Commentary: Vietnamese history recorded that 400 years ago Nguyen Lords and subsequent Nguyen Dynasty establised Flotillas of Hoàng Sa and Bắc Hải of 70 sailors to station 6 months out of the year to control Hoàng Sa (Paracel) and Trường Sa (Spratly). This historical evidence shows that Vietnam has asserted sovereignty and administered Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa for 400 years. This provides indisputable legal basis of Vietnamese sovereignty over the disputed islands that China has illegally occupied.
Lý Sơn is the land that provided the most sailors to Flotillas of Hoàng Sa and Bắc Hải, which were regular Vietnamese fleets to control the current disputed islands. The island has plenty of relics and vestiges of Flotillas of Hoàng Sa and Bắc Hải. Imperial documents provide legal possession of Hoàng Sa (Paracel) and Trường Sa (Spratly). Each February has held a commemoration festivities to remember the sacrfices of those ancient sailors who died at sea while on patrolling of Paracels and Spratlys.
Lý Sơn is not only a front-post island of the country but also the homeland of the sailor-soldiers of the Hoang Sa Flotilla who went out to the East Sea to defend the sovereignty of the country. Today, the descendants of this team have followed in the footsteps of their forefathers to build up the island and guard the sacred territory of the Fatherland.
On the Native Islandof the Sailo-Sodilers
Lý Sơn is an island district of Quang Ngai Province. In the genealogy of the families in this district, it is written that in the early 17th century 13 fishermen in Sa Ky in the mainland crossed the sea to Re Island (former name of Lý Sơn Island) to reclaim the land and settle.
According to research by Professor, Dr. Nguyen Quang Ngoc at Hanoi National University, besides Sa Ky, Lý Sơn is also the homeland of the Hoang Sa Flotilla who were assigned by the court to measure the sea routes, protect and affirm Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelagoes in the East Sea.
There are many historical books about the history of the Hoang Sa Flotilla. For example, the book “Phu bien tap luc” compiled by scholar Le Quy Don in 1776 states that “… Previously, the Nguyen family established the Hoang Sa Flotilla consisting of 70 members with some supplemental members from An Vinh (An Vinh Commune, Ly Son District)… Each member of this team was provided with food for six months. They went out to sea on five small fishing boats and reached Hoang Sa after three days and nights”.
The form by An Vinh Ward, Re Island, on January 15 in the 36th Canh Hung Year (1775) asking for the reorganization of the Hoang Sa Flotilla sent to the court also states: “Now we establish two flotillas, Hoang Sa and Que Huong with former members and some additional members from other areas. We’ll make the book to submit and go to the islands at sea to collect copper, tin, tortoise shells and will offer tributes. If there are reports about the war we’ll be ready to fight against the invaders. After the fight we’ll ask for permission to collect precious objects and will submit them together with the tax. We pledge to follow the regulations without complaints”.
Am Linh Pagoda is dedicated to Hoang Sa Flotilla members who laid down their lives protecting the sovereignty of Hoang Sa Archipelago. Photo: Thong Thien
Name cards and ancestral tablets of Hoang Sa Flotilla members at Am Linh Pagoda. Photo: Thong Thien
The grave of Hoang Sa Flotilla Captain Pham Huu Nhat in Ly Son. Photo: File
A statue of a Hoang Sa soldier and the seal of the Hoang Sa Flotilla. Photo: Viet Cuong
The Hoang Sa Flotilla Monument in the centre of Ly Son Island. Photo: Viet Cuong
A part of Lý Sơn Island seen from the peak of Thoi Loi Mountain. (Photo: Viet Cuong)
The stories about the Hoang Sa Flotilla have urged us to make a long trip to Lý Sơn Island District to learn more about the native land of a heroic team at sea. Among the graves of the Hoang Sa Flotilla members on the island there is a rather special grave lying in a vast green garlic field near the coast.
It is the grave of Pham Huu Nhat, Captain of the Hoang Sa Flotilla who many times led the sailor-soldiers to defend Hoang Sa nearly 200 years ago. His grave was built on Hoang Sa with a stone stele facing the East Sea inscribed with the words: “Detachment commander, chief of the flotilla, Pham Huu Nhat. In 1836, obeying the order of King Minh Mang he led the boats to survey, measure, plant the milestones and erect the steles of sovereignty on Hoang Sa”.
“Lý Sơn Island District has three islands, Lon Island (also called Re), Be (also called Bo Bai) and Mu Cu Island situated in the east of Lon Island. The district has three communes, including An Vinh and An Hai (Lon Island) and An Binh (Be Island). The residents on Lý Sơn Island have two main occupations, fishing and garlic cultivation”.
We burnt incense sticks on his grave and talked with Pham Thoai Tuyen, a descendent of the fifth generation of Captain Pham Huu Nhat. Standing in front of the immense sea, seemingly to further prove the historical land where he was living, Tuyen told us stories about the Hoang Sa Flotilla of Lý Sơn.
He said that in the 14th Minh Mang Year the king instructed the Ministry of Public Affairs to prepare a detachment of people to erect the stone steles of sovereignty on Hoang Sa, measure the sea routes and make a map. In a report of the Ministry of Public Affairs in 1836, King Minh Mang wrote: “Each boat surveying Hoang Sa must carry 10 wooden panels, 4.5m long, 0.5m wide and 0.1m thick, to make the milestones”. At that time Pham Huu Nhat was selected as the Captain to lead the sailor-soldiers to carry out the duty assigned by the king. In a trip to Hoang Sa he lied forever in the sea.
At that time, as a rememberance, at the end of February according to the lunar calendar, 70 fishermen went out to sea towards Hoang Sa and returned in August of the lunar calendar. On their departure day their families and relatives held a ceremony to see them off and pay tribute to them for fear that they would not come back. Since then, every year, the residents on Lý Sơn Island hold the “Troop banquet ceremony of the Hoang Sa Flotilla” to commemorate the heroes who have sacrificed their lives to guard Hoang Sa. This ceremony has become the biggest festival on the island to show gratitude to the sailor-soldiers.
Today, visitors to Lý Sơn still see the couplets “Gratitude for building Hai Ly area, a sentiment for consolidating Hoang Sa Islands” hanging in the central chamber of the communal house in An Hai Village where the 13 sages of the island are worshipped. These couplets show our ancestors’ will to guard Hoang Sa over 200 years ago.
Now in all villages, fields and hills on Lý Sơn Island there still remain many vestiges of the Hoang Sa Flotilla, such as Am Linh Pagoda, the graves of the Hoang Sa sailor-soldiers and the relic complex of An Hai Communal House.
Descendantof the Former Heroic Team
Visiting Lý Sơn today visitors can see the prosperity of a front-post island. The port is crowded with many ships coming and going. Looking down from Thoi Loi Mountain they can see the greenness of the garlic fields in four directions with the blue colour of the vast sea.
Everyday, there are two high-speed passenger boats running from Sa Ky Port to Lý Sơn Island and each trip takes only two hours, facilitating the travel of the islanders and visitors.
Baskets of fresh Decapterus, the fruits of fishermen on Ly Son Island after a long fishing trip. Photo: Viet Cuong
Collecting fish from the fishing net. Photo: Thong Thien
Ly Son has over 400 boats with a large capacity for offshore fishing. Photo: Viet Cuong
The lighthouse on Lý Sơn Island. Photo: Thong Thien
Endowed by nature, the island is surrounded by lava rock strata, which are remnants of the volcanoes which have been dormant for over 20 million years. They create a beautiful landscape.
The island has many ancient relics related to the Hoang Sa Flotilla which attract millions of visitors every year, and a famous beach, locally known as Ba Ri. The beach is situated in front of Duc Pagoda which has a 27m-high statue of the Goddess of Mercy facing the East Sea.
Legend has it that this is the place where the young and strong men of the Hoang Sa Flotilla under the reign of King Minh Mang were trained before they took the task to protect Hoang Sa Islands. Perhaps, thanks to this tradition, all of the islanders are skilled in watery occupations and many of them have become experienced fishermen in the fishing grounds in Hoang Sa and Truong Sa.
Tran Ngoc Nguyen, Chairman of Ly Son District People’s Committee said: “Lý Sơn is an interesting tourist site which highlights the landscape and spirituality of the place. The district plans to develop the infrastructure to use tourism as a spearhead in the island’s economic development.”
Lý Sơn has a tradition of fishing. At present the island has over 2,500 fishermen with more than 400 boats with a large capacity for offshore fishing. We arrived at the island when the fishermen were preparing to go out to sea. At Am Linh Pagoda which represents the Hoang Sa Flotilla we met Pham Hoang Nhon, a descendant of the well-known Pham family of the heroic flotilla. He was holding a ceremony of praying to the sages for protecting and blessing the fishermen at sea.
For the islanders, this ceremony has become a practice which brings them confidence and strength before a long, arduous trip at sea. Old fisherman Truong Dinh Nhan, owner and captain of a fishing boat on Ly Son Island said: “We are all descendants of the flotilla, so off-shore fishing is not only an occupation, but also is aimed at continuing the cause of our forefathers to protect the sea and island sovereignty.”
In the garlic field. Photo: Viet Cuong
Purple onions are a specialty on Ly Son Island. Photo: Viet Cuong
The beautiful landscape on Ly Son Island created by lava rock strata. Photo: Viet Cuong
Ly Son Island attracts a large number of tourists. Photo: Thong Thien
Besides fishing, the islanders have developed the growing of garlic. Lý Sơn garlic has become a famous brand nationwide and the island is known as the “kingdom of garlic” in Vietnam. In 2009, the Department of Intellectual Property under the Ministry of Science and Technology recognized the Lý Sơn garlic brand as creating favourable conditions for this product to develop in the domestic market and access the world market. The island has reserved nearly 300ha of its total area of 10km2 to grow garlic and onions. Every year it provides the market with about 2,000 tonnes of dried garlic and 3,500 tonnes of dried onions. About 90% of the island’s population, including the fishermen are involved in growing and selling these products. In 2012, garlic alone brought to the island nearly 160 billion VND.
Lý Sơn has changed a lot. The spirit of the heroic flotilla in the past seems to bring confidence and strength to the residents on the island to build up their land, helping preserve and protect the sacred sea and island sovereignty of their beloved Fatherland.
Story: Thong Thien – Photos: Viet Cuong, Thong Thien, Dam Lam, Files