1776, but would later withdraw with men and provisions to Quy Nhơn, ushering in a back-and-forth control of the fortress. Nguyễn Huệ and Nguyễn Lữ re-took it in 1777 and, in 1782, Nguyễn Huệ and Nguyễn Nhạc again retook it. This later battle to reconquer it drove Nguyễn Ánh and his men, which included French support, off the mainland and in search of assistance from the Siamese King. Ultimately the Tây Sơn attacked the Gia Định Citadel five times before conquering the entire southern region which ended the 200-odd year feudal reign of the Nguyễn Lords in the south. 

Nguyễn Huệ rose from farmer to national hero during one of Vietnam’s most famous naval battles. The Rạch Gầm-Xoài Mút battle set 20,000-man Tây Sơn forces against Nguyễn Ánh and the Siamese King Sakri (Rama I) who led 50,000 navy and infantry soldiers and 300 gunboats. The Tây Sơn attacked the enemy stationed in Trà Tân from their base in Mỹ Tho and feigned defeat and retreat which lured them up the Tiền River. Early in the morning on January 19, 1785, Nguyễn Huệ ordered an ambush, bringing his navy in from both ends of the river. Trapped, the enemy forces were assailed by cannons on the riverbanks and gunboats stopping their movement up or down. The combined Siamese and Nguyễn forces were quickly annihilated in what is considered a righteous defeat of aggressive invasion and pathetic actions of selling out the nation by Nguyễn Ánh.

In 1786, Nguyễn Huệ led the staggeringly quick and resounding defeat of the Trịnh Lords that ended in Thăng Long via sequential naval routes beginning in Phú Xuân (later renamed Huế). Upon the Tây Sơn’s arrival, Lord Trịnh Khai rushed out atop an elephant to confront them, but his soldiers refused to follow him. In just 10 days, Nguyễn Huệ and his forces overthrew the Trịnh Lords, ending a nearly 300-year reign and re-unifying the nation.

The Trịnh lords that fled sought the assistance of the Qing in southern China who mobilized 290,000 troops to retake Thăng Long. From his capital in Phú Xuân, Nguyễn Huệ decided to return north to drive them out. But before doing so, he erected a platform on the top of Mount Bân to pray to the gods. He proclaimed at that moment to have ascended to Emperor with the dynastic title Quang Trung.

At the end of 1788, Quang Trung traveled with his troops to retake the Thăng Long Citadel. While the Qing were celebrating the Lunar New Year, he attacked the Ngọc Hồi Fort, 14 kilometers from Thăng Long, while another group of forces attacked the Đống Đa Fort. Shocked that the Tây Sơn were not celebrating Tết, the Chinese forces were unprepared and got destroyed. The victory ultimately secured independence for the nation for the remainder of Nguyễn Huệ’s life and is considered one of Vietnam’s most significant military successes. 

While other versions of this story exist, including the academic take offered in The Tay Son Rebellion by George Dutton, the one accompanying the murals at the Quang Trung Museum is engaging and should certainly give you some incredible scenes to envision the next time you stroll down Nguyễn Huệ Street. The artwork and museum as a whole represent a powerful way to make facets of history resonant in the modern age, reminding visitors of what legends lurk behind our daily lives.

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