The island district of Ly Son has more than 40 families providing manpower to naval defence squads who sailed to Hoang Sa and Truong Sa under royal orders to exploit resources and plant territorial markers to affirm sovereignty.
Ly Son island district in the central province of Quang Ngai covers an area of only 10 sq.km. but has up to 10 national and provincial-level cultural and historical relic sites. More than half of the relics, temples and valuable documents in the families directly relate to the history of Viet Nam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes.
Children act as Hoang Sa soldiers at a re-enactment of the ceremony to see off the naval squad
In his childhood, the boy named Vo Van Ut, the sixth-generation descendant of Hoang Sa Flotilla Chief Vo Van Khiet, heard his grandfather and father talking about the ancestors’ voyages to conquer the East Sea, landing in the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes.
From numerous stories his father told him, Ut had a special impression of the image of a 15m-long, 4.5m-wide sailing boat. In the second or third lunar month, the forefathers of his family left Ly Son island to go straight to Hoang Sa to exploit resources, plant markers and conduct surveys on sea routes. By August, when the Northeast monsoon came, the Hoang Sa Flotilla returned to anchor at Hoi An seaport or Thuan An seaport (in Thua Thien-Hue) to hand over what they had exploited to the court.
Ut, who is now nearly 60 years old, recalled: “My grandfather and father told me that before sailors set off for duty, their family held a ceremony at the worshipping hall of the family to encourage them to fulfil tasks entrusted by the court. Families that had people going to Hoang Sa got annual tax exemptions. The village provided those families with food, including rice, salt, cooking oil and drinking water. In addition, the village also let out land to local people to raise funds for annual allowances to naval defence squads”.
The Vo Van family is keeping documents showing that their ancestors used to join naval defence squads to Hoang Sa on duty in 1786. Based on the Han-Nom documents found in the family, Vo Van Khiet was the first person from Ly Son to become chief of the Hoang Sa Flotilla. Following Khiet was Chief Vo Van Phu who went to Hoang Sa in 1803. Other members of the Vo Van family also went to Hoang Sa. One of them was Vo Van Hung - who was mentioned in the historical books of the Nguyen Dynasty many times as a guide for the navy and in charge of selecting sailors.
Models of light boats used by the old-time naval teams to carry out missions in Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes
Not only the Vo Van family, many other families in Ly Son island district such as Pham Quang, Pham Van, Dang and Nguyen had many generations who went as soldiers to Hoang Sa for consecutive centuries.
The Pham Quang family had Chief Pham Quang Anh who went to Hoang Sa in the Year of At Hoi (1815) under the reign of King Gia Long to survey sea routes. In the Pham Van family, besides Captain of the Hoang Sa Flotilla Pham Huu Nhat, there were many other people going to Hoang Sa such as Captain Pham Van Nguyen who brought soldiers and sailors carrying construction materials to Hoang Sa in the Year of At Mui (1835) to build temples and stone steles on the archipelago.
Pham Thoai Tuyen, nearly 70, the fourth-generation descendant of the Captain of the Hoang Sa Flotilla, Pham Huu Nhat, related: “When I was a boy, I heard my grandfather and father telling that in the old days, due to primitive seagoing means, many members of the family who obeyed the court’s order to do missions in Hoang Sa and Truong Sa had lost their lives in these waters. Before they left, their families prepared cakes and rice for them as travel rations for a long time”.
As a person who has deep understanding about the Hoang Sa Flotilla, 80-year-old artisan Vo Hien Dat in Tay village said that: “Since the Nguyen dynasty, the courageous soldiers of Ly Son island, before leaving for Hoang Sa, never forgot to take with them three rattan strings and a mat besides food for six months. When they met unexpected problems at sea, the team-mates used the rattan strings to bind the body of the ill-fated in the mat with a tag recording his full name and then dropped the body into the sea with a hope that it would drift to the native land”.
Pham Thoai Tuyen, the fourth-generation descendant of Captain Pham Huu Nhat burns incense at his empty tomb.
The most specific and lively evidence is a Hoang Sa decree that the Dang family has kept over the past 175 years, which directly relates to Viet Nam’s sovereignty over the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes. Recently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has presented a certificate of merit to the Dang family for their contribution to protecting sea and island sovereignty.
This was the first official order that the mandarin in charge of Quang Ngai province granted to Dang Van Siem and Duong Van Dinh dated April 15, the 15th year of Minh Mang Reign (1834) assigning a team of three boats to guard Hoang Sa archipelago.
To honour the Hoang Sa Flotilla’s service, it has become a tradition for Ly Son people to hold a ceremony in the second or third lunar month to pay tribute to their ancestors who were ready to sacrifice their lives and sail on the East Sea to affirm the sovereignty over national territorial sea. An oration delivered at the commemorating ceremony in 1815 kept by the families wrote: “Soldiers who obeyed the court’s order to protect border and territorial sea over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes sacrificed their lives for the nation. Faithfully and courageously, they did not mind any difficulties and hardships to protect the national territory”.
Dr. Nguyen Dang Vu, Director of Quang Ngai provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, affirmed that the historical books and records of the Nguyen dynasty, together with a system of vestiges, temples and thousands of empty tombs commemorating Hoang Sa soldiers on the archipelago are vivid evidence of the Ly Son generations who sailed to Hoang Sa and Truong Sa many centuries ago./.