Story: Dr. Tran Duc Anh Son
Photos:  Hoang Hai Thinh, Lai Dien Dam

Vietnam’s seas and islands have nurtured generations of people and helped to shape the nation’s culture

With a coastline stretching 3,260 km and about 3,000 islands, Vietnam has a large area of sea and islands that have sustained generations of Vietnamese people; are an important part of Vietnam’s culture; and serve as a cultural storehouse for future generations. Vietnam has an advantageous position near some of the world’s key commercial maritime routes. Its seas and islands are routes for political, economic and cultural exchange with other nations and have connected Vietnamese culture to the world. Dong Son drums and Vietnamese ceramics are two examples of the spread of Vietnamese culture.

The bronze drum is a symbol of the technical, economic and cultural achievements of ancient Vietnamese people during the Bronze Age and Iron Age, when the Dong Son culture was at its peak. A symbol of Vietnamese culture, the bronze drum is also a symbol of the first Vietnamese state: the state of the Hung Kings. Bronze drums have also been found in the south of China and other Southeast Asian countries such as Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, etc. In recent years, archeologists have determined that international river routes and roads were key paths for Vietnamese bronze drums to enter mainland Southeast Asian countries, while marine routes enabled Vietnamese bronze drums to enter maritime Southeast Asian countries.

Since the era when Vietnam was occupied by China, the people of Champa in Central Vietnam traveled by ship to trade with the Middle East. Van Don in Vietnam’s northernmost sea became an international trading port that linked Vietnam with other Northeast Asian countries since the Ly – Tran dynasty (from the 11th to 14th centuries). In ancient times, Vietnamese bronze drums were transported by sea. In the 16th and 17th centuries, ships carried Vietnamese ceramics to the wider world.

Since the 15th century, ceramics made in Vietnam’s north and North Central Coast traveled by sea to other Southeast Asian countries and Japan. Japanese professor Hasebe Gakuji said: “The ceramic manufacturing techniques in Japan in the 15th century were way behind the techniques in Vietnam”. From the 15th to 17th centuries, Japan imported a lot of Vietnamese ceramics, which were transported across the East (Biển Đông) Sea.

The ‘Silk Road’, ‘Ceramics Road’ and ‘Spice Road’ across the East (Biển Đông) Sea are routes that spread Vietnamese culture abroad and introduced foreign cultures into Vietnam. Ships from China, Japan, the Ryukyu Kingdom on Okinawa, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Spain arrived at Vietnam’s commercial ports to exchange goods, avoid storms, get water, and bring foreign culture into Vietnam, as well as to take Vietnam’s goods and culture to the world.

From the 16th to 18th centuries, Vietnamese craftspeople built ships for traders from China and Thailand. Chinese people hired Vietnamese boat-builders in Gia Dinh to build ships that they used to transport rice from the Mekong delta to various Chinese provinces. They then sold the ships to Chinese business people in China to make money to return to Vietnam and buy new ships. The Vietnamese prowess in boat-building resulted from their long-established maritime culture.

Protecting Vietnam’s seas and islands is not simply about protecting the country’s sovereignty, but also about protecting the living environment of Vietnamese people. By protecting our seas, we are preserving our nation’s age-old cultural values. This is a line that connects the past and the future of Vietnam.