Tran Huyen

Vietnam has a coastline of 3,260km and over 3,000 islands in territorial waters stretching more than a million square kilometers.

In the 13th century, after the Mongol Empire conquered China, the Maritime Silk Road was formed, starting from trading ports in the South of China, through the East Sea to the Arabian Peninsula to facilitate trade between Asia and Europe. During the golden era of the Maritime Silk Road (from the 15th to 18th century), Vietnam became a key trading hub and stopover point for international merchant ships crossing the oceans.

Chinese ceramics from the Hon Cau shipwreck

The most attractive, widely traded items passing through the East Sea at this time were ceramics. On this trade route, for various reasons, many merchant ships bearing ceramics ended up sinking in Vietnamese waters.

Shipwrecks within Vietnam’s waters

In the mid 1970s, fishermen in South Vietnam discovered an shipwreck full of Thai ceramics near Hon Dam Island within the waters of Kien Giang province. In 1990, another shipwreck full of Chinese ceramics was discovered and excavated near Hon Cau Island in the waters of Ba Ria – Vung Tau province.

In the following years, many other sunken ships were discovered in Vietnamese waters and excavated by archeologists, including the Cu Lao Cham shipwreck (excavated from 1997 to 2000); the Ca Mau shipwreck (from 1998 to 1999); the Binh Thuan shipwreck (from 1998 to 1999); and the Binh Chau shipwreck (excavated in 2012). More shipwrecks have been found recently, including the Chau Tan shipwreck (in Quang Ngai); the Phu Quoc shipwreck (Kien Giang); the Ha Ra shipwreck (Binh Dinh); and the Ca Mau II shipwreck (Ca Mau), among others. Ancient shipwrecks found in Vietnamese waters prove that Vietnam played an important role in the international maritime trading network. They also reveal the extent of maritime cultural exchange in medieval times.

Chu Dau ceramic teapot shaped like a phoenix from the Cu Lao Cham site

The heritage of shipwrecks

Excavations of shipwrecks found in Vietnamese seas show that merchant ships were trading between Asia and Europe from the 8th to the early 20th century. Most of the artifacts recovered from these sites are ceramics from China, Vietnam, Thailand, and France. Others artifacts include bronze handicrafts, Chinese and Arab coins, glassware, spices, seeds, and so on.

The Hon Dam shipwreck was the first shipwreck to be found and excavated in Vietnam. More than 16,000 ceramic objects from Suphanburi and Sawankhalok in Thailand, dating back to the 15th century, were salvaged. At the time, these ceramics were important Thai exports to neighboring countries in South East Asia.

The excavation of the Hon Cau shipwreck was completed in July 1991, yielding 60,000 Chinese ceramic objects from the Kangxi period (1662 – 1722). Artifacts included blue-painted, white-glazed ceramics produced in Jingdezhen (Jiangxi) to be sold in European countries. These featured European shapes, colors, and patterns completely different from traditional Chinese ceramics. There were also white-glazed ceramic bowls, plates, spoons, boxes, jars, and cups produced in Dehua, Fujian.

The biggest excavation was that of the Cu Lao Cham shipwreck, which yielded over 240,000 artifacts, most of which were Chu Dau ceramics from Hai Duong, Vietnam. These included blue-painted white-glazed pottery, multicolor-glazed pottery, and brown-glazed pottery dating back to the 15th century. The pottery found in the Cu Lao Cham shipwreck was for household use, including items like bowls, plates, jars, pots, teapots and cups, cosmetics boxes, and censers, etc. Notably, there were ceramic statues of people and teapots decorated with unique phoenix imagery that showed that the creativity, artistry and skill of Vietnamese artisans had reached a level of mastery in the 15th century.

Chu Dau ceramic pear-shaped jar from the Cu Lao Cham shipwreck

The Binh Thuan shipwreck was excavated in 2001 and 2002, yielding 60,000 artifacts. Most of these were blue-painted white-glazed ceramics and multicolor-glazed pottery, produced by the Zhangzhou (Fujian) kiln and the Guangzhou (Guangdong) kiln in China in the Wanli period (1573 – 1620) of the Ming dynasty. The ship is believed to have belonged to the Dutch East India Company. It was transporting Chinese ceramics to Europe when disaster struck and it sank in Vietnamese waters.

The Ca Mau shipwreck was excavated in 1998 and 1999, yielding over 60,000 Chinese ceramic objects dating back to the Yongzheng period (1723 – 1735) of the Qing dynasty. The ceramics and pottery found in this shipwreck were diverse in type and origin, produced by kilns in Jingdezhen (Jiangxi), Dehua (Fujian), Xicun, Tien Son, and Shiwan (Guangdong) for export to Europe.

The most recently discovered site is the Binh Chau shipwreck (Binh Son, Quang Ngai). Discovered and excavated in 2012, this shipwreck contained thousands of celadon pottery items, brown-glazed pottery, and blue-white glazed ceramics from China, dating back to the 13th century of the Yuan dynasty.

Ceramics retrieved from these shipwrecks have been categorized. The most typical and unique artifacts were brought back to be preserved and displayed in the Vietnam National Museum of History, the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts, and in local museums near where the shipwrecks were found. The rest were auctioned off in Amsterdam (1992, 2007), New York (2001), and Melbourne (2002), earning millions of USD in revenue for the country.

Sancai glazed Chu Dau plate from the Cu Lao Cham shipwreck

As well as confirming Vietnam’s important role in the international maritime trading network throughout history, these discoveries have boosted the current and future development of maritime archeology in Vietnam.