By Lê Quỳnh Anh
In 2011, as a budding reporter who had just started a career at the Việt Nam News, I was lucky enough to have a life-changing field trip out to the East Sea. I remember I received this assignment on a cold January and Tết was just around the corner. Whereas people were excited to come home for the biggest holiday, I was enthused with my first sea voyage to visit the two islands off the central coast of Việt Nam.
Any journalist would yearn for opportunities to visit far-flung places to fill his/her notebooks with eye-opening, awe-inspring stories weaved from in-person interviews and close-up observations on the scence. This trip offered more than such a thrill, it was a privilege. Not every Vietnamese citizen can board a Việt Nam Navy ship but I was among the few who were granted such honour. Along with other six journalist fellows, I boarded the HQ-628 patrol ship and embarked on a four-day trip with the crew to sail thousands of nautical miles on the waters off the central coast of Việt Nam. The ship was making an annual tradition of delivering the gifts and the festive spirits from the mainland to soldiers and habitants on Cồn Cỏ and Lý Sơn islands ahead of Tết holiday.
No sooner had I boarded the 60-metre ship than I started wandering around the ship deck to marvel at the great view of an expanding ocean. My excitement quickly dissipated, however, as soon as the sea sickness kicked in. As callow as I could ever be, I did the exact thing to aggravate the queasiness which was to do a lot of moving instead of laying still. As the ship got further away from the shore and encountered strong tidal currents with accompany winds, the sea sickness engulfed me. My stomach quickly became empty due to excessive vomiting, and I literally threw up bile. Yet there was no escape since surrounding us was the vast black sea; I wished that I could just die.
We finally got close to Cồn Cỏ Island by the noon of the second day. The moment we were ashore, all of us felt like we were born again. Without rest, we embarked on a 4-kilometre hike on a muddy trail to tour around this island. We quickly regained our heartiness as we savored the vast greenery that welcomed us. As a secluded island where access to it was very limited – even until today there has been no commercial transport routes connecting the island with mainland – Cồn Cỏ has preserved the primitive conditions of a young volcanic island. It is a biodiversity hotbed, home to a diverse tropical maritime ecosystem featuring unique black coral reefs.
When we visited, this 2.3-square-kilometre island was in the making as this once-military station was designated as an administrative district starting from 2004. Scattering around were numerous construction sites to build roads and schools. The primary school which was under construction during our visit came into operation just last year. As I had just completed an article on tapping into the potential of renewable energy, it was close to a déjà vu to see with my own eyes how the smart islanders put this idea into actions. Dozens of solar panels had been installed to power the whole island.
We were warmly received by soldiers who stationed there and the habitants who were among the first to settle down here. As we shared meals with them, we talked at length of the hardships they were facing to humanize an island. They seemed not to mind the rudimentary living conditions as much as the sense of isolation from the rest of the community. That was why they often looked forward to visits by entourages like ours. They were loath to part us on the harbour, and a soldier was kind enough to offer me a few small tips to combat sea sickness.
These advices worked like a charm or at least I thought they did. In the second leg of the trip when we spent another night on board before reaching Lý Sơn Island, I did not vomit for once (phew). Contrast to the tranquility of Cồn Cỏ, Lý Sơn was full of life. It is home to a large fishery fleet, where fishing has been the main livelihood for the islanders for centuries.
Interestingly, the island carries with it a burial tradition like no other. Islanders maintained a practice of building a special type of graves for those whose bodies were forever lost to the sea. The shore-facing tomb included a model of a human being whose components were made of different materials: clay for skin, white mulberry branches for skeleton and egg for stomach, alluvial soil for liver among others. A veteran necromancer would be trusted with building such an intricate model and conducting a solemn ceremony to guide the lost soul back home. In the modern time, these graves are dedicated to unfortunate local fishers who could not make it home from a fatal voyage.
I was fortunate to sit down with Võ Văn Toại, among the very last necromancers still alive on the island. In a thick, hard-to-decipher accent, he explained this tradition traced back to the Nguyễn Dynasty from the 18th century. Under the Kings’ order, each year the island would choose the strongest warriors under the leadership of a Commander to sail the ocean and protect the sovereignty of the Hoàng Sa (Paracel) Archipelago. Many brave soldiers died at sea while on duty. To commemorate their sacrifice and help these heroes rest in peace, members of their families started building such type of graves. More and more graves filled the island as generation after generation of islanders crossed the sea to defend the Paracels. Legend has it that there were years where none of the troop came back and all of the graves were for them. Elsewhere in the island, one also could find other evidence of relics of such heroic crusades by the Kings’ men of Lý Sơn Island. My impression was that the whole island was a living testimony to the indisputable sovereignty of Việt Nam over the Paracels which was totally taken by force by the Chinese in 1974.
As I listened to all these stories, I could not help but wonder how difficult for a reporter to get all the richness and evocative details without actually being on the field. I was very fortunate that the editorial board at this newspaper always encouraged me and other reporters to take on challenging field trips. Such trips not only provide us with materials for great stories but also enrich our perspectives to become a better journalist and in general a better person. Take this particular trip for example. I came back, I became physically stronger and, felt a bigger love for my home country with its magnificent scenic beauty and its patriotic people who serve this country selflessly. — VNS