Tried & tested

Located where the Bach Dang River meets the East Sea in Vietnam’s north, the Bach Dang relic site relates three separate yet similar historic military victories.

By Thuy Duong on December 05,2019 10:02 AM

Tried & tested

Photos: Thuy Duong

Admiration and a sense of being slightly overwhelmed are among the first feelings visitors experience when they visit the historical site of the Bach Dang River in northern Hai Phong city. In an immense body of muddy-brown water where the river and the East Sea come together is a “battleground of stakes”, where 180 wooden stakes with iron tips are placed in rows to destroy enemy vessels. The wood and iron stakes are evidence of the skill and bravery of tiny Vietnam in winning three glorious victories against former enemies. The first naval battle took place in 938, when Ngo Quyen (898-944), the first emperor of the Ngo Dynasty, defeated the Nam Han (South Han) army from the north. In 981, Le Hoan (941-1005), the founder of the Tien Le (Early Le) Dynasty in Dai Co Viet (as Vietnam was once known) and ruler for 25 years, defeated the China’s Song Dynasty army. And the third naval battle took place in 1288, when Hung Dao Vuong - Tran Quoc Tuan (1228-1300) defeated the Yuan army from the north.

If you visit the ruins at high tide you will only see the tip of the iron stakes just under the water surface, which appear quite harmless. But at low tide the river completely changes - the iron-tipped stakes now rise well above the water and point skyward.

The scene evokes thoughts of historic and ferocious battles. Warships were pierced by the stakes and floundered before sinking.

Soldiers had no choice but to swim to shore, where Vietnamese soldiers lay in wait.

Tried & tested

Victory under the Ngo Dynasty

History books record that, in 937, General Duong Dinh Nghe was killed by traitor Kieu Cong Tien. His son-in-law Ngo Quyen, originally from Duong Lam in Ha Tay (now part of Hanoi), organized for troops to track down and punish Kieu Cong Tien. As he sought out the Chinese Army with bundles of money in hand, he was killed by the Ngo Quyen army. In 938, Chinese prince Liu Hongcao was ordered by his father, the emperor of South Han, to ferry his troops through the East Sea and invade the nation of Dai Viet (another of Vietnam’s former names).

Tried & tested

Upon hearing the news, Ngo Quyen told his generals: “Hongcao was a foolish child, bringing troops from afar, and they must be very tired. Cong Tien has been killed and can’t help them. We have a strong infantry, so can win. But they have the advantage of boats, and if we don’t prepare well enough we may lose. If we place large iron-tipped stakes under the water at the estuary, their boats can get in at high tide but will be stuck at low tide.

Then we can control the situation. There is no better plan.” (According to Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu (History of the Dai Viet Nation) by various historians.)

Hongcao ordered his troops to rush through the Bach Dang estuary at high tide, when the stakes were hidden underwater. Ngo Quyen had cleverly used some of his fleet to lure the Chinese army away from Ha Long Bay and into the Bach Dang River. His own troops made it appear to the Chinese that they were lost. The young and arrogant Hongcao urged his army to chase the boats and fell into the underwater traps. Once the tide receded, Ngo Quyen ordered all of his troops to strike. The Chinese invaders turned around in panic, but their boats were pierced by the sharp stakes, floundered, and then sank. Most of the enemy drowned, and Hongcao was also killed. The Chinese army’s attempt to invade Dai Viet had totally failed.

Victory by Dai Co Viet

The Song-Viet War in 981 was fought between China’s Song Dynasty and Dai Co Viet, under Emperor Le Dai Hanh, from January to April 981, with many fierce battles taking place, such as the 1st Bach Dang River Battle, Chi Lang, Luc Dau, and Binh Lo, and the 2nd Bach Dang River Battle.

The 2nd Bach Dang River Battle was truly a glorious endeavor, opening up a period of peace and prosperity for Dai Co Viet in the early Le Dynasty (980-1009).

According to “Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu”, at the end of 979, Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang and prince Dinh Lien were assassinated and the country fell into turmoil and a civil war broke out. In May 980, the Song Dynasty’s ambassador to Dai Co Viet returned home to report on the situation, and the Song Dynasty took advantage of the turmoil in Dai Co Viet and planned to take over the country.

In the fall of 980, the governor of Chau Lang (Lang Son) informed the court that the Song army was about to attack Dai Co Viet. Le Hoan immediately took the throne and named himself Emperor Le Dai Hanh and quickly prepared a resistance.

In the winter of 980, the Song Dynasty sent a letter to Dai Co Viet declaring war, stating: “We have now prepared a strong army and good weapons, with strict command. If you agree to be part of the Song Dynasty, you will be forgiven. If you oppose, you will be punished.”

On January 24, 981, the Song army took their boats through the Bach Dang estuary. In this Bach Dang River Battle, the Dai Co Viet army failed in stopping the Song and suffered many casualties. The Song army captured 200 boats and killed more than 1,000 Dai Co Viet soldiers. Emperor Le Dai Hanh had to withdraw his troops and reinforce, but sent a letter pretending to surrender.

After defeat in the battles of Chi Lang, Luc Dau, and Binh Lo, the Song army was drained of large elements of its forces and also lost many weapons. Its plan to “fight quickly to win quickly” was a failure. The Song army in Bach Dang was therefore in a dilemma. Meanwhile, Emperor Le Dai Hanh secretly strengthened his forces and placed stakes in the Bach Dang estuary in preparation for striking a decisive blow.

On April 28, 981, the 2nd Bach Dang River Battle took place. Emperor Le Dai Hanh sent an army to challenge the enemy. As war waged, the Dai Co Viet navy “lost” and headed into the hinterlands, while the Song army “won” and pursued the Dai Co Viet navy. After the Song’s navy was then ambushed, Emperor Le Dai Hanh launched an aggressive counterattack. Dai Co Viet troops at the ambush site and in the hinterlands rushed to the Bach Dang River to aggressively fight the Song. The Song’s Commanding General was killed in the ensuing battle. Chinese army troops supporting the Song frantically fled back to their country. Dai Co Viet had won a great victory, opening up a period of peace and prosperity that lasted 24 years.

Tried & tested

Victory in the Tran Dynasty

In the third battle on the Bang Dang River in 1287 and 1288 against the Yuan army, the famed and feared Kublai Khan attacked the nation of Dai Viet with the ambition of expanding Chinese rule all over Southeast Asia. In December 1287, the Yuan entered Dai Viet from three directions: the army from Yunnan (China) followed the Red River; the main army came through Lang Son on the border and were led by Kublai Khan’s son Tohan; and the navy, ruled by General Omar from Guangdong, attacked through the Bach Dang River. Following the navy was a logistics troop and vessels.

Taking advantage of having more and stronger troops, Toghan secured terrain and invaded the Van Kiep and Pha Lai areas (in modern-day Hai Duong province). At the same time, the Dai Viet navy, led by Tran Khanh Du, also failed in their efforts to keep the invaders at bay. Keen to build upon momentum, General Omar led his troops to meet up with Toghan in Van Kiep, leaving the logistics troop behind.

Tran Khanh Du discovered the enemy’s weakness and switched the fight to the logistics troop, overcoming them and taking all their food. Upon learning that his logistics troop had been annihilated, Toghan decided to withdraw.

Knowing that the enemy had to go back the way it came, Tran Quoc Tuan (Dai Viet’ s General Commander of the battle) decided to use the old strategy of using the tide to destroy the enemy. According to a calendar from the time, 1288 was a year of low tides. By the time the battle took place it was the third month of the lunar calendar, and very little rain had fallen and Bach Dang was quite shallow in parts. So, in order use the old strategy once again, it was necessary to choose a day when the tide would be at its highest. 9 April 1288 was that day, when the tide would be more than three meters in the middle of the night and then fall to less than a meter at noon. The Dai Viet army needed to lure the enemy into the battlefield early on the morning of 9 April 1288, hold them in place and pressure them, and then, at noon, let the outgoing tide pull the boats on to the sharp stakes.

The Dai Viet destroyed all of the enemy troops, captured some generals, and seized more than 400 ships, while the Bach Dang River was a watery grave for countless enemy corpses. The Bach Dang Victory in the Tran Dynasty became a source of pride for the Vietnamese nation and remains a terrifying obsession of armies from the north.

Restoring historical feats

The Bach Dang River Historic Site is one of many relics located at the Trang Kenh Tourism Complex, which was built about a decade ago. The site is located around the water area where the three fierce naval battles took place. Just 18 km from the center of Hai Phong, Trang Kenh sits on a large and beautiful area of 20 ha, surrounded by giant limestone mountains, huge caves, and vast water areas.

From the entrance of Trang Kenh, visitors come across four exquisitely carved pillars made from grey stone - a type found only in the local area. On one stone pillar of about five meters in height is seven Chinese words - “Giang san vuong khi Bach Dang thau” (from poet Pham Su Manh, and meaning “The spirit of the nation converges on Bach Dang River) - carved on the front. The other three sides feature words from Emperors Ngo Quyen and Le Dai Hanh, and General Tran Hung Dao.

Deep into the site are bonsai gardens, old trees, and small limestone hills. The first temple visitors come across is Trang Kenh Vong De Temple, worshiping Emperor Le Dai Hanh. Next is Linh tu Trang Kenh Temple, worshiping Tran Hung Dao, and then Bach Dang Giang Temple, worshiping Emperor Ngo Quyen.

The President Ho Chi Minh Temple is the last of the “four sacred temples” at the Trang Kenh Tourism Complex. The site also features Thanh Mau Temple, modeled after the famous Dong Pagoda in Quang Ninh province, and a museum displaying some of the famed iron-tipped wooden spikes, which are still largely intact.

The Bach Dang River Historic Site floats on the water surface, with three giant statues of Ngo Quyen, Le Dai Hanh, and Tran Hung Dao facing out to the ocean. Each statue is some eleven meters tall and made from bronze. Surrounding the site are artifacts from the battlefield, including 180 iron-tipped stakes.

To learn more about the stakes, visitors can head to the garden at the site, where large stone sculptures have been placed that depict the process of ancient Vietnamese warriors felling trees and creating stakes.

Mr. Nguyen Manh Ha, a member of the management board of the relic site, said that Bach Dang is not only a tourism destination but also a place to educate the young about Vietnam’s patriotic tradition. Visitors can gain an understanding of the heroism of their ancestors in defending and building their country, and appreciate the peace of today.

Visitors to Trang Kenh Tourism Complex also have the opportunity to experience a new type of tourism based on the “Three Nos”: No fees - tourists don’t have to pay any fees, even for parking; No commercial activity - nothing is on sale, but clean water can be found throughout; and No garbage - with the whole relic site kept clean and tidy. This really is a “plus” for the tourism site, allowing visitors to admire the beauty of the relic site while immersing themselves in yet another chapter of Vietnam’s extraordinary history.

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