Thu, 16/12/2010, 15:58 GMT+7
The search for “black gold” on Vietnamese land: Underground explosions
Early winter 2010 in Hanoi, in a small house filled with souvenirs of oil and gas industry, Dr. Truong Minh – former Deputy Director of Vietnam Petroleum Institute (VPI) fretted with obsessive memories of an epic journey in difficult search of “black gold” of the country during war time.

“Despite bombing raids, we were going to seek for fire underground. It was an epic journey for years of shortage, difficulties, dangers but full of determination!”


Uncle Ho visited Bacu petroleum field (in former Soviet Union) in 1959 – archived photo


Desire in the previous half of century...


Looking at photos of Bach Ho, Rang Dong and Su Tu Den oil field dazzling on the sea, suddenly Dr. Minh asked: “Have you ever been to these oil rigs?” I answered that I flew to Bach Ho and Su Tu Den oil field for several times. After I described my feelings on these modern and big-scaled oil rigs, Dr. Minh said: “That is the image of today oil and gas industry. For nearly half of century ago, we had to walk on foot with tool bags on the shoulders to seek for black gold.”


In the memory of this respective geophysicist, the first important event was on July 23rd 1959 when President Ho Chi Minh visited a petroleum region north of Bacu city, Azerbaijan Republic of the former Soviet Union. After carefully finding out about this special industry, President Ho Chi Minh said that when Vietnam win the war, this fellow country would help Vietnam produce and process petroleum and build up a strong oil and gas industry.


However, the great desire of the country did not have to wait until the reunification day. As of November 27th 1961, General Department of Geology decided to establish petroleum exploration team No.36 whose duty was to search and explore petroleum and gas. This was considered as an official policy of petroleum potential exploration since the late half of the 1950s in the North.


Nearly half of a century has passed since the beginning of “epic journey in search of black gold”, some pioneers have passed away. However, some others are still alive and hold live memories of past feelings.


Initially, the petroleum team No.36 consisted of 15 Soviet Union experts, 22 technicians, 123 workers, 36 engineers and intermediate officers. Head office of the team was in Bac Ninh, then moved to Hung Yen and had to be relocated constantly due to the war. It was almost leaf roof and earth wall in the head office; only some parts were brick walls to conserve machinery. Leaders, engineers, workers were all happy to live in the house which is “visible to the sky” due to holes on the roof.


The first explosion


After coming back from the study in the former Soviet Union, Dr. Minh, together with his colleagues Ho Dac Hoai, Nguyen Hiep, Nguyen Ngoc Cu, Nguyen Duc Lac, Nguyen Quang Hap, etc. participated in the “epic journey in search of black gold” at the beginning. On June 25th 1962, a seismic explosion for petroleum exploration was heard in Dong Tao village, Khoai Chau district, Hung Yen province.


Dr. Minh recalled the previous night when they were eager for sunrise. “This was the first explosion to test for any reflected waves beneath the earth. Two pennants flapping were placed in two ends of an open field road full of chrysopogon. Two teams of security guards wearing red tags on their arms were guiding the people to another bypass. This was a “one-arrow-for-two-birds” work. It aimed at securing people lives and avoiding any interference which affects the accuracy of tests.


At firing hour, 2.5kg of explosive exploded on the ground. A column of smoke rose high. The field, houses shook as if there was an earthquake. Seismometer SS-24P of USSR and wave receiver SP-1 recorded the first reflected waves; 24 trace lines on the paper showed clear seismic waves.”


Recalling memories, insiders told that it was an important event in early age of oil and gas industry. The oil exploration procedure is literally the same as rice cultivation. The pioneer geologist shall study about stone nature. This initial stage in the North was undertaken by USSR geologist Kitovani and engineer Nguyen Giao, Nguyen Duc Lac since 1959.


By mid-1961, they finished their report “Prospect of natural oil and gas potential in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.” After the work of geologists came the work of geophysicists like Dr. Minh and his colleagues to further study properties of the earth. And then, drilling engineers were like rice cultivators waiting for oil and gas harvest.


After the first explosion on the land of Hung Yen, experts continued to make explosions beneath the earth to receive deeper reflected waves. Dr. Nguyen Dang Lieu who dedicated many years to petroleum geophysics told: “We usually drilled three holes, 15 – 30m deep, and then put down 1.8kg bar of explosive.”


After the explosion, seismometer received seismic waves at the depth of 3,000 – 3,500m insdie the earth. In areas where there was complicated geology, explosions in depth were needed with 5-7kg of explosive for each point. Also in this time, geophysicists conducted other methods such as electric survey, gravity survey to “decode” the earth.


Seismic measurements for oil and gas exploration had not stopped. Instead of several kilograms of explosive, they exerted tons of explosives to create small earthquake. That was seismic refraction testing method at depth beyond 3,500m inside “the hell.” Each time, they had to drill dozens of deep wells to load lots of explosives.


In October 1966, a seismic refraction test made history of oil and gas industry. Dr. Minh who directed this test recalled: “Despite a long seismic survey route from Nam Dinh to Hai Phong, there was a shortage of equipment. We had to improve wave receivers to low frequencies, improve mine driver machine capable of over 1 ton of explosive and improve explosive signal transmitter by radiotelegraphy.”


Such big explosive was done in Vieng street – Nam Dinh and Quang Yen – Quang Ninh, but waves were received in Thai Binh. Every work was done in the evening to minimize seismic wave effects to the people and their activities.


Though many years have passed, the survey team still remembers kindness of the people as the seismic explosion affected their fields and cracked their houses. Looking at workers with cumbersome equipment on their back, walking in the field, an old man asked Dr. Minh: “How long will we discover oil with all workers like you?” Everybody burst into laugh. During war time, without eating and living in people’s houses and dividing every sweet potato, it would be hard to work.