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Cultural Roles


Historical discussions of mainland Southeast Asia typically emphasize the cultural and economic base in agriculture, but it is worth remembering that 40 percent of Thailand’s population, and over 80 percent of people in Vietnam, live in areas designated as coastal.[3] As one geographer has put it, “the degree of marine influence over the environment, settlement, communication and development of resources, both in Mainland and Island Southeast Asia, is probably unmatched in any other part of the world.” (Barrow 1990, p. 78)

Các bạn có biết tại sao người dân đánh bắt cá làm ra những chiếc thuyền, họ điều vẽ mắt trên chiếc thuyền không,thực ra tôi cũng không biết,khi tôi còn rất nhỏ tôi hỏi cha ông họ nói rằng, chiếc thuyền với con người điều có tâm linh gắn liền với nhau, khi ra khơi tâm linh về biển khi người dân đánh bắt gặp sóng to gió lơn với những cơn bão dữ dội chiếc thuyền, có mắt sẽ né tránh những con bão kia tìm phương hướng đi trên biển khơi.

When fishermen make boats, do you know why paint eyes on the boat? I didn't really know, but when I was very young, I asked my father. He told me that the boat with the humans are spiritually tied together. When the boat sails with the fishermen to the sea and people catch the big waves and strong winds with violent storms, the eyes on the boat will avoid the storms and guide their way on the sea.

- Phụng

Artisanal Fisherman & Water Sports Instructor

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This is a condensed version of the full article. To read the full news story, click here.

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This is a condensed version of the full article. To read the full news story, click here.

The South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) a project of the Peking University Institute of Ocean Research, recently released Automatic Identification System (AIS) data showing more than 300 Vietnamese fishing boats gathering in the near seas of China’s Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hainan provinces in February — while China is busy fighting the coronavirus.

Illegal fishing from Vietnam is a long-standing problem. Even with a nearly 3,500 kilometer coastline, fish stocks in Vietnam’s near sea are depleting, and its fishermen have been trying to venture farther away to catch fish in the past years. The European Commission (EC) applied a yellow card warning on seafood from Vietnam in 2017 due to the failure of to prevent illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The warning came out especially after a number of Vietnamese fishing fleets were caught illegally fishing in other countries’ waters.

Although Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung demanded that all related parties prevent illegal fishing in other countries’ waters after the EC decided to extend the yellow card in 2019, the situation hasn’t changed much. Vietnamese government officials have mentioned in the past that it is difficult to catch the illegal trawlers operating at sea since there are too many of them, and their engine capacity reaches 500-800 horsepower.

Recently Malaysia also reported an increase in the number of Vietnamese fishing vessels encroaching into its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), off the country’s east coast, in the past few months. Malaysia protested to Vietnam and is now seeking a bilateral agreement to solve the problem. Last year 141 Vietnam fishermen were detained by Malaysian authorities.


China and Vietnam settled a maritime boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin and a fishery cooperation agreement on December 25, 2000. However the AIS image from SCSPI shows that two-thirds of Vietnamese fishing vessels are on the Chinese side of the boundary line (the solid white line in the map below). Some of them may have a license to fish in the common fishing zone, but more than half of the boats are outside the zone (denoted by the dashed yellow line).

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Sanya is located at the southern end of Hainan island. It is a picturesque city and famous tourist destination in the region. More relevant to this incident, however, is the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Yulin Naval Base, located at the southernmost tip of Sanya. Yulin is often referred to as the most strategically important base in the South China Sea. The Lingshui military airport – where a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft landed after a fatal collision with a Chinese jet in 2001 — is also very close to Sanya.

SCSPI revealed that some of the fishing vessels suspiciously changed their status from “fishing vessel” to “merchant ship” on the AIS, seemingly a bid to hide their identity. Considering Vietnam is building a strong maritime militia force, it’s reasonable to think that many of these 200 vessels could be maritime militia.

The deputy defense minister of Vietnam, Colonel General Phan Van Giang, in December 2019 said that Vietnam was setting up its maritime militia, starting with six southern provinces and expanding to 14 provinces across the country. The goal is twofold: “sovereignty protection and economic development.” Hanoi has also revised the 2009 Law on Militia and Self-Defense Forces to provide a legal basis for the maritime militia. The new version will be enacted in July 2020.

Since most of Vietnam’s maritime militia is comprised of local fishermen, neighboring countries find it extremely difficult to distinguish between the two. It is reported that Vietnamese banks have loaned $176 million to fishermen to upgrade about 400 ships. More than 10,000 fishermen received infrared night vision binoculars and firearms.


In 2018, Vietnam set the goal of becoming a strong maritime power by 2030 in a resolution passed by its Communist Party Central Committee. By doing so, Vietnam hopes to boost its maritime economy and strengthen national defense to protect its maritime rights. In the fourth version of its defense white paper, released on November 25, 2019, Vietnam described itself as a maritime nation, and said the safety and protection of its surrounding seas is of critical importance.


Fish sauce is 


  • A stop-motion animation made by a group of local kids on how to make fish sauce.

  • Interviews with fish sauce maker.


Is there a relationship between belief (in the Vietnamese context - the effort to give an offering to a god or ancestor because you BELIEVE in the power / your relationship with / the degree of respect and reversance you have for the ancestor / deity), so much will watch over you and keep you safe, will you risk more than, say, a fishermen who doesn't have access to the same outlet? Will you subject yourself to hazardous working conditions or participate in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices because you believe your intentions are good - for the betterment of your family. 


Is there a relationship between the risks people are willing to take and the belief in good fortune? Will you risk more because you believe you have offered the gods or your ancestors enough for you to succeed regardless of laws?

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Thien Hau: Goddess of the Sea




Vietnam’s long history has been dominated by land and sea migrations, especially from Southern China. The peopling of Vietnam began in the Late Pleistocene era; the Cham kingdom was established in the 2nd century, and Vietnam was under Chinese rule for over 1,000 years. A major Chinese diaspora in the 19th century saw the rise of the Southern Ocean Chinese, leaving the major Chinese trading ports—such as Amoy and Fuchou Hokkien speakers, Cantonese speakers, and Swatow Teochew speakers—in search of work. Overseas, the Chinese established communities throughout Southeast Asia reaching as far as the USA, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. The sea journeys were long, arduous, and dangerous and many did not survive. Upon reaching dry land alive, their first response was to establish a joss house, or Chinese temple, to give thanks to the Goddess of the Sea, Mazu, for safe passage and arrival. In many cases, these early joss houses became permanent temples dedicated to Mazu.

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