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Spears offer insight into early military strategy

Battlefront: Painter Le Dang The depicts the famed Bach Dang battle with smaller boats carrying the Viet army, which defeated the much larger Yuan-Mongol boats. Oil on canvas.

Map of success: Map of Bach Dang in 1288. File courtesy of the Archaeology Institute.

Hard facts: Ngo Dong Son points to the wooden spears discovered in the 1959 excavation, now on display at Hung Yen Province museum.

Unearthing the past: Workers dig around the spears, first excavated in 1959, which provide insight into the battle of Bach Dang. — VNS Photos Viet Thanh


Seven hundred years after Viet Nam’s historic victory against the Yuan-Mongols at Bach Dang, archaeologists continue to find remnants of the famous spears hidden underwater to snag enemy vessels, which provide a tangible link to one of the country’s most fascinating periods. Nguyen Minh Huong reports.

Looking out over a vast field of water with carefully built embankments for fish farming called Van Muoi in Nam Hoa Village of Quang Ninh Province, everything looked normal. However, when the tide recedes, remnants of a vast field of spears protrude—what archaeologists have decided were used to help the Dai Viet army destroy the Yuan-Mongol troops invading from the north in the 13th century.

Paddling around the pond in a small boat, Ngo Dong Son, head of Yen Hung District’s culture department, pointed at the defensive weapons lurking under the surface.

According to the Viet Nam Archaeology Institute’s latest excavation, General Tran Hung Dao in the 13th century sent troops to drive the spears into the riverbed of the Bach Dang River at a 45-degree angle to mangle the enemy’s wooden boats as they came down the river.

In a drained field about one kilometre in the same district is a previously excavated field from an earlier search of Yen Giang Village. A large hole in the ground revealed some one hundred logs pointing skyward. It looks like a burnt forest.

The 20-33cm in diameter spears were meant to stick out of the water about 40-50cm, and, according to historians, had iron tips, none of which survived the nearly 700 years since they were placed in the river. The Van Muoi field in Nam Hoa Village today was reportedly the primary field of spears that defended against the powerful ships of the Yuan-Mongols.

In Quang Ninh

In 1288, about 300,000 Yuan-Mongol troops from China invaded Viet Nam for the third time following two failed attempts in 1258 and 1285. The failures only increased their will to defeat the Vietnamese Tran Dynasty.

The Yuan-Mongols approached the capital, Thang Long (present day Ha Noi), in full strength by land from the border via Lang Son norther region and by water from Quang Ninh Province.

The Tran Dynasty adopted guerrilla strategies. General Tran Hung Dao led his troops and people in an evacuation from Thang Long, while in Quang Ninh, another outstanding general, Tran Khanh Du, defeated the invaders’ fleet carrying supplies from China through Quang Ninh Province’s Van Don – Cua Luc estuary.

General Tran Hung Dao figured that, after finding no one to attack in the capital and no possessions to pillage, the invaders would likely withdraw by water. When this happened the general deployed the army to fight the enemy on the rivers leading out of the country.

Based on his studies of General Ngo Quyen’s victory at the Bach Dang River in 938, General Tran Hung Dao had ordered his troops and the locals to drive spears into the Chanh and Coc branches of the Bach Dang River to trap the invaders as they widrew.

Sharp surprise: One of the spears hidden under the river.

700 years dormant

In September and December of 2005, archaeologists and officials of Quang Ninh Province’s Culture and Information Department discovered 38 spears in a new area of Yen Hung District: Van Muoi Field in Nam Hoa Village.

The spears turned up as farmers began cultivating the land, and added to the body of research on Bach Dang in Yen Giang Commune from 1959, district culture department chief Son said.

It was amazing, Son commented, that 700 years after the historic victory at Bach Dang, and years full of changes in the rivers and surrounding areas, that the objects were still present.

The once large rivers in which the Yuan-Mongols perished are now small canals, fish farming ponds and rice fields used daily by local farmers.

Son said there were people, especially foreigners, who did not believe that the artefacts in Yen Hung District were real. "However, after we show them pictures of our digs, they believe and are impressed by such a victory," Son said.

Lien, deputy head of the archaeology office of the institute, said after locals informed the office, they checked the site and discovered the spears were arranged in an area of 100m by 300m.

Based on records of the terrain from the period and the newly discovered spears, experts initially thought the artefacts were put in the river banks to prevent invaders from escaping from their boats to land. The spears found in Van Muoi differed from those in Yen Giang Commune in that they were driven in at 45 degree angles. Son said it was inconclusive if these newly discovered ones were used in the Yuan-Mongol invasion, but said it was extremely likely because they weren’t easily made or put into place.

A farmer, he concluded, would have no reason to place spears in such dangerous positions as landmarks in the river, adding that the diameter (40-60cm and 10-30cm) indicated the spears’ utility value was clearly a passive attack against an oncoming ship.

The only unanswered question was whether these spears were from the wars in 938 or 1288, because Tran Hung Dao like King Ngo Quyen in the 10th century also used the same method in the same river, said Lien. More time and research were needed to reach a conclusion, Lien said.

Meanwhile, farmers recently found another field near Van Muoi while digging a fish pond in Mong Ngua (in the same commune). As far as the researchers knew, Son said, it would be the last field of the battle in the river. The researchers were in the process of preparing to check the authenticity of the farmers’ claim, Son said.

He added that the district would draw up a project proposal to submit to the Ministry of Culture and Information to recognise the collection of fields as a national historical site. "We should also think of a way to protect the spears that are still submerged in Yen Hung District," he said.

Problem and prospect

The historical site is presently a marshland suitable for aquaculture products and rice cultivation. The local farmers’ production increases had boosted the amount of organic waste, thus providing more fodder for decomposition that could damage the artefacts, Lien said.

Son revealed a plan for the second quarter of the year to build up the already recognised Yen Giang Spear Field as site for tourism. The plan was drafted by the Ministry of Cultural and Information and the Quang Ninh People’s Committee and will require spending more than VND4billion (US$250,000).

Construction works would not only help protect the artefacts, but would attract tourists.

However, Lien thought that before any project went forward the locals should cease all agriculture, in order to protect the site.

Local farmer Nguyen Thi Hoa said that she knew she had to stop raising fish to protect the historical site. Hoa said: "The commune will give us other land after revoking the land we now use, so I don’t think we’ll face many difficulties in the transition."

With the new site in Van Muoi and archaeologists checking on another area in Mong Ngua, evidence for this study of the nation’s history is mounting, and slowly the historians are piecing it all together. — VNS

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