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The lighthouses dotting Vietnam’s coastline have witnessed passages both tranquil and treacherous.

By DON WILLS on September 05,2017 04:09 PM

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Photos: HACHI8

Mariners in times gone by owed their well-being to the presence of lighthouses. For them, the flashing, comforting beacons marking an entrance to a harbour or warning of shoals, sand bars and reefs, could mean the difference between a safe landfall and a watery grave.

The earliest lighthouses were not lighthouses at all, but fires set on hilltops near hazardous stretches of coast. The first lighthouse as we know it today was the Lighthouse of Alexandria. It was built in 247 BC and was 130 metres tall. Its light was provided by a furnace at the top and could be seen 47 km away. The construction must have been, for want of a better word, a whopper, and a wondrous feat of engineering to boot. After a succession of three earthquakes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria collapsed in 1323 AD, never to be seen again.

Today, according to the Lighthouse Directory, there are more than 18,600 operational lighthouses worldwide. They are a far cry from their earlier antecedents; their operations are automated, the frequency of the lights is controlled electronically, and the lighthouse keepers, who were needed to keep the older versions functioning, are now nigh on redundant. With the advent of navigational aids like radar, echo-sounders and GPS trackers, the importance of lighthouses has diminished and they may eventually become a thing of the past.

Vietnam has about a hundred lighthouses of various sizes, ages, and designs. Which one is the highest? A simple enough question, but one that’s difficult to answer. The problem is that different people use different yardsticks to measure lighthouses. Should one quote the size of the structure itself? Or how far the base is above sea level? Or how far the actual light is above sea level? No one seems to be able to agree on that. Consequently, there are half a dozen lighthouses in Vietnam claiming the distinction of being the highest. I’ll list a few of them here and leave it up to you to decide.

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One of the highest in central Vietnam is the 223-metre high Son Tra lighthouse (also called Tien Sa lighthouse). It’s located on the eastern tip of Son Tra Peninsula, near Danang. In the south, on an island off the coast of Ca Mau province, is the Hon Khoai lighthouse, built by French colonialists. At 318 metres in height it’s said to be the south’s highest. Hmm … possibly.

Another in contention is the Nam Du lighthouse on Phu Quoc Island. At 309 metres above sea level, it can be reached by a two and a half hour ferry ride from Kien Giang province on the mainland. It’s in a restricted military zone, so the access road is blocked (unless you’re prepared to cough up a ‘tip’, that is).

Vietnam’s oldest lighthouse, erected in 1898, is on Ke Ga Island in Binh Thuan province. It’s 65 metres above sea level and its tower is 35 metres tall, making it reputedly one of the highest in the country. (What, another one?) Ke Ga is a popular tourist attraction; visitors can walk to it at low tide during the dry season or reach it after an easy swim in the wet season.

An even higher lighthouse can be found at Nha Trang, perched on top of the 41-storey Best Western Premiere Havana Nha Trang building. Not just content with being Vietnam’s highest, at 150 metres, it’s also reportedly the world’s highest.

Vung Tau has three lighthouses, but the best known and most visited one is at the top of Small Mountain. When it was originally built in 1907 it was located on a lower peak, its light fuelled by kerosene. Then, in 1911, it was extended to 18 metres in height and moved to the top of the mountain, where it now stands, guarded by four French cannons. Accessible by motorbike or taxi via a steep winding road, it’s a popular tourist attraction. There’s a spectacular 360º view from the top. A much smaller but no less photogenic lighthouse, Cao Trang, can be found on the coast road half a kilometre past the Statue of Christ.

In the days before lighthouses were dotted along the coast, Vietnam was part of the maritime ceramic route, plied by ships carrying silk, bronze, terracotta, porcelain and ceramics from China to the Dutch East Indies. It was a hazardous voyage, and many ships came to grief navigating the perilous seas.

Shipwrecks

The waters off Binh Chau in Quang Ngai province in particular became a graveyard of ancient ships dating from the 8th to the 18th centuries. The first official survey of the area was in 1999, but before that divers from Chau Thuan Bien village had been recovering ceramic pots and vases, lead and coins from the sunken ships and selling them to antique dealers and collectors for years. The salvaging was relatively easy as most of the wrecks were around 150 metres offshore and just four to ten metres below the surface.

The total number of shipwrecks off Vietnam’s coast is unknown; as yet there has been no comprehensive survey. Estimates range from ‘hundreds’ to ‘possibly thousands’. The principal means of discovery is by fishermen who find pottery items in their fishing nets, then send local divers down to the seabed to investigate. This is exactly what happened in 1993 off the coast of Hoi An. Scattered around a wreck whose age has never been verified, they found a rich cache of antiquities: ceramic pots, dishes and vases, and ornate dragon sculptures in metal. Most of these items made their way into the hands of antique dealers, until the authorities woke up to what was happening and stepped in to stop the illegal trade.

Off Con Dao Island, a lorcha boat of Chinese design with Portuguese influences, dating back to 1690, was discovered with a treasure trove of riches aboard. A total of 48,288 items were salvaged from the wreck, including blue and white Qing Dynasty porcelain plates and dishes, bamboo combs, inkwells, tweezers and dice. Christie’s auction house purchased 28,000 of the items, which came to be known as the ‘Hon Cau treasure’, and subsequently sold them for $7.3 million.

In 2003, a 30-metre long wreck thought to be from the 15th century was discovered at Cu Lao Cham in Quang Nam province. It contained the highest volume of antiquities ever found in a shipwreck in Vietnam, including ceramic bowls, plates, tea sets, vases, basins, lime pots, and incense burners.

The oldest shipwreck ever found in the country was discovered in 2013 off the coast of Binh Chau. The 25-metre long wooden junk, which had sunk vertically in 40 metres of water, was 700 years old but miraculously still intact. Found within it were ceramics, bronze coins, scale weights, and various tools belonging to crew members.

Just how many other sunken ships lie undiscovered on the sea floor around Vietnam? How many more priceless antiquities remain to be salvaged from the deep? Those are questions that will probably never be answered in our lifetime.

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