Updated April 28, 2010
Island ceremony honours dead sailors
Xem anh phong to
An annual worshipping ceremony dedicated to dead sailors was organised on Ly Son Island, in the central province of Quang Ngai on April 28.

The ceremony aims to pay tribute to naval men who died while serving to protect the Truong Sa (Spratly) and Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelagos during the reign of Nguyen lords and kings.

"This year's ceremony will be organised on a larger scale than usual as all the families living on the island will gather to organise a common ceremony," said Nguyen Dang Vu, Director of Quang Ngai Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

In previous years, each family organised their own ceremony separately on the 15th and 16th day of the third lunar month, which fall on April 28 and 29 this year.

Elderly people float thousands of candles, which represent the soldiers who died while guarding the Paracels. Then a shaman prays to dummies, with the intention of turning any bad luck on the dummies, rather than the soldiers guarding the archipelago.

The procession then floats the dummies and boats out to sea.

At the same event this year, the province opened an area for preserving images and objects of the former soldiers that guarded the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.

Vu also added that the ceremony stems from a local traditional religious custom, which had been proposed to be organised at a national level.

He said the authorities would seek approval from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to organise a Sea and Islands Festival in the province in 2012, the centre of which would be the ceremony.

A local resident, 80 year-old Vo Hien Dat, confirmed that the worshipping ceremony had been handed down through generations for hundreds of years.

He added that every year, local elderly people chose a fine day to gather at An Vinh Village's communal house to make small models of real equipment for fishermen, including boats, saucepans, water bottles and other personal things for navy men to be used in the worshipping ceremony.

Vu, who has a PhD on sea and island culture, said more than 400 years ago, when Lord Nguyen started his reign in the south of the country, around 70 local men had been chosen to travel to the Paracels to search for valuable sea products to provide to the royal and local army generals controlling the East Sea.

The mission was repeated by the Hoang Sa Sailor Team (which has also charge of administrative management of Truong Sa Archipelago) under Tay Son reign (1778-1802) under the leadership of Vo Van Phu and Vo Van Khiet.

Then, under King Gia Long's reign (1802-20), Pham Quang Anh was sent to select men to map the two archipelagos. The king then established sailor teams to join the Hoang Sa and Que Huong sailor teams to Hoang Sa and Truong Sa to install border markers, build temples on the archipelagos, and map the area.

Under King Minh Mang's reign (1820-40), famous military officers like Pham Van Nguyen (1835), Pham Huu Nhat (1836) and Pham Van Bien were recorded as the heads of the Hoang Sa Sailor Team.

When going to the sea, each sailor carried along essential personal things including a card bearing their name, origin and some bamboo sticks and string in case of death, their companions would use the bamboo sticks and string to tie their body up, burying the bodies at sea with their identity cards. If they were lucky enough, the sea currents would send them to the shore.

The ceremony aims to help the dead soldiers' souls mingle with the sea to reach nirvana.

Vu said the early activities at Spratly and Paracel archipelagos had been recorded by royal historians under King Tu Duc reign (1848-83), and later in books by historians like Le Quy Don, Phan Huy Chu and Nguyen Thong.

The Dang family at Ly Son Island recently presented the Government with an original royal order signed by King Ming Mang on April 15, 1834. The king sent a team of three boats carrying 24 men to guard the Paracels.

There are various historic sites in Quang Ngai Province associated with the Hoang Sa Sailor Team like Vuon Don, where the troops gathered before going to the sea and Hoang Sa Temple, where soldiers prayed before going to the sea.

On Ly Son Island, Am Linh Tu worships the heads of the Hoang Sa Sailor Team namely Vo Van Phu and Vo Van Khiet; other heads like Pham Quang Anh have been worshipped at Pham Quang family's worshipping house; and Pham Huu Nhat, Pham Van Nguyen and Pham Van Bien are worshipped at Pham Van family's house. Thousands of empty tombs built by families for those missing at sea scatter the island.

Ngo Van Nghia, a culture official from Ly Son Island, said the local culture unit had gathered more than 60 valuable pictures and objects proving Viet Nam's sovereignty over the Paracels.

Ly Son and other islands and coastal localities in the province have hosted traditional festive activities attracting thousands of locals like the boat racing festival in Ly Son, Binh Son, Tu Nghia, Mo Duc and Duc Pho; the fish worshipping ceremony in Sa Huynh, the folk singing festivals in Duc Pho, Mo Duc, and Tu Nghia; and whale worshipping, sword dancing and folk games in every coastal commune.


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