Not too far away from the mainland like the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes but the small island of Con Co has a long history of its own.
People from the mainland had come to settle here from the primitive age, many soldiers laid down their lives for the island, and now the new generations are sweating to build the small island. The island’s history has been written by generations of such people.
The sacred island
Before dawn at Cua Tung harbour in the Vinh Linh district, our boat headed out to Con Co. On a fine day it is possible to see the tiny dot of an island across the blue sea from Cua Tung.
The story goes that in the old days there was a deity who built the Truong Son Mountain Range. When he was lifting a heavy stone, he unintentionally dropped it into the sea and that’s how Con Co Island was formed. That was a legend about the small island that even today old people in the coastal area of Vinh Linh in Quang Tri province, still tell their descendants. In fact, this small island was formed by geological movements millions of years ago and people were present there tens of thousands of years ago. Champa residents lived on Con Co at the start of the first millennium AD. And in their sea voyage to south, the Dai Viet (Great Viet) people had selected Con Co as a stopover point.
The boat journey was just over one hour and I saw Con Co lying imposingly before my eyes. The closer the boat approached, the more the blue sea and the forest began to spread out. We could also saw a flotilla of peaceful fishing boats, resting up after a long trip at sea.
In documentation, Con Co is usually described shortly as “a 230 ha island lying 18 nautical miles from the mainland and during the war, it was attacked by the enemy many times”. But Con Co became a legend during the anti-US war, shooting down 48 enemy aircraft and sinking 17 vessels. People still talk about the soldiers crossing the sea in little bamboo boats. It is hard to imagine how those bamboo boats could have dealt with the huge waves and strong winds and how they could transport their cargo between Vinh Linh and Con Co Island at night during heavy bombing. Between 1964 and 1975, 250 bamboo and wooden boats sailed from the mainland carrying 2,520 tonnes of weapons and provisions to Con Co Island. Among those sailing to the island, at least half were killed but nobody gave up, passing on their strength to their comrades.
A corner of Con Co island
Nghe Port - one of the beautiful sites on Con Co island
Standing next to the Memorial Monument on Con Co island, we bowed our heads in front of the rows of names carved on stone steles. The smoke of the fragrant incense was blowing in the wind. It is said that the soil on Con Co island is smoother and redder than in many other places because of the blood from fallen soldiers.
Capriciously, history “placed” Con Co on a position where the motherland of Viet Nam was divided in two during the US war so this small island became the focus of many bombing raids. Today, Con Co, with its position on the southern side of the mouth of Bac Bo Gulf, the island plays an important role in defending the country’s sovereignty over its seas and islands.
Homeland on the sea
The island has been given many names such as ‘Vietnamese land at sea’ and ‘fulcrum on the sea.’ They are right as we have only been away from the mainland for a few days but still miss it very much. So what would happen to the fishing boats if there was no Con Co island to shelter?
In 2004, Con Co became a district of Quang Tri province, separate from Vinh Linh district. Since then, a group of young volunteers have revitalised the island from its uncultivated state. “The severe climate and constant deprivation can strike down the sturdiest of people but strangely, no one leaves the island. It’s as if everyone is in debt to this island,” confided our guide, Nguyen Thanh Nghia, an official from the People’s Committee for Con Co island district.
Many of the young volunteers from the old days still live on the island. Some met their life partners thanks to the island. Nguyen Van Hien, 1979, and Nguyen Thi Lan, 1980, are a good example. The couple run a small restaurant and have two children.
“Beforehand, we simply thought that if other people could live on the island, so could we. Now we cannot go away from the island, half of my life has been here, I could not bear going too far away from the island because I would miss it so much,” said the husband, Hien.
It’s interesting to hear the island’s residents telling their stories, which are not worse than jokes and funny stories in the mainland’s Vinh Hoang village. When there was no fresh water in Con Co, the islanders joked that “everyday, we bath in the sea and then expose our bodies to the sun and have salt to eat.” Even when storms approach, they still joke around: “it’s better because noone would dare leave the house, all family members have a chance to sit together.” The police stationed on the island say that the people love each other very much so there are probably not many places as safe and secure as this.
Those are the islanders but visitors to the island are the same. Fishermen who spend a lot of time at sea crave to smell the soil and want to meet other people while the islanders are very hospitable. They give each other cups of warm wine despite all the different accents and know that after staying on the island for a night, the visitors have to go fishing. “There are many dangers at sea, but we have Con Co. If there is a storm, we go ashore to avoid it, if our boat’s engine is broken, we can call for rescue, and if we meet strange ships, we will immediately notify the border forces on the island to drive off …,” said a fisherman from Quang Binh province.
If you had gone to Con Co several years ago, you would be certainly surprised at the island today. It now has not only heaving rocks, dense primeval forests which make up 73 percent of the island, and barracks but also high buildings, including the headquarters of the district People’s Committee, the police and tax offices, and a health centre. “Though the island is still under construction, we have proposed a specific policy to maximise resources to take full advantage of all the island’s potential,” said Le Quang Lanh, Secretary of the Party Committee and Chairman of the People’s Committee for Con Co island district.
Con Co is also destined to become a natural conservation zone to boost tourism. It is expected to run a pilot tour to Con Co Island in 2012, one step closer to the island’s dream is to attract 10,000-15,000 tourists annually by 2015 and earn a revenue of 500,000-1 million USD per year from tourism.
It is an extremely strange night because there not only is there the moon, stars, wind and clouds to wonder at but also my undefined feelings. At sea, the fishing boats lights sparkle away and the fishermen can feel safe as Con Co is always their safe haven amid the immense sea./.