Colonel Nguyen Van Binh, a lecturer at the Academy of Military Science, has sent us a set of notes taken in 1998 on Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands by his father, poet Nguyen Minh Hieu (1924-1998), a former member of Vietnam Writers’ Association and the former Vice Chairman of Thanh Hoa Provincial Party Committee’s Division for Propaganda and Education. PANO would like to introduce the notes taken by Poet Nguyen Minh Hieu during his talk in 1988 with 75-year-old Nguyen Huu, one of four technicians who were sent to work on the Paracel Archipelago in 1938.
“If I had met an overseas Vietnamese returning from Paris at this time, I would have asked him to check among the Vietnamese community in France to find out if any relatives of Mr. Nguyen Ky, a mining engineer in Indochina in the 1930s, were alive, as he returned to Paris. I am sure that his family still keeps many documents relating to his trip to the Paracel Archipelago in 1938.
Mr. Ky and four technicians from the Indochinese Mining Department were not the first Vietnamese citizens who were sent to work on Hoang Sa Island from April to August 1938. Earlier, some 60 Vietnamese troops, mostly from Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces, had been garrisoned in this island under the direction of a half French and half Vietnamese man called Mon. Anyway, he looked more Vietnamese except with the European nose. That army unit was present on the island since 1937. They built underground fortifications and depots to reserve enough foodstuffs and fresh water to last for two or three years. In fact, these fortifications and depots were half-submerged or two thirds of them were underground, and they were skilfully disguised.
We shared meals with troops, while Nguyen Ky had meals with Mr. Mon.
The technicians had to strictly observe the rule and discipline not to interfere in the construction work. The soldiers had built a lighthouse on the island and some depots to accommodate precious shells taken from the sea.
After the technicians returned to the mainland, the soldiers still remained on the island to continue with their on-going projects”.
Mr. Nguyen Huu (in 1988), former Director of Co Dinh Mine, a native of Thanh Hoa province told me the above story.
Three years after returning from Hoang Sa Island, Mr. Nguyen Huu was assigned to do surveys at mines in Vinh Loc and Ha Trung, Thanh Hoa Province. There, he was enlightened with revolutionary ideas by comrade Nguyen Van Hue, who is now over 80 years old.
After the success of the General Uprising in 1945, Nguyen Huu worked in the Subcommittee of Economy and Finance of Interregional 4, which was in charge of exploiting phosphorous mines in Vinh City and Thanh Hoa province.
Later on, during the war against French colonists, he was entrusted to build and manage Nam Phat Thanh Hoa Phosphate Company and then was sent to work in Co Dinh Chromite.
Mr. Nguyen Huu went on:
“The trip to the Hoang Sa Island in 1938 came as a surprise to us as we were not used to the working techniques, lifestyle and cultural practices there. One day in late March, 1938, engineer Nguyen Ky suddenly summoned us to his office to inform us of the order to conduct surveys on the island. Our group included Trinh Dinh Huong from Bac Ninh specializing in chemical tests, Le Duc from Vinh Loc-Thanh Hoa, and Nguyen The Tru from Ghep River Estuary and I were in charge of conducting surveys.
At 2pm the following day, we travelled to Hai Phong and at 5am the next day, we were on board Sauvage’s cargo ship to Danang. It took us five days to reach Danang. Engineer Nguyen Ky rested in a Western hotel, while four of us stayed in a hotel run by a Chinese.
After staying nearly a week in Danang, we were given forms to fill in with the commitment to strictly follow the instructions of the island’s managers and engineer Nguyen Ky would be responsible for the working techniques. Just before setting off, we were informed that troops under the Bao Dai Administration had been stationed for nearly a year on Hoang Sa Island and that living conditions were not much different from that on the mainland. A day later, we were each given an identity paper, two sets of brown loose fitting clothes, two pieces of loin-cloth, one palm-leaf raincoat and one conical straw hat of the type often worn by fishermen. We had to buy an alcohol stove, cigarettes, and other essentials for ourselves.
At 9am on April 2nd, 1938, our group departed on a French ship, the Claude Saf. It took us for more than a day to reach the island due to strong wind and big waves. We all slept for two days straight because of seasickness.
We lived in a canvas house and in front of the house stood a flag pole with the flag of the Bao Dai Administration fluttering on top. About 50 meters away were the tents of fishermen who had come earlier. Engineer Nguyen Ky stayed with a Eurasian disguised as a fishing contractor. Later, we found out that the Eurasian was a mandarin and the fishermen were in fact sea guards.
At that time, Japanese troops had occupied Manzhou (1931), leading to the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (July 1937) and expanded their invasion into China. The Japanese Navy was actively operating in these territorial waters. The French Administration had to send troops disguised as business groups of the Bao Dai administration to defend Hoang Sa Island. Hoang Sa Archipelago at that time comprised of around fifty islands and the Hoang Sa Island is the largest one with the acreage of one square kilometre. The island’s surface was covered with weathered coral and had various small mounds which were around four meters above sea level. Other smaller islands of the Hoang Sa Archipelago also had weathered coral and sand, but some could only be seen as the tide ebbed away. On Hoang Sa Island, there were long and sharp grasses, and trees with leaves similar to banana leaves.
While waiting for the ship to return to the mainland when our surveying mission was finished, we were told that from King Minh Mang’s time on, the Nguyen Dynasty had ordered the transport of a number of mainland seedlings to the island. These trees were seen as a signal for boats to avoid crashing into the shoal. However, only a few trees could survive strong sea winds and tough weather.
On Hoang Sa Island, there had been various species of gulls with white, black or brown feathers. They used to come in the evening, leaving behind thousands of eggs, but the taste was not very good.
On Hoang Sa Island, there were a lot of precious snail-shells with different colours of blue, red, violet and yellow. Some shells were as small as nails. Some, as big as a grapefruit, were sparkling like diamonds under the sunshine. Some shells were so transparent that we could see their colourful veins with a lamp. The islanders had collected lots of big shells.
Among interstices of colourful corals, there sheltered families of salt-water crabs and red snappers. In our free time, we often went fishing for red snappers with only roasted rice or a handful of cooked rice. At times, we could catch up to a dozen kilograms of red snappers. What we badly need was vegetables. Another surprise on this island was that though there were no mosquitoes, there existed a large number of brown and black bats. Some natives of Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces believed that these bats came from the mainland and lived on tiny fish and prawn and then rested in the crevices of corals.
Engineer Nguyen Ky had directed our group to conduct surveys and explore the reserves and quality of guano in the Hoang Sa Islands. However, the island management board would decide which island to be studied.
After Mr. Bao had specified co-ordinates and longitudes, we started digging trenches for exploration. Each trench was one meter wide and two or three meters deep depending on different places. We used wood to prevent sand from flowing down and hammered hard corals.
We found that the reserves of guano could reach up to ten thousand tonnes with good quality. Guano included saltpeter, used to make gunpowder, and potassium nitrate which could be used as fertilizer. The guano had agglomerated for a long period of time and at some places it was 3 meters thick. People in charge of doing chemical tests also analysed the yellow mineral water leaking through the trench walls some meters underground.