More to Phú Quốc than beaches and sea

May 09, 2021 - 08:25

Vietnamese people often visit pagodas, temples or cultural relics in spring. During my trip to Phú Quốc Island over Tết (Lunar New Year), I followed a local friend to a temple dedicated to national hero Nguyễn Trung Trực.

by Nguyễn Thu Hiền

Phú Quốc Island is famed not only for its turquoise waters and beaches with white smooth sand but also as a land of historical heritage.

The temple dedicated to national hero Nguyễn Trung Trực in the north of the island is one such place, which many locals visit during festive events.

Gate of the temple dedicated to Nguyễn Trung Trực in Cử Cạn Commune, Phú Quốc Island. VNS Photo Thu HIền

The newly upgraded temple is located on a small, quiet road near Gành Dầu Cape, 40km from the island’s centre. From the cape, one can see Cambodia.

The temple is simple in design and retains its traditional architecture. The large front yard in the temple can host hundreds of people for important events.

Many paintings hung inside describe heroic fighting led by the national hero against French colonialists in the middle of the 19th century.

Various memorabilia involving his fights against the French on Phú Quốc Island are displayed in glass frames at the temple including swords, drums and gongs.

The main hall is dedicated to Nguyễn Trung Trực and his supporters as well as people involved in his uprising.

A vestige of the boat used to carry food for Trực’s army is on display in the garden of the temple.

Hero Nguyễn Trung Trực is worship in the centre, while his supporters are worshipped on both sides of the main worship hall. VNS Photo Thu Hiền

Trang Kim Nghĩa, also known as teacher Dõng, who manages the temple recalled: “In 1993, when we first came here, the area was deserted and poor, surrounded by dense forest.

“There was no healthcare station in the area,” she said. “We asked local authorities for land, cleared the trees to set up a healthcare room and gave herbal medicine to the needy.”

Nghĩa said they placed an altar to Nguyễn Trung Trực in the central room, while the two next rooms were used for health checking.

“Locals often burnt incenses to pay tribute to him first, then check their health next,” she recalled. “Gradually, the place has become one of the nine biggest temples in Kiên Giang Province dedicated to the national hero.”

A piece of the hero's ship carrying food for his army is now displayed at a roofed area in the garden of the temple. VNS Photo Thu Hiền

Brave hero

Nguyễn Trung Trực (1837-1868) was born as Chơn into a fisher family in Gia Đinh, today’s Bến Lức District of Long An Province.

In 1859, he was recruited as a soldier under Trương Định’s insurgent force against the French.

In 1861, he gathered many local farmers to fight against the French in Tân An (in today’s Long An) and Rạch Giá (in today Kiên Giang). Thanks to his many victories, Trực was promoted by King Tự Đức in Huế as a Military Chief, who protected sovereignty in Hà Tiên.

At the end of 1861, Chief Trực's force together with Trương Định’s troops attacked and burned the warship L’Esperance of the French navy in Nhật Tảo (Bến Lức) on December 10, 1861. They killed many French soldiers in the fighting.

When the Huế Court was forced to sign the Nhâm Tuất Agreement in 1862 to give three provinces in the southeast to the French, Nguyễn Trung Trực was assigned as a military chief in the Gia Định, Biên Hòa area.

On June 23, 1867, when Hà Tiên was lost to the French, Trực withdrew his troops to Rạch Giá and established a military base in Hòn Chông to continue fighting.

On June 16, 1868, Trực's insurgents attacked Rạch Giá military station of the French, killing the Rạch Giá provincial governor, five French officers and 67 soldiers. The insurgents also took lots of weapons and controlled Rạch Giá for five days. The fight was a significant event that threatened the French colonial regime and was recorded in French military history.

Two days later, the French army headquarters in Mỹ Tho sent more troops from Vĩnh Long to Rạch Giá. Though Trực’s army fought bravely against fierce counter-attacks by the French, they had to withdraw to Hòn Chông (Kiên Lương).

The French took back Kiên Giang Military Station on June 21, 1868, and continued to hunt for the Vietnamese insurgents in Hòn Chông.

In August 1868, Trực's force had to evacuate from Hòn Chông to Phú Quốc Island and established a base in a forest in today’s Cửa Cạn Commune.

The French then attacked the base, seized Trực’s mother and the families of his soldiers to force them to surrender.

Nguyễn Trung Trực and his troops had to surrender to save the lives of their families.

A closer look at the vestige of Nguyễn Trung Trực's ship carrying food for his army. VNS Photo Thu Hiền

In September 1868, Nguyễn Trung Trực was taken to Sài Gòn, where he faced the French enemy for the final time in his life. He stated with confidence: “Only when there is no grass in Việt Nam, will there be no more Vietnamese fighting against foreign invaders."

The French then killed him at Rạch Giá Market on October 27, 1868. He was only 31.

Holy temple

Many temples have been built to pay homage to the brave hero in Kiên Giang and Long An provinces including the one in his homeland, Long An; the one in Rạch Giá, where he was killed and the temple in Gành Dầu – Phú Quốc, where he was caught in his final fight.

The temple was built in 1993 and was recognised as a provincial-level cultural and historical heritage site in 2011. The temple was renovated totally and opened to the public in October 2016.

Since 1996, on the 27th day of the eighth lunar month, locals gather at the temple to celebrate Nguyễn Trung Trực’s victory against the French.

People bring along various kinds of food, re-enact the fight and burn a ship at the site.

The temple also hosts various games like stick pushing, boat racing, tug of war, chess, and lion dancing.

Visitors today may find many kinds of herbs and peels of fruits dried at the temple yard, which have been used as herbal medicine and given free to those needed.

Nghĩa said every day, many people like fishermen, students and merchants come to pay tribute to the heroes as well as wish for peace, success and wealth.

Locals in the Mekong Delta considered him a genie who made a great contribution to the nation.

“Fishermen in Phú Quốc Island believe he is a genie protecting them at sea during fierce storms,” Nghĩa said. VNS