Vietnam may be home to the largest number of underwater archaeology sites in the world, which could reveal much about the history of the region as far back as the 1st century — if treasure hunters don’t plunder them first. By Chris Mueller. Photo by Fred Wissink.

Captain Kidd, one of the world’s most infamous pirates, was hanged in London in 1701, his body left to rot in the open as a warning to others. Before his death at the gallows, Kidd is said to have buried a massive amount of treasure — upwards of $15 million today — during his world travels. Many have scoured old maps, books and the open ocean trying to find it, but its whereabouts still remains a mystery.

In the early 1980s, a failed British actor named Richard Knight thought he had found the treasure’s location on the small island of Hon Tre Lon near Phu Quoc, at the tip of southern Vietnam. Knight and his American partner Cork Graham left Thailand in 1983 and headed to the island. Author Glenys Roberts, who helped Knight write his memoirs and contributed to a documentary about him, wrote that Knight claimed to have actually found Kidd’s stash before this trip but couldn’t transport it alone. So he and Graham had gone back to the island to claim it.

Before they could finish digging, something went wrong. Knight and Graham were arrested by Vietnamese militia and ended up spending 14 months in prison in Kien Giang province. After paying a large fine, they were released. Years later, Knight disappeared and Roberts wrote in a Daily Mail article that he had died some time in 2001, still claiming he knew the location of Kidd’s lost treasure.

Whether Knight was telling the truth of Captain Kidd’s gold may never be known. But what is now clear is that the coast, islands and rivers of Vietnam are chock-full of treasures that are arguably more valuable than any pirate booty ever could be. Experts say Vietnam may have the largest number of underwater archaeology sites on the planet, which could reveal much about the history of the region.

“I don’t think there is anywhere else I can think of that would have better, more important, more significant [archaeological] material than Vietnam,” Dr Mark Staniforth, a senior researcher in maritime archaeology at Monash University in Australia, told me in a Skype interview from Melbourne. “The sheer volume along the coast is truly astounding.”

Staniforth first visited Vietnam in 2008 when he was able to work on one of the country’s more significant sites on the Bach Dang River, about 20km north of Hai Phong.

It was here that in 1288 an invading Mongol fleet was destroyed. Prior to the battle, a Mongol army sent by Kublai Khan had taken the Vietnamese capital of Thang Long (now Hanoi), but soon afterwards the Mongols found themselves stuck in a city without supplies. The invaders abandoned the capital, choosing to retreat rather than starve. But the Vietnamese had other plans. Led by the famous General Tran Hung Dao, Vietnamese forces lured the fleet of 400 Mongol ships down the Bach Dang River just as the tide ebbed. The retreating Mongols were forced into hundreds of wooden stakes that had been driven into the riverbed. By the end of the battle, the Vietnamese had burned or sunk most of the enemy ships, and defeated the invading horde.

Today, many of these wooden stakes still exist and some have been recovered. There is also evidence of the destroyed fleet. While the Vietnamese have been working on this site since the 1950s, Staniforth says there is still much to be discovered.

“That site itself could keep a team working for a decade and it could reveal all sorts of things about the 13th-century invasions,” he says.

But it’s not only battles and pirates that Vietnam’s underwater sites have to offer. Merchant ships moving between China and the Arab world would have stopped at Vietnam’s many ports beginning in the 7th century. There is also material evidence dating back to AD700 found in Vietnam’s countless ports and towns that have been swallowed by the sea, and in ships now at the bottom of rivers. There are likely so many of these sites that Staniforth says there is no way he could calculate their number.

“All this is literally on Vietnam’s doorstep,” he says.

Unfortunately, he adds, Vietnamese underwater archaeologists have very little funding and lack even the most basic equipment to do proper research.

“When we first started coming over in 2008 they asked us to bring some of our equipment,” Staniforth says. “We thought they wanted marine magnetometers and sonar, equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. We quickly realised they meant equipment down to a basic level, such as boats. The senior archaeologists hadn’t used simple equipment. They hadn’t even seen GPS units.”

But that is slowly changing as government officials are starting to realise the importance of Vietnam’s underwater heritage. Until very recently, few Vietnamese-led underwater surveys had been conducted, and with thousands of sites across the country, there is little the authorities can do to protect ones that have been found. Fishermen discover many of the sites, but plunder the artifacts and sell them on the black market. If the locals don’t get to them first, often times salvage companies or professional treasure hunters do. There even have been cases where local governments have hired salvage companies to search shipwrecks, only to sell the artifacts in order to pay the companies.

While treasure hunting remains a rampant problem, local and international archaeologists are hopeful. In July, Vietnam’s Institute of Archaeology started an underwater archaeology department, and Dr Le Thi Lien, who heads the new department, says things are looking up.

“More and more archaeological sites are being excavated and preserved,” she says. “More Vietnamese are beginning to understand the value of archaeology.”