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Unsung keepers of Vietnam’s sovereignty light at East Vietnam Sea

Saturday, September 24, 2016, 11:54 GMT+7

There is a team of maintenance workers who live away from family and civilization for months on end to keep watch over the country’s lighthouses and sovereignty on the East Vietnam Sea.

Every few months, Vietnam’s Hai Dang 05 supply ship sails off, carrying manpower and food to resupply the country’s nine lighthouses on Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago in the East Vietnam Sea.

The scheduled trip has been delayed for some weeks as of mid-September, after two consecutive storms Dianmu and Rai hit Vietnam in August and earlier this month.

“It is very common for us to reschedule supply trips due to fierce storms or strong winds at sea,” Hai Dang 05 Captain Tran Van Nha said.

“There were even times when we had to abort mission due to bad weather despite having arrived at our destination.”

Unsung heroes

Bui Van Niem, 53, is among the first generation of maintenance workers to keep watch over Vietnam’s lighthouses at the East Vietnam Sea since 1996.

The seasoned man has guarded six out of nine lighthouses on different islands of Vietnam’s Truong Sa archipelago, but concerns for the well-being of fellow colleagues still aches his heart each time Niem’s trip is postponed.

According to Nguyen Duc Huy, Deputy Director of East Vietnam Sea and Islands Maritime Safety Company, which is in charge of operating Hai Dang 05, living conditions for maintenance workers on the lighthouses were extremely unfavorable during the first years.

Intervals between resupply shipments lasted up to three months, and any delay would mean hunger for workers on the lighthouses, Huy said.

However, conditions have been greatly improved over the past ten years, with more frequent shipments and available satellite television and communication network.

Speaking over the phone, Vu Si Luu, the 52-year-old chief of Tien Nu lighthouse, said life on the lighthouse is much better now that his team is able to keep in touch with their family and friends since the introduction of communication networks.

In 2011, the company’s first defense flotilla was founded to guarantee safety of transportation for supply shipments to the lighthouses.

“We see ourselves as soldiers who work and fight to protect every inch of our country’s soil and waters,” Bui Van Niem said sternly.

Captain Tran Van Nga said his ship has been threatened by Chinese vessels multiple times while transporting humans and goods to the lighthouses, with the most drastic one occurring last November.

Nga said it was 9:00 am when the Hai Dang 05 was intervened by a cargo ship and two Chinese Coast Guard vessels while it was heading to Song Tu Tay island, part of Vietnam’s Truong Sa archipelago.

After following closely the Vietnamese ship for a while, the Chinese Coast Guard vessels gave way to a naval ship number 995, which took over the pursuit until 12:00 pm the same day.

“We all remained calmed the whole time, and I was in charge of directing the ship’s maneuver to avoid colliding [with the Chinese ships],” sailor Hoang Tho Toan said.

Despite all the dangers and hardship, Vietnam’s light of justice and sovereignty still shines brightly at the East Vietnam Sea for more than 20 years, thanks largely to the workers’ unwavering spirit and solidarity.

Vu Si Luu said the thought of sailors on distant ships feeling less lonely and closer to home upon the sight of his lighthouse’ beam made him fall in love with the job more and more each day.

Meanwhile, chief of An Bang lighthouse Doan Van Tan took pride in taking a part in the protection of his country’s sovereignty, the pride that has kept him motivated all along.

“We are greatly humbled and honored to be the keepers of pearl-like eyes that guide the way for ships in Vietnamese waters,” Niem said.

Vietnam currently has a total of 13 lighthouses in the East Vietnam Sea, nine of which are built on different islands in Truong Sa archipelago while the remaining four are located in the DK1 area.

The first lighthouse in Vietnam’s Truong Sa was built on Song Tu Tay island in 1993, followed by lighthouses Da Lat and Da Tay in 1994, An Bang in 1995, Tien Nu in 2000, Truong Sa Lon in 2010, Son Ca in 2011, Sinh Ton in 2012, and Nam Yet in 2013.

Four lighthouses in the DK1 area are Phuc Tan, Que Duong, Huyen Tran, and Ba Ke.

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