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Culture authorities have failed for years to act and salvage treasures from sunken relics off central Vietnam
 
  Archeologists examine on September 15 ceramic recovered from a Chinese ship that sank off the Quang Ngai Province coast in the 14th century. They said the fact that the bowls are stuck together suggests there was a fire on the boat.

Two weeks since fishermen started to hunt for relics from an old sunken Chinese ship near the coast of Quang Ngai Province, authorities are yet to get their act together and salvage the centuries-old treasure.

A recent report by news website Dan Tri said culture authorities in the province, where the relics were found 100 meters off the coast, were inviting bids for salvage operations.

Following a hunt from September 8 onwards by local fishermen who claimed to have taken hundreds of relics, the province waited three days before asking the government to sanction recovery of the relics and to send archeologists to assist with the task.

The Culture Ministry approved it the same day and sent experts the day later.

But all that has been done since is experts looking at bowls, plates, basins and censers seized by police. Vietnam's heritage laws require residents to hand over relics they find to the authorities, to get a cash reward of 15-30 percent of the relic's value.

They said the relics dated back to the 14th century from the Yuan Dynasty, instead of the 15th century of the Ming Dynasty, as Quang Ngai experts had guessed.

"They're so beautiful," said Nguyen Dinh Chien, deputy director of the National History Museum.

He said there's a group of 11 basins stuck together, thus "the boat might have been burned and sank."

Chien will join a nine-member council, including Dr. Nguyen Dang Vu, director of Quang Ngai Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, to assess the eight marine salvage companies that have registered for the bidding.

The companies will help staff members from the Quang Ngai General Museum to get out cargo from 1.5 meters under the seabed in waters three meters deep off the Binh Chau beach.

Police officers have been keeping a lookout, but local fishermen have still broken the fence and dived into the water to get the relics, especially on rainy nights.

Vu said procedural requirements have delayed salvage operations.

"We are trying to finish those procedures quickly to save the relics. But the more we wait, the bigger the danger for the relics and the locals themselves," Vu said, referring to fights between relic hunters.

Most of the relics are in good condition, with little impact from the seawater. Some were broken while local fishermen fought each other over them.

Vo Tan Men, a local, told Dan Tri that five fishermen have been injured in such fights.

"Greed has risen, adding noise and chaos in the area," he said.

Vo Thanh Tuyen, who has been a diver in the province for more than 15 years, said he has never seen locals find so many relics and earn so much money, by selling their finds to dealers from Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang.

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Tuyen said a pottery plate with a dragon carving has been bought at more than VND100 million (US$4,800), and one with flower carvings for VND60 million.

"Most young fishermen have stopped their fishing trips and are waiting to dive for the relics."

The police have so far seized 36 items but hundreds more are said to be kept by the locals.

Years, actually

It has actually not taken authorities two weeks to make plans to save the relics. It has taken years, and no real progress has been made.

Binh Chau waters have been dubbed "the antique village" for many years. Almost every house has ancient jars, bowls, or even a cupboard of relics, and the place has nurtured an antique black market.

The latest relic hunts only prove that no real effort has been made to protect all the relics.

Experts say the area was not a trade port, but a place where Western and Asian traders used to meet before going to the mainland to sell their products. It was located on the silk and pottery route on the sea hundreds of years ago.

Old pottery pieces have been washed to shore very often in the area.

These facts led Quang Ngai General Museum to excavate the waters for the first time in November 1998, and this yielded many pottery relics from the Xuande Emperor era (14251435) during the Ming Dynasty. These were found under the seabed a kilometer from the shore.

In June 1999, the province's culture and tourism authorities worked with the Department of Culture Heritages from the culture ministry to study a sunken ship near the shore. They found many bronze, pottery and stone items, a horse skeleton as well as old coins from between the 15th and 17th centuries.

Truong Quang So, an 80-year-old fisherman, estimates there should be at least ten ships sunk centuries ago in the area.

The new boat will be the sixth excavated nationwide over the past ten years, and the oldest and closest to the shore, experts said in a Monday report by news website VnExpress.

Chien, the national museum deputy director, told Tuoi Tre in a Monday report that most of the ships were found by the fishermen first.

He said the government's late and weak response has created a lucrative job for residents of fishing villages nationwide diving for relics.

The Seabed Exploration, an excavation company of shipwrecks relics in Southeast Asia, estimated Vietnam's waters have 40 old sunken ships. But Vietnam government has done little regarding the information and never launched a real exploration to know for itself how many ships are out there under the sea.

Dr. Tong Trung Tin, head of Vietnam Institute of Archeology, blamed the lack of staff, budget and equipment for this situation.

He told Saigon Tiep Thi no archeologists in Vietnam are trained for diving for relics, and Vietnam government has no policies to send them to training courses overseas, including a recent one in Thailand where only one was sent "for fun."

Thus, government's salvage operations are typically launched after the divers have taken almost everything, Tin said.

The first such operation took place only in the 1990s, in Vung Tau and Kien Giang waters in the south.

Foreign experts and divers were hired in four of the five previous salvage operations and Vietnam had to share the meager spoils with them. In one excavation in Ca Mau in the southern tip of the country, Vietnam used its own experts and the job cost around VND13 billion (nearly US$625,000 at present), Tuoi Tre reported.

This time, authorities have reportedly decided to use their own staff as the boat is near the shore.

But there are 300 fishermen who are also divers in the area and experts are not so sure that they can take the relics and the boat out before the locals get at them.

Lam Du Xenh, an antique expert from the province, said provincial authorities should cooperate with local fishermen instead of competing with them.

The fishermen dive well, have enough equipment and know exactly where the boat is, Xenh said.

He said further delay will not only expose the relics to more thieveries but also to damage from typhoons expected this year.

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