The epic of Hoang Sa Flotilla

Since long ago, the island district of Ly Son (Quang Ngai Province) has preserved a historical story about the militia heroes of the Hoang Sa Flotilla in the Nguyen Dynasty who rowed boats to Hoang Sa Archipelago (Paracel), ready to plant sovereign landmarks and defend the islands of the motherland.

The boat which took us from Sa Ky Port (Quang Ngai Province) to Ly Son Island on a day in late April was crowded with passengers. It seemed the nearer the ceremony known as “Le Khao Le The Linh Hoang Sa” (Feast and Commemoration Festival for Hoang Sa Soldiers) was coming, the more crowded the boats to the island were.

 As a custom, every year on this celebration day the natives of Ly Son Island, wherever they are living and working, return to their homeland to attend the ceremony to express their gratitude to their ancestors. The fishermen in the neighbouring provinces such as Binh Dinh, Phu Yen and Quang Nam also eagerly flock to the island to attend the ceremony because they consider it a common death anniversary of the fishermen in the region.

On board, we by chance met Pham Van Bien, a student at Ho Chi Minh City University of Theatre and Cinema, who is a descendent of the 7th generation of the well-known Pham family of the Hoang Sa Flotilla on Ly Son Island. Like many other islanders, Bien was returning home to attend “Le khao le the linh Hoang Sa”.

He said: “When I was three or four years old my parents took me to watch “Le khao le the linh Hoang Sa”. Since then, I have watched this ceremony about 20 times. This time I will go with you to the ceremony and visit the historical relics relating to the Hoang Sa Flotilla.”

During our stay on Ly Son Island, Bien enthusiastically led us to visit some historical relics and beautiful sites. Ly Son Island covers an area of less than 10km2 but it has nearly 100 relics, most of which are related to the Hoang Sa Flotilla, such as the sacred temple, the area of graves of Hoang Sa soldiers, the communal houses of An Vinh and An Hai Villages, the chambers worshipping Pham Quang Anh and Vo Van Khiet who were the captains of the Hoang Sa Flotilla, the showroom displaying the items of the Hoang Sa Flotilla who also controlled Bac Hai and Ba Ri Lagoon. particulary “Le khao le the linh Hoang Sa” on Ly Son Island has been recognised as a national intangible cultural heritage by the State.

The sacred temple is the clearest evidence of the Ly Son residents’ respect for their ancestors who joined the Hoang Sa Flotilla and died while doing their duty entrusted by the court at sea. Before they go out to sea, the fishermen always come to this temple to burn incense.

“All Ly Son fishermen believe that when they go out to sea they will be helped and protected by the Hoang Sa Flotilla against big waves and strong winds. For them, this has become a belief,” Bien said with pride.

Like a professional tour guide, Bien led us to the monument and the memorial house dedicated to the Hoang Sa Flotilla near the main road of the island. He showed us all the exhibits, such as the mats, identity cards, bamboo splints and rolls of rattan strings. These were the items that the militia-soldiers often took with them on each trip to Hoang Sa. In case a soldier died at sea, their team mates would use these things to wrap his body and release it to the sea, hoping that it would drift to his homeland on the waves.

Listening to Bien’s story, Ms. Han, a survey expert of a tourist company of South Korea which had an office in Ho Chi Minh City joined us. Hearing about “Le khao le the linh Hoang Sa”, she went to the island several days before. She said it was the story about the Hoang Sa Flotilla, the historical and cultural relics and the landscape on Ly Son Island that had induced her company to establish a tour to take tourists from South Korea to Ly Son.

“Vietnam and South Korea are countries with sea and islands, so I believe that our visitors will discover many interesting stories about the heroes who went to protect the sea of your country,” she said.

Leaving the memorial house, Bien led us to the house owned by Vo Hien Dat, an old artisan specializing in making the boats for “Le khao le the linh Hoang Sa” in An Vinh Commune. This important ceremony was coming near, so his family was extraordinarily busy. Many young people gathered at his house to learn how to make the boats.

Old Dat said: “These are the models of the boats used by the Hoang Sa Flotilla to go to Hoang Sa to plant the landmarks and measure the sea routes 400 years ago.”

Dat introduced his close disciple, Pham Van Bon. Bon had followed him for five years to learn the craft and was able to make the boat in the way used by his forefathers. Bon said with pride: “The custom of launching the boats has existed for hundreds of years and is considered a main ritual of the “Le khao le the linh Hoang Sa”.

On these boats there are dummies which look very soulful. So, just looking at these dolls you can see the heroic spirit of our forefathers when they went out to the open sea 400 years ago.”

Saying goodbye to the artisan we went to the house of Pham Thoai Tuyen whom Bien considered “a historian” of Ly Son Island. Tuyen is a descendent of the 5th generation of the Hoang Sa Flotilla’s captain, Pham Huu Nhat who died on Hoang Sa Archipelago while doing the task of planting the sovereign landmark and measuring the sea route entrusted by the Nguyen court.

Tuyen’s simple house with three compartments had a lot of maps, photos and items of the Hoang Sa Flotilla. Tuyen told us the history of the establishment of the Hoang Sa Flotilla and the important role of the “Le khao le the linh Hoang Sa” in the cultural and spiritual life of Ly Son residents.

According to him, King Minh Mang (1791-1841) once issued a royal decree, in which there were the words “For the territorial waters of our country, Hoang Sa is extremely important”. Ly Son residents have the folk verses:

Hoang Sa has a vast sky and sea

People go out without returning

Hoang Sa has a vast sky and sea in all directions

In February, “Lekhao le the linh Hoang Sa” is held

Tuyen said: “For Ly Son residents, “Le khao le the linh Hoang Sa” is a treasure. You attend the ceremony and will clearly see that.”

Following him, we went to burn incense at the wind grave of the Hoang Sa Flotilla’s captain, Pham Huu Nhat. Talking about the formation of the wind graves on the island, Tuyen said that in the old days, in February, the militia-soldiers of the Hoang Sa Flotilla went on a mission to Hoang Sa.

In August if a soldier did not return, his family would know he had died. To have a grave to worship him, his family invited a monk to use the clay taken from the peak of the Gieng Tien Mountain, the earth from the T-junction, egg yolk and the twigs of a mulberry tree to make a dummy and bury it.

Many people of different generations of the Ly Son residents who joined the Hoang Sa Flotillas did not return home, so hundreds of wind graves were built and the dummies on the boats for the ceremony were made.

On the day of the ceremony, the sounds of the horns made of snail shells spread across the island and streams of people gathered at the communal house of An Vinh Village. The main altar was placed in the yard, facing the sea.

Well-dressed elders of six large families on the island solemnly conducted the rituals, such as the requiem, the offering ritual for the captain and the launching of the boats with dummies to commemorate and honour the Hoang Sa Flotillas.

According to old Vo Hien Dat, in the old days his ancestors obeyed the order of the court to plant the landmarks and defend Hoang Sa Archipelago. The sea route was full of obstacles and many of them did not return home. To commemorate those who laid down their lives, every year, on February of the lunar calendar, the families on Ly Son Island held “Le khao le the linh Hoang Sa”.

All the families whose descendents sacrificed their lives on Hoang Sa held this ceremony. Gradually, this ceremony has become a common practice of the Ly Son residents. It is aimed at honouring and expressing gratitude to the brave soldiers who have overcome high waves to go to Hoang Sa to defend the sacred sovereignty of the country.

At night, under the yellow light of the worshipping house dedicated to Pham Huu Nhat, the Hoang Sa Flotilla’s captain, Bien told us about his plans and ambition to do something significant to show his gratitude to the ancestors.

He confided: “I have collected quite a lot of documents and wish to make a film to reproduce the harrowing and heroic trips of the Hoang Sa Flotillas.”

The enthusiastic confidence of this young man and the sounds of the horns mingling with the sounds of waves seemed to take me back to the distant past where there is an epic story about the militia-soldiers who laid down their lives at sea to protect the sea of the country.

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An Vinh Village Communal House, a national historical relic, is a place to worship soldiers of the Hoang Sa Flotilla.

hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

The Monument of the Hoang Sa Flotilla in Ly Son District.

hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

The tomb of Captain of the Hoang Sa Flotilla Pham Huu Nhat on Ly Son Island.

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hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

Royal decrees, name cards and relics related to the Hoang Sa Flotilla have been preserved by many families on Ly Son Island. 


hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

Blowing a big snail shell to start the Hoang Sa Soldiers’ Feast and Commemoration Festival.

hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

Requiem for the Hoang Sa Flotilla sailors.

hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

The official ceremony at the Hoang Sa Soldiers’ Feast and Commemoration Festival.

hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

The rite of throwing rice and salt...


hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

...And singing to invoke the spirits of the Hoang Sa Flotilla sailors.

hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

Elder Vo Hien Dat prepares miniature boats and dummies for the Hoang Sa Soldiers’ Feast and Commemoration Festival.

hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

The rite of releasing miniature boats is held at the Hoang Sa Soldiers’ Feast and Commemoration Festival.


hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

The rite of releasing miniature boats and dummies is the most important part of the Hoang Sa Soldiers’ Feast and Commemoration Festival.








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hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

A boat race that shows the sporting spirit of Ly Son’s fishermen is held at the festival.








hoang sa flotilla, ly son, hoang sa, paracel

Tens of thousands of visitors from home and abroad flock to attend the Hoang Sa Soldiers’ Feast and Commemoration Festival on Ly Son.




VNP

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