by Dinh Khanh
|On patrol: Young soldiers walk on Nam Yet Island in the central province of Khanh Hoa, where The's bamboo rampart is taking shape. — VNS Photo
|Helping hand: Tran Van The (left) plants bamboo on Nam Yet Island. — VNS Photo Dinh Khanh
Among the 21 relatives of officers and soldiers working on the Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands last June were two war veterans, 58-year-old Tran Van The from the central province of Khanh Hoa and 49-year-old Tao Van Cong from the central province of Thanh Hoa.
Returning to the islands for the first time in 24 years, besides gifts for his two children, The also brought young bamboo shoots with him.
The used to be a sapper, and was stationed on Nam Yet Island from 1984 to 1988. His son and son-in-law followed in his footsteps, and now Tran Van Hung is a Second Lieutenant and technician, and Nguyen Duc Thien has reached the rank of major in charge of air defence.
"I lived here for five years, and now my sons are also serving their country by protecting the islands. Although there is extensive flora here, I remember that it always struck me as being odd that there was no bamboo. That's why I brought these shoots to plant, and hopefully they will flourish and spread," The says.
The idea popped into The's mind after he received an invitation to visit the island from the navy. He chose bamboo, which is common in Cam Ranh City of Khanh Hoa, because it is versatile and can provide both shade and edible shoots.
Before the day of his departure, he explained the idea to his neighbours, and they gave him three more shoots to plant. "Rows of bamboo in countryside villages have become synonymous with Viet Nam. I want to plant bamboo on the islands because they are also part of our homeland," The says.
The planted the shoots on the site of the former sovereignty landmark built by the Sai Gon administration.
Returning to his old barracks after more than two decades, The was excited to recall his time on the island, as memories of his youth came flooding back.
At that time, living conditions were extremely tough. Every brick and bag of cement transported to the island seemed heavier than the last. When cargo ships arrived carrying supplies, the men had to pull canoes of bricks to shore, despite strong waves, because there was nowhere for the ships to land.
There were no concrete-mixers at that time so every cubic metre of concrete had to be mixed manually, then shovelled into baskets before being carried to wherever it was to be used. The sappers had to be on the alert while they carried out their arduous tasks, with foreign forces constantly attempting to sabotage and harass the country. What made matters worse was that progress was slow, with only 200m of stone embankments completed each year. Now looking at the buildings he helped to construct, The can't help but feel proud.
"Living on the island was very tough at that time. I even missed little things like a cock crowing in the morning." Now The's wish has been realised, with livestock such as cattle and poultry bred on the island. Since the moment he arrived, he never stopped smiling. It was a smile of happiness at seeing his two dear sons, his old house and the beautiful changes to the island.
The's companion Tao Van Cong returned to the island after 27 years to visit his second son, soldier Tao Van Thao.
"I was very happy to receive an invitation to the island, because it provided me the opportunity to visit not only my son but also my old house and distant memories," Cong says.
Every house and tree seemed new and strange to him. "Those octopus bushes used to be only two metres high, but now they have grown beyond my imagination," Cong says.
He was also astonished at the abundance of fruit and vegetables grown on the island.
"We used to plant squashes during the rainy season, but that was about it. Now look at it," he exclaims.
"If I had a house and a job, I would stay on the island," he wishes.
A few days after The and Cong had returned home from Nam Yet Island, they received a phone call from their sons informing them that three bamboo roots had sprouted and grown about 20cm. They were very happy to learn that their bamboo rampart was taking shape, and will soon spread across the Spratly Islands. — VNS