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(Courtesy INA/Randall Sasaki)

The Khan's Lost Fleet
Bach Dang River, Vietnam

In A.D. 1287, China's great Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan received word that his navy had been crushed in Vietnam. Nearly 400 of the emperor's prized ships, part of a massive invasion force, had become trapped in the Bach Dang River, where Vietnamese soldiers set them afire with flaming arrows and burning bamboo rafts. In later years, the leader of the Vietnamese forces, Tran Hung Dao, boasted of his effortless victory. "When the enemy advances roaring like fire and wind," he observed, "it is easy to overcome them."

But how, exactly, did Tran Hung Dao and his forces defeat the great armada? With the Vietnam Institute of Archaeology, nautical archaeologists Randall Sasaki at Texas A&M University and Jun Kimura of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, are now searching for new clues to explain the momentous victory. According to texts from the period, Vietnamese forces cut down hundreds of trees, sharpened their ends, and placed them in a "stakeyard" across the Bach Dang River. Then, small Vietnamese ships lured Khubilai Khan's fleet into the area just before the tides turned. As the water ebbed, long lines of stakes emerged several feet out of the water, barricading the river and preventing escape.

Sasaki and Kimura are mapping all surviving remnants of the stakeyard. Their studies show that the Vietnamese forces made clever use of islands and other natural obstacles to create part of the barrier. And today, at least some of the stakeyard lies in local rice paddies. "The preservation is really good under the mud in the rice fields," notes Sasaki. "If we could find a ship, it would be wonderful."

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