Activists chanted anti-China slogans and laid flowers yesterday at a protest in Hanoi marking the 40th anniversary of the Chinese invasion of contested islands in the South China Sea.
In 1974, as US troops withdrew from Vietnam, China invaded the Paracel Islands, called the Xisha Islands by Beijing and the Hoang Sa Islands by Hanoi. The islands had been held by the US-backed South Vietnamese regime.
More than 70 Vietnamese soldiers died during the invasion. China has controlled the island chain ever since.
While overseas Vietnamese groups and dissidents have traditionally marked the battle, it was the first time that Hanoi had marked the anniversary of the battle, apparently seeking to boost its legitimacy at home as tensions over the disputed waters flare anew.
The two countries are locked in long-standing territorial disputes over the Paracel and Spratly islands, which both claim, and often trade diplomatic barbs over oil exploration and fishing rights in the contested waters.
Dozens of activists laid flowers at a statue of Ly Thai To, the founder of Hanoi and a nationalist figurehead, in the capital.
Activists waved banners and shouted "Hoang Sa [Paracels], Truong Sa [Spratlys] belong to Vietnam!" before hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes police forced them to leave the area.
"We gathered here to commemorate the event ... Forty years ago the Chinese invaded the island and killed many Vietnamese soldiers," academic Nguyen Quang A said.
The protest was the first display of public discontent in Hanoi this year against Beijing's perceived aggression over territory, following a handful of anti-China demonstrations last year, which were broken up by authorities.
"The government of Vietnam is in a very difficult situation," Quang A said, calling the police presence at the event ridiculous. "The memory of people of Vietnam is vivid. Nobody can eradicate that memory," he said. There was no official comment from the government.
Although yesterday's protest was not covered in the local press, state-run media had been running stories on the anniversary, as well as interviews with families of the victims, who have never received any support from the government. Vietnamese media do not report on issues concerning China without the approval of the government.
"After a long time, the deaths of my husband and others seemed to fall into oblivion, but I'm very glad that they have been mentioned," online newspaper Vietnamnet quoted Huynh Thi Sinh, the widow of the captain of the naval ship who died along with 73 others, as saying. "Maybe in his world he's feeling satisfied. His sacrifice is very meaningful. I'm proud."
Authorities in central Vietnam said they were organising exhibitions and workshops to mark the anniversary of China's "illegal occupation" of the Paracels.
Dang Cong Ngu, chairman of the Hoang Sa People's Committee, said candles would be lit on Danang beach to commemorate those who died fighting for the Paracels.
Agence France-Presse, Associated Press