Vietnam’s Coastal Plain stretches 638 miles in a narrow arch from Vinh (in the former Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV)) to Phan Thiet (in the former Republic of Vietnam (RVN)). It is bordered on the east by the blue waters of the South China Sea and on the west by the dark green mountains of the Central Highlands. In one of its widest segments at Hoi An, the plain extends 28 miles from the coast to the mountains. In its narrowest reaches in northern Binh Dinh Province, it is less than a mile from the coastline to the highlands.
The Coastal Plain possesses a diverse number of environments. In Quang Tri Province gleaming white sand dunes are found immediately inland from the sea. Stunted trees and scrub brush grow out of the poor, sandy soil. South of Quang Tri City, the Vietnamese erected white stone burial crypts on the crests of the dunes. Because so many South Vietnamese died in the area during the years of American intervention, the crypts are as prevalent as the dunes. The French referred to National Route 1 through Quang Tri Province as the “Street Without Joy.” That name originated during the First Indochina War. The Viet Minh held such firm control over the villages and hamlets of the Coastal Plain in Quang Tri, that French military patrols a came under regular attack when moving through the area. Because the French suffered so many casualties on Route 1, they named the highway accordingly.
The Vietnamese who reside on the eastern fringe of the Coastal Plain make a living by fishing. Tiny fishing hamlets exist all along the Vietnamese coastline. Phan Thiet and neighboring Mui Ne were two famous fishing villages in the former South Vietnam. Because this segment of the Coastal Plain lies in the rain shadow of the Central Highlands, it lacks the rainfall required for rice cultivation. Thus, the people here turned away from the land and toward the sea for their livelihood. In the harbor at Mui Ne, dozens of anchored fishing vessels signify the chief occupation of the villagers. The vessels range in size from large ocean-going trawlers to small round reed boats. The size of the boats suggests the type of water fished by their owners. The round lacquered reed boats, which resemble the bullboats employed by Native Americans on the Upper Missouri in the nineteenth century, are used in shallow inlets or estauries. The bigger trawlers fish the deep waters off the continental shelf.
Coastal fishing villages like Mui Ne are known for the production of nuoc mam (fish sauce) Nuoc mam is fermented fish which has become so broken down it becomes a liquid. The variations of nuoc mam are legion. Some are dark brown and as thick as cream. Others are clear and as light as water. The fish for nuoc mam are fermented in large earthenware jars topped with heavy handled lids. The jars sit directly under the hot coastal sun. The liquefied fish sauce drips out of a spigot located at the bottom of each jar. At Mui Ne, the jars are everywhere, their contents steaming in the midday heat. The smell of fermenting fish permeates the entire village. The final, pungent product enhances the flavor of Vietnamese cuisine. It is hard to believe that the foul smelling jars actually produce such a delicious end product.
To the west, beyond the sandy coastline, is the rice paddy country of the Coastal Plain. Here the countryside is divided into small plots of rice. Each rice paddy is bordered by four low paddy dikes. During the growing season, when the paddies are filled with water, the only means of traveling cross-country is atop the narrow footpaths situated atop the dikes or over the wider trails linking the hamlets. The American grid system created a checkerboard landscape west of the Appalachian Mountains. In Vietnam, squared rice paddies, with their diked partitions, have made a checkerboard on a miniature scale.
In the Mekong Delta, villages stand on the elevated lands next to the dredged waterways or atop the high natural bank lines of rivers. In the coastal plain, the villages exist more haphazardly across the landscape. Villages can be found at the mouths of rivers (such as Hoi An), on the edge of seaside estuaries, along ancient trails, or on the high banks adjacent to rivers and streams. Unlike in the delta, where the number of suitable village sites is severely restricted by the available elevated land, in the coastal plain, village sites are more dispersed across a variety of landscapes.
In the Republic of Vietnam, peasants in rural areas lived in hamlets and villages. A village consisted of a series of associated hamlets. For example, west of the American base at Chu Lai sat the village of Tich Tay. Tich Tay village possessed three hamlets, each one known as Tich Tay 1, 2, and 3 respectively. In the 1960s, the RVN contained 2,000 villages and 12,000 hamlets.
The average rural Vietnamese hamlet consisted of a cluster of huts built around a small central area. Palm trees, banana groves, and stands of bamboo grew around the margins of the hamlet. The trees provided shade, food, and building materials to the inhabitants. A wooden or bamboo fence or a tightly planted hedgerow circled the hamlet, offering the residents a measure of security against wild animals and bandits. Residents gained entry to the hamlet through a main gate, which was locked at night. Pigs, chickens, and scrappy dogs roamed the hamlet grounds during the day. After sunset, the villagers penned their animals next to their huts or brought them inside. The villagers usually dug an open-pit water well in the center of the hamlet. Using a long piece of rope, villagers lowered a wooden or steel bucket into the well to retrieve fresh water. Thin dirt paths linked one hamlet to another. These trails were frequently lined with trees or bamboo. The huts were of simple design and construction, including a square frame, thatched roof and side walls, a dirt floor, an open doorway covered at night with a rickety door, and a cooking pit. Curtained partitions might give each occupant a degree of privacy.
The Coastal Plain, with its thousands of hamlets, could not have been more different than rural America. The Vietnamese countryside was crowded with people, cluttered with hedgerows, paddies, paddy dikes, tree lines, and hamlets, and frequently filled to the brim with water. The environment of the coastal plain presented a traveler with countless obstacles to rapid movement. On the other hand, rural Iowa or rural Montana contained few people, held ample open space, and possessed terrain features conducive to speed.
The Coastal Plain was not as densely populated as the Mekong Delta, but it did have more people than the plateau country of the Central Highlands. In 1970, the average population density in the southern portion of the coastal province of Binh Dinh stood at 520 people per square mile. Another heavily populated rural district surrounded the imperial city of Hue. Major urban centers existed at Hue, Danang, Qui Nhon, and Nha Trang. These cities served as market centers for the surrounding rural areas. By the 1960s, Danang was South Vietnam’s second most populous city, second only to Saigon.
Prior to the American military build-up in 1965 and 1966, Danang, Qui Nhon, and Nha Trang represented three of South Vietnam’s busiest ports. After 1965, the U.S. added to the country’s list of seaports by constructing modern facilities at Cam Ranh Bay and Chu Lai (in Quang Ngai Province).
During the French colonial era, engineers laid down a railroad the length of the Coastal Plain, tying Hanoi and all the coastal cities to Saigon. National Route 1 paralleled the railroad line. The French also built highways connecting the coastal port cities with the interior. Route 11 linked Nha Trang to Da Lat via Phan Rang, Route 19 connected Qui Nhon to Pleiku, and Route 9 tied Danang with Laos via Hue and Quang Tri City. The French roads into the interior carried the wealth of the Central Highlands and lowland plains to the coast for export to France. For instance, the coffee and tea grown on French-owned plantations around Pleiku traveled down Route 19 to Qui Nhon. From there, longshoremen packed the commodities on board ocean-going freighters for shipment to the home country or another colonial possession within the French empire. France’s system of roads and ports clearly indicated its exploitative intent. French geographical constructs pulled the wealth from the country and shipped it overseas.
Finally, a number of east-flowing rivers divided the Coastal Plain. Several of these rivers experienced periodic floods, especially along their lower reaches. The Ben Hai, Cua Viet, and Perfume rivers all flooded in their low-lying deltas. Many of the streams flowing through the Coastal Plain would become more flood-prone during the later years of the Vietnam War. The floods in-turn further de-stabilized the already unstable nation of South Vietnam.