Waiting for the tide

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Two men stumble upon a couple of historic anchors, but years later, they still lean against a living room wall

Quach Van Dich stands next to the two anchors that now grace the walls of his house in Hanoi on May 25, 2011.

For over 30 years, Nguyen Van Muoi and his big family have lived off Ben Go section of the Red River.

Theirs is an unusual occupation however.

Every day, from morning to evening, the 62-year-old man and his five sons dive to the river bed and salvage wood to sell as firewood. They find plenty of wood in the river because the place was once a transit shed for wood brought from other localities to Hanoi for almost a century.

Many years ago, Muoi said, the wood was carried on rafts of timber as the only means of transportation at that time, and now, the amount of wood buried in the river bed is "countless." Hence the name Ben Go (literally, wharf of wood).

Muoi is not sure if that summer morning in 1999 changed his life, but he remembers in clear detail what happened that day.

At around 9 a.m., the 20-meter-long pole in Muoi's hand, groping the river bed, hit something very hard. He moved the pole another ten meters, but the thing was still there.

"I told myself, what a lucky day! I might catch a huge piece of wood, weighing a ton at least. But it surpassed my expectations," Muoi said, laughing.

After his sons anchored the family's boats to the "localized area", father and sons dived into the water and came up on a pile of timber, including dozens of wooden bars with a diameter of about 60 centimeters. It took them two hours to bring the pile up to the shore.

However, they were not done for the day.

"As soon as everything was collected, I noticed something bulky, strange lying below. It was hard, long and strange. I could not tell what it was," said Muoi, who was afraid of leaving the "fruit" alone under the water. So he mobilized all the four motored boats that he had, each of which could haul a maximum load of five tons, to pull the thing out of the river, guessing that it weighed a few tons.

"Its head was pointed and armored, after some effort, it started coming out, and minutes later, it proved to be 20 meters long," said Muoi, who then figured out that it was an anchor, the biggest one that he'd ever seen.

Big or small, for Muoi, the giant anchor with two grapnels only meant more firewood to sell. Thankfully, it was not put to the axe immediately.

"˜Crazy' purchase

About a month later, a middle-aged man named Quach Van Dich visited the area from downtown Hanoi to pick up his relatives.

For the beer parlor owner, the anchor, bound tight with ropes, was an arresting sight. His first thought was that it was something made to decorate the river's wharf for tourism purposes. But it also looked like a time-worn article.

A man given to quick decisions (his wife uses the word "˜impulsive'). Dich found Muoi and asked him to sell the anchor to him, so that he would have something to decorate his restaurant that would set it apart from others.

His investment wasn't approved by his wife, who thought it crazy, but sometime later, he bought a similar wooden anchor with one grapnel from a young man who'd come to know of Dich's "strange hobby."

In 2002, Dich's restaurant received a tourist from China, who was taken up by the anchors and offered a whopping US$30,000 for it. (Muoi said the money he earned from selling the anchor to Dich was enough to buy enough rice that his family needed for six months.)

Dich politely declined the offer, because he thought the foreigner was playing a prank on him. However, the Chinese man interpreted Dich's refusal as an expectation for higher payment.

After a few days, the man came back and pushed the offer up to $150,000. Dich was not only shocked at the price, but also surprised by the fact that there was another man in the world who was a bit crazy like him, willing to pay even more to own such pieces of timber.

The offer was also an eye-opener in other ways. Dich took some pictures and went to Hanoi's Vietnam History Museum, looking for historian Duong Trung Quoc, but he was not around. He left a message inviting the historian to his house to explain why people were willing to spend a lot of money on his anchors.

 Two days later, Quoc came to see the anchors, accompanied by archaeologist Vu The Long, who then invited several nautical experts and scientists from abroad, including two from Japan (Randall Sasaki and Jun Kimura), two from Australia and two professors from the US and France. All the foreigners were involved with research on shipwrecks.

The two Japanese experts came to Vietnam in 2008 to see the anchors and get some tests done in Japan. Jun Kimura, who has a doctorate from Australia's Flinder University, said, "In comparison with wooden anchors fished out in Japan in 1994 that date back to 13th century, I think these were built later; and they have some similarities with anchors dating back to the 17th century that are preserved in Thailand."

Dr. Vu The Long, former head of the department of Anthropology and Environment Studies under the Vietnam Institute of Archaeology, said, "In my opinion, the discovery of these anchors is significant as rare evidence of the bustling trade that happened on the Red River in the past."

According to tests carried out by the Institute of Physics the one-grapnel anchor dates back to the 13th century and the other one is part of a big ship built five hundred years ago. Both are made of high quality wood originating in Southeast Asia.

 Meanwhile, experts at the Vietnam Institute of Archaeology have said that the anchors are more than 300 years old, but they are not sure if they are from Vietnamese ships.

 "Since they are precious artifacts of the country, I will not sell it to anyone abroad," said Dich, who is so proud he preserved the anchors at home after the restaurant closed.

"I would like the anchors to be placed in their proper place one day. If they are artifacts from Hanoi, they must be displayed in a museum in the capital," said Dich, who shares scientists' concern that the anchors may be damaged by the hot, humid weather in the north if they are not preserved correctly in the right conditions.

Meanwhile, another tidbit that Muoi shared should have historians and archeologists agog. He said that he'd found the remains of an old bronze boat in the same area, but did not have the wherewithal to salvage it by himself.

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