Activists in Hanoi chanted anti-China slogans and laid flowers yesterday at a protest marking the anniversary of a battle over the Spratly Islands in which 64 Vietnamese soldiers died.
China and Vietnam have been locked in long-standing territorial disputes over the Spratlys, also known as the Nansha Islands, and often trade diplomatic barbs over oil exploration and fishing rights in the contested waters.
In 1988, China launched an attack on Gac Ma Island - one of the larger Spratly Islands formerly under Vietnamese military control - killing dozens of Vietnamese soldiers in the last violent conflict between the two nations.
Some 20 activists yesterday laid floral wreaths covered with black ribbons that read "the people will never forget" at a statue of Ly Thai To - the founder of Hanoi and a nationalist figurehead - in the centre of the capital.
The protest was the first display this year of public discontent in Hanoi against Beijing's perceived aggression over territory, following half a dozen anti-China demonstrations last year that were broken up by authorities.
Watched by dozens of plain-clothed security officers, the activists played patriotic music and chanted "Hoang Sa [Paracels], Truong Sa [Spratlys], Vietnam! Down with Chinese invasion! Down with Beijing's expansion schemes!"
Well-known activist Bui Thi Minh Hang said: "I am very happy today, we came here and laid flowers to remember everybody who died for their country."