Lords of the islands

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     Hon De Island of Ba Lua Archipelago in Son Hai Commune, Kien Luong District, Kien Giang Province

Fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself, wrote Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe.

When people conquer fear, they survive, and have amazing stories to tell, like some men and women who went to remote and isolated islands in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang years ago and settled down there.

Those people are "lords" of the islands.

The Mong Tay Island in Duong Hoa Commune, Kien Luong District is usually called "lonely island" as it does not belong to any archipelago and is also less traveled to.

The island has acquired an air of mystery with rumors abounding about its lord - a 49-year-old blind man named Duong Hoai An.

An could not hide his joy when a group of fishermen and I visited him. "Let's drink. I'll find something for us to eat."

The story of An's life is the stuff of legends. It's hard to imagine a blind person can survive, not to say to make himself quite a life, on an uninhabited island.

A serious illness robbed An off his eyesight when he turned six.

When he was eight, he was orphaned. The owner of a fishing boat owner "recruited" him.

 

 
Duong Hoai An, the blind man who turned Mong Tay Island in Duong Hoa Commune, Kien Luong District, Kien Giang Province, into his own home
Within a year, he learnt every skill a fisherman must have. In the next 10 years, he traveled across the western to eastern seas of Vietnam and became a seasoned fisherman.

In 2000, An moved ashore but he could not adapt to life on the mainland. He decided to set off for the Mong Tay Island, which was then called "the ghost island" as there was no one living there.

During the Vietnam War, the island was the shelter for people evacuated from the mainland. But difficult life conditions and a shortage of fresh water drove people away from the island, and no one returned to it.

All by himself, An groped his way on the island and cleared up an area to make a hut to live in. When he was hungry, he dived to catch snails and fish to eat.

Sometimes, he was visited by some fishermen from the mainland. He asked them to sell the snail and fish he caught and buy him some necessities in return.

An rooted out wild grass, cleaned up some more areas and grew trees. He gradually tuned the southern side of the island into a green garden. He made a house for himself, and some furniture like tables, desks and a cupboard. When he had free time, he planted some medicinal plants to treat himself whenever he was sick.

An said the island, Mong Tay, was named after Pemphis acidula a maritime plant which grew a lot on the island in the past. Since it was ideal for making bonsais, people from the mainland took them away.

Currently, there are only four of the plants left on the island, An said. He said he is trying to grow more plants in places hidden from view to preserve the valuable species.

Seeing An live alone on the island, local authorities built a house for him on the mainland, but he refused to leave his home.

Asked why he did not get married, he said: "Growing up on the sea, my heart has already been rusted by sea water."

Great escape

Unlike An, Pham Van Nam, the lord of Hon De Island in Son Hai Commune, Kien Luong District, was not alone in his conquest.

 

 
Pham Van Nam (R), the lord of Hon De Island, and his wife Lam Thi Truc on a fishing boat
When he was 23, Nam and his wife Lam Thi Truc fled to the island as he did not want to join the Saigon regime's army during the Vietnam War.

The island was uninhabited because there was no fresh water. Truc, the daughter of a bakery owner in Kien Luong, had to adapt herself to the hard life, but she turned out to be a very fast learner.

Truc became a skillful fisherwoman and helped her husband in everyday work. The couple grew vegetables and fruits, raised cattle and went fishing. The Hon De Island of Ba Lua Archipelago has now become famous for having the best orchards in the area.

They transported farm produce on their boat and sold it to people on the mainland for money. They bought new fishing boats with the money and developed their fishing business.

They taught their children to survive and live in the difficult conditions, and the Pham family prospered.

However, Nam wants his grandchildren to live a different life. He wanted them to be well-educated.

For years, Nam's family members row a boat to transport the kids to another island Hon Heo to attend school.

Truc, who has experienced many incidents in which fishing boats capsized or sank in rough seas, said that she could never forget an incident 10 years ago when she rowed a boat to transport the kids from their school home.

Big waves submerged the boat. Truc tried to grab a three-year-old grandson who had insisted on following his brothers and sisters to school, but he was swallowed by the waves.

Family members dived and searched for the boy in vain.

Nam said he had vexed a lot of people for refusing to let them bring tourists to his beautiful island.

He said he did not hate tourists, but he did not want to be disturbed.

Although his family is wealthy, Nam and Truc are still going out on their fishing boats. Whenever they return from their fishing trips, the couple go to see their grandchildren or visit other islands to see their friends.

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