The birth of an island

By Le Tan   April 9, 2023 | 04:00 pm PT
Thanks to youth volunteers, Bach Long Vy, a frontline island off Vietnam's northern coast, has been turned from an uninhabited piece of land in the sea into a residential island after 30 years.

20 years ago, Nguyen Van Hau joined 31 other volunteers on a quest to reclaim Bach Long Vy Island, which lies 110 kilometers off the coast, making it the most remote island in the Gulf of Tonkin.

The boat trip to the island took Hau and his team 24 hours. Although they had prepared themselves for what they would see, the island of three square kilometers still took them by surprise.

When they got to the island, they saw nothing but just a few houses lying in the middle of wild grass, which was where soldiers had once lived.

A ship that takes youth volunteers to Bach Long Vy for the reclamation project in March, 1993. Archive photo

A ship that takes youth volunteers to Bach Long Vy for the reclamation project in March, 1993. Archive photo

Before 1920, Bach Long Vy Island was simply a random stopover for fishermen. In 1937, Emperor Bao Dai (1913-1997) started to build guard posts on the island.

In October 1957 the North Vietnam government stipulated that Bach Long Vy belonged to Hai Phong City after getting the island back from China in January of that year. At the time, the island was home to just 94 people who earned an income working on 22 hectares of farmland and from 13 fishing boats.

Eight years later, during the Vietnam War, all the people on the island were evacuated.

In 1992, the Vietnam government established Bach Long Vy into a district of Hai Phong City but after that, there were only soldiers staying on the island in very harsh conditions.

The day Hau and his team set foot on the island in March 1993, the beaches were full of dead coral and cactuses. "Just an isolated island, that's what we all thought," Hau recalled.

The volunteers, more than half of them female, had to sleep in 10-square-meter rooms with six to eight people in a room. They were in charge of building restrooms, kitchens, warehouses, and more rooms to accommodate 30 more volunteers who would come to the island later.

During those March days, Bach Long Vy was experiencing a scorching heat. Hau and his teammates had to work from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. and return to work at 3 p.m to take shelter from the heat. The temperatures were so high that their shoes broke after just a few days.

Then winter came and brought along the northeast monsoon to the island with lots of strong winds. Aside from the cold, the winds carried along tiny sea salt particles that irritated their skin.

All year round, the island usually received an abundant amount of sunshine and wind but it always lacked rain.

Usually, the rainy season on the island lasted from May to August, with an annual rainfall of 1,000 mm, half of the amount on shore, but due to the extreme heat, the water quickly vaporized.

As the island had only six small streams with a length of 200 meters each, they could not store much water.

In those days, women had to use water full of sand and gravel to take a shower while the men had to bathe in seawater to save clean water. Most men shaved off their hair so that they did not have to wash them.

The freshwater leftover from rinsing rice before cooking, washing fruits, and even bathing was saved for watering trees.

Aside from building houses, planting trees on the island was the other urgent mission.

Casuarina and pine trees were planted to shield the island against strong winds but they could hardly endure the harsh weather and kept dying. Despite the failure, volunteers did not give up and eventually came up with a solution of planting the trees in the middle of grass bushes, fertilizing them with buffalo excrement and shielding them with canvas sheets.

Then came the electricity issue. Their only source of power was a generator and every day, they only used it for 30 minutes during dinner. For all other activities that needed light, they used candles.

As there was no way for them to store fresh food, they had only dried food and tubers for their meals aside from pickles.

Sometimes when the sea was too rough for ships to send them food from the shore, volunteers had to ask for rice from soldiers.

"There were nights when my mood was down, I sat there by myself, listened to sound of waves and insects, and felt so homesick that I almost burst into tears," Hau recalled.

After around six months, the volunteers on Bach Long Vy could finally plant their own vegetables and raise cattle, and each of the houses they built was equipped with a well and a container to store rainwater.

Dramatic changes

These days, Nguyen Van Hau, now 54, is the vice chairman of the Fatherland Front Committee, which represents and protects the lawful rights and interests of the people on Bach Long Vy Island.

Hau said the transformation of the island is "like a dream come true" and that he would never regret spending his entire youth building the island.

An ariel view of Bach Long Vy Island in 2023. Photo by Nguyen Duc Nghia

An ariel view of Bach Long Vy Island in 2023. Photo by Nguyen Duc Nghia

In 2001, a port with a capacity of serving 100 ships at a time was put into operation on the island.

These days, it receives thousands of fishing boats every month, which stop by to refuel or buy food, or to shelter during storms. Aside from fishing, locals on the island earn income from selling essentials to fishermen.

Among 62 volunteers on Bach Long Vy three decades ago, 12 men and women made six couples while 12 other women got married to soldiers. Hau and his wife's wedding was the second one on the island. The couple had their first child when they finished their three-year mission on Bach Long Vy.

He had to take his wife back to the mainland when she was about to give birth and both of their families asked them to stay. Eventually, they decided to return to the island to settle down.

"We thought about going back for many nights," Hau said. "Many volunteers in our team made the same decision."

After the youth volunteers finished building the basic infrastructure for the island, the authorities moved on to the next step: recruiting citizens to live on the island.

Even after the residents came to stay, Hau and his teammates kept up their good work to develop the island, including building roads, parks and public housing.

Many houses have been built on Bach Long Vy Island, March 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Le Tan

Many houses have been built on Bach Long Vy Island, March 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Le Tan

Around 12 infrastructure projects worth a total of VND260 billion ($11.1 million) have been developed on the island, all thanks to volunteers like Hau and his wife.

Starting in 2016, the island had electricity around the clock from a combination of various sources: solar and wind power, as well as diesel.

A natural groundwater source was found in 2018 and a 60,000-cubic-meter reservoir was completed in 2020, saving residents from water shortages. Several households even offer hot showers and karaoke services to entertain fishermen.

In 2020, the Hoa Phuong Do (Red Phoenix Flower) Ship, with a capacity of 200 people and 50 tons of goods, was put into service with three trips per month, shortening the travel time from Hai Phong to Bach Long Vy to six hours compared to the previous dozens of hours.

These days, Bach Long Vy is home to 326 families with a population of 1,000. There is a primary school for children to study until fifth grade. After that, students have to attend middle and secondary schools in Hai Phong.

"The island has gradually become a fishing logistics services center aside from being a border milestone," said the island’s chairman, Tran Quang Tuong.

Last year, Bach Long Vy generated more than VND490 billion in revenue and it contributed VND920 million to the state budget as locals harvested 146 tons of cattle, and 282 tons of vegetables, and collected 590 tons of seafood.

Bach Long Vy Island off Hai Phong coast, March 2023. Video by VnExpress/Le Tan

Bach Long Vi Island lies off Vietnams northern coast. Map by the Department of Survey, Mapping and Geographic Information at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment

Bach Long Vi Island lies off Vietnam's northern coast. Map by the Department of Survey, Mapping and Geographic Information at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment

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