Searching for Kublai Khan’s Lost Ships

For over 25 years, Vietnam’s Dr Le Lien Thi has been searching for the remains of Kublai Khan’s lost invasion fleet of 1287. In 2013, I was invited to join the search by a search by Flinders University’s Dr Mark Staniforth who, in 2008, joined forces with Le Lien to form the Vietnam Maritime Archeology Project (VMAP).

Since 2008, VMAP has facilitated ten successful volunteer field seasons in Vietnam. It’s aim, in short, is to investigate and protect Vietnam’s underwater cultural heritage by:

  1. undertaking archaeological research and investigation;
  2. building capacity in maritime archeology via the Nautical Archeology Society (NAS) training program; and
  3. raising awareness of the importance of underwater cultural heritage in Vietnam.

This work has greatly expanded Vietnam’s understanding of it’s maritime heritage and as a result, the Vietnamese Government established a Maritime Archeology Department in 2013. In recognition of its success, in 2016 the Department was upgraded to the Centre for Underwater Archaeology. This was fantastic news for the future of Vietnam’s maritime heritage and a significant step in stopping the looting and commercial exploitation of sites which has plagued Vietnam in the past.

Dr's Mark Staniforth and Le Lien Thi

Earlier this year, guest blogger, maritime archaeology student, Milly Bendell, joined in the search. Here Milly shares her story of the time she spent inVietnam…

I spent 9 days diving the clear tropical clear waters surrounding Cu Lao Cham Island (Quang Nam province), participating in practical, swatting through seminars and even managed to do a ceramics masterclass whilst wading in the waters of Bai Xep.

Charlotte Looram, Milly Bendell and Stephanie Morris following an impromptu ceramics masterclass

The fieldwork component consisted of a underwater survey at the Bai Ong shipwreck on Cu Lao Cham Island.  This is a 16th or 17th century vessel and was identified by the VMAP participants in 2014. At the site we also placed permanent survey markers, a tough task in hammering and gaining correct positioning whilst underwater.

Next, was a site inspection and remapping of a stone anchor site. A strong current required the divers to be alert and cautious whilst underwater which really tested my skills. We then moved to the shoreline at Bai Cut and surveyed ceramics from a kiln site which is located close by.

The day was ended with a photoshoot of the team and Damien Leloup holding an Explorers Club flag. The flag has travelled to the top of Everest and to the bottom of the ocean at the titanic. An exciting moment indeed!

Ceramic Scatter at Bai Xept

The next day was dedicated to the use of an ROV or Remote Operated Vehicle (Teledyne Seabotix vLBV300-5), nicknamed Rygh after our visitor, Charlotte Rygh, who is writing a children’s book on the sites in Vietnam and their relationship within the local community and oceanic sustainability. The results from archaeological fieldwork has the potential to create endless possibilities for information sharing, education and entertainment.

Dr Damien Leloup piloting the ROV

The highlight of the trip was the daily boat ride back to Hoi An; we were lucky enough to encounter fishing boats heading out for the night’s catch and an electrical storm that I will never forget!

Storm cell over Hoi An

For more information about VMAP, you can follow the project on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Thanks also to Ian McCann and VMAP for generously allowing us to use their images. 

About Milly Bendell

Milly Bendell is an aspiring maritime archaeologist. She is completing a post-graduate certificate in maritime archaeology at Flinders University, an internship with ArchaeoMar Australasia and is training to be an AIMA NAS Assistant Tutor. Milly has a passion for diving, maritime archaeology and aims to work in outreach and cultural tourism.

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