Dear to Vietnamese heart

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Thirty four years have passed since China took away Hoang Sa by force from Vietnam, but to people in this country the archipelago is always part of the nation.

Scholar Nguyen Phuc Giac Hai has proffered evidence that Vietnamese sovereignty over Hoang Sa (the Paracels) has historically been acknowledged by the Chinese.

He quoted the Overseas Chronicle, a late-17th century work by a Chinese monk who visited Vietnam, as saying that ships had to pay tax while sailing past Hoang Sa to the Nguyen Lord, whose successors ruled Vietnam until the 20th century.

Hai, in 2006, found by chance a "Vietnam Geological Map" dating back to the 18th century in the British Library in the UK

The Viet Nam Dia Du Do map, drawn by a mandarin working for China's Qing Dynasty (17th-20th centuries), marked the first time China used the name "Vietnam" for its southern neighbor.

Most notably, it recorded two sea routes titled Tieu Truong Sa Hai Khau (Minor Truong Sa Sea Route) and Dai Truong Sa Hai Khau (Major Truong Sa Sea Route) in Vietnamese waters.

Hai explained that ancient cartographers referred to Hoang Sa as Tieu Truong Sa and to Truong Sa as Dai Truong Sa.

The evidence revealed that the Qing Dynasty had acknowledged Hoang Sa belonged to Vietnam.

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According to many ancient royal records, ships from China, Holland, the UK and Japan that met with accidents near Hoang Sa received assistance from the Nguyen Dynasty rulers.

A mandarin would provide them money and rice based on existing regulations to help them return home.

French Admiral Charles d'Estaing (1729-94), who was "one of the greatest pioneers in France's colonial expansion in Asia" according to well-known French archeologist Louis Malleret, reported in the 1760s that Vietnamese vessels frequently cruised between Hoang Sa and the coast when he was planning a raid against Thuan Hoa (present-day Thua Thien-Hue) Province.

Ancient geological records show that the two archipelagos Hoang Sa and Truong Sa were considered as one stretch of islands.

It was first known by a colorful Vietnamese description - Bai Cat Vang, or "the long plain of yellow sand."

The Nguyen Dynasty kings exploited the natural resources in Hoang Sa and Truong Sa for centuries.

In both factual and legal terms, they exercised uninterrupted sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa for centuries, making the islands inseparable parts of Vietnamese territory.

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Vo Nhu Dan, who now lives in Da Nang City, is among those to have stayed the longest on Hoang Sa.

He went to the islands 18 times between 1957 and 1973.

Each time he stayed three months to serve the seven meteorologists stationed there.

The meteorological station was built on a raised area near a light-house.

Dan recalled that the meteorologists would "measure rain and count wind" every three hours and send the records back to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) using Morse.

While he was at the so-called "world's storm eye," Dan and his companions fought the harsh weather, tried to save drinking water, planted squashes, and caught fish to enhance their frugal meals.

They stored rain water in large concrete tanks.

Fishing boats, both local and foreign, called on the islands often to ask for water.

The men were happy to share their precious store.

"We're all humans," Dan said.

For Ta Hong Tan, one of the last Vietnamese to leave Hoang Sa, the memory of January 19, 1974, is still vivid and painful.

"That morning, we were doing exercises. The sun was rising beautifully. Suddenly, one of us noticed a fleet of ships surrounding the islands. They were Chinese."

Tan had been dispatched to the islands just a few months earlier as an observer at the Hoang Sa Meteorological Station.

He said every Vietnamese who had been to Hoang Sa liked to carve his or her name and mainland address in the big stones lining the beach.

When he first came, "Vietnamese names were all over the stones, filling line after line."

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After Chinese troops took over Hoang Sa that night, Tan and five other colleagues were taken to China's Hainan Island where they were kept until March 1974 before being released.

Tan, now 73, said he felt nostalgic listening to the weather forecast from Hoang Sa every single day for the past 34 years.

The Hoang Sa Island District became, in January 1997, part of the central Vietnamese city of Da Nang.

The archipelago is about 170 nautical miles from the city.

Its 18 islands, banks, and reefs cover an area of 305 square kilometers, or almost a quarter of the city's area.

At a reunion last month in Da Nang, people who have been to Hoang Sa all expressed the same aspiration to be able to return to the islands.

Every Vietnamese shares that hope for "Hoang Sa is Vietnam's flesh and blood."

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