Competition and cultural tour in Hue

cycling raceThose who have cycled with us know we don’t specially focus on the physical performance or on how fast we ride. Our approach is more relaxed or social. However, a little competition from time to time doesn’t harm anyone, and we all know it’s exciting. If we can combine it with something of cultural interest, we can have a cycling tour that fits anybody’s preferences. This is what we plan to do in Hue from March 25, to celebrate the 35th Sunday Bike Ride in the former imperial capital.

Here is the schedule for those who want to join:

Day 1, March 25
We will check in a hotel in Hue, enjoy some free time and spend the night there, preparing to start the fun on the bike. We suggest you try some Hue specialties like the local pancakes (banh Beo, banh Nam, banh Loc), some seafood like the baby clams with rice crackers, before having a walk along Nguyen Dien Chieu street, relax crossing the Trang Tien bridge and see the night scene in the backpackers area.

Day 2, March 26
This is the day. Get a good sleep, have a nice breakfast and be sure your legs are strong. Those who want to join can register here. It will be 42 km and the start is at 6:30 AM. If you are not into racing, you can just watch and join the afternoon ride to Than Tan hot springs, where we will have the chance to soak our whole body in the hot water to relax. At the foot of Ma Yen Mountain, these springs were discovered by French Doctor A. Sallet in 1928. Since then they have been renowned for the health benefits of submerging your body in hot mineral water. If you need to relax, this is what you need. For those in need of some action, we suggest a visit to the Waterpark, with a zipline included. After that, we will cycle back to Hue and share a nice dinner.

Day 3 March 27
Of the many culinary specialties of Hue, Bun Bo Hue is probably the most popular in the whole country. However, locals say that it’s never as goo as it is there. We will have a chance to check if it’s true over breakfast, before visiting Dong Ba Market and doing a city tour around the major sites. The citadel is one of the most interesting ones. This old residence of the Nguyen kings includes the Ngo Mon Gate, Thai Hoa palace, Forbidden Purple City, the Emperor Temple, the Hien Lam pavilion and the nine dynastic urns. After that we will go to Thien Mu pagoda, the most ancient in the city, as it was built in 1601. Our historical tour will end with the visit to the impressive mausoleums of emperors Khai Dinh and Tu Duc, where we will appreciate Hue’s architectonic style. If time allows it, we will finish the day climbing Ngu Binh mountain.

The prices will be different depending on your accommodation choices. You can get more information on our Facebook page or contacting us here: info@vietnambiketours.com

 

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The incredible story of cycling highways

While in Vietnam biking is becoming more and more popular, cyclists still have to fight for their space on the road and to be respected by motorcyclists or car (not say bus) drivers who tend to look at us with disdain. After all, if you ride a bike, it means you can’t ride something better. We know mentalities evolve at their own pace and it will take a while for bikes to be widely used in Vietnam as they once were (although it was for purely economic reasons). And who knows if we will ever reach the advanced project London is planning for its cyclists: segregated cycling highways. This is the dream for any cyclists, roads in good conditions where you wont have to fight for your life avoiding cars, trucks and buses or pedestrians who go into bike lanes (when there is one).

According to this article in The Guardian, the most ambitious plan is an 18-mile segregated route from Tower Hill in the east to Acton in the west, running through the centre of the city. Imagining something like that in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi  can only bring frustration, since we are very far from it, but this kind of project is not as innovative as it may seem. Before cars became increasingly popular during the 20th century, there were several projects to do cycling highways and to make bike the main way of transportation. A pity for bike lovers that cars ruined all these projects.

California cycleway in 1900
California cycleway in 1900

By the end of the 19th century cycling was booming in some European countries and in the US. As a result, cyclists, were very active in demanding roads adequate to their needs, since most of them were not paved and in poor condition. Some of these associations even contributed to creating cycling roads before the turn of the century. The first registered one was built in the Netherlands (still a cycling paradise today), along the Brenda-Tilburg road, during the 1890’s. But the most amazing one was built in California, from California to Los Angeles. Called the California Cycle Way, it was an elevated wooden tollway built specially for bicycles, an idea that seems so advanced and is over 100 years old. Unfortunately, only a small stretch of the initial plan was built and was dismantled a few years later, as motorized vehicles and electric trams were gaining popularity and the bike fever started to decline.

There were projects to revive it during the 1980’s in Los Angeles, on the wake of the 1984 Olympic games, but it was not possible and cities all over the world had already been built for cars. There were some similar experiences (although not as spectacular) in Europe, but they kept losing space as cars expanded everywhere. It’s only now, with this new biking boom at the beginning of this century that these ideas are gaining popularity again. Let’s hope we’ll see something like this in Vietnam soon. While we wait, we still enjoy many roads with very little traffic in the countryside and we can still cycle safely on bigger ones, since motorbikes don’t usually go too fast.

Coconut religion

The Coconut pagoda in Phoenix Island photographed in 1975. Author: Bùi Thụy Đào Nguyên
The Coconut pagoda in Phoenix Island photographed in 1975. Author: Bùi Thụy Đào Nguyên

Those who had the chance (and the courage) to joint last Sunday Bike Ride trip to My Tho and Phung (Phoenix) islet in Ben Tre Province, in the Mekong Delta, were able to learn a little more about one of the most peculiar religious movements in Vietnam: the coconut religion. A few weeks ago we were talking about how peculiar Caodaism is, but the Coconut religion (Dao Dua in Vietnamese) is even more surprising and eccentric. Although now officially extinct since it was banned after 1975, the futuristic looking shrine in Phung islet remains almost intact over an area of 1500 square meters and there are still many traces of this cult which at its peak during the sixties had more than 4,000 followers worldwide.

But what is (or was) exactly the coconut religion? Some say it is not really a religion, but a philosophy or a practice created by a Vietnamese intellectual educated in France, Nguyen Thanh Nam, who ran for the presidency of Southern Vietnam in 1968. Nam, who was opposed both to French colonialism and to Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime, was also known as the prophet of Concord or Uncle Hai. According to Quang Thi Lam’s account in his book The 25 Years Century, Nam was born in 1909 in a rich family from Ben Tre, he got a degree in chemistry engineering from a French University and after that he created a soap factory in his province using coconut as the only ingredient. His mastery of French with a Parisian accent helped him save his life during the Indochina war. The French executioners who were about to kill him let him go when he started speaking their language better than they actually did. This episode in his life changed him: after that he shaved his head and meditated for three years in the mountains of Chao Doc province.

Back to Ben Tre province and having studied the healthy properties of coconut, he decided to feed himself only on coconut ingredients and to remain silent. According to some accounts, this coconut fasting lasted for three years. This is when his religion or philosophy was created with the purpose of removing the three sources of human pain: body, thought and words. He became increasingly interested in Jesus, Buddha and… coconuts. His philosophy is a mix of buddhism, taoism, Christianity and a certain worship of coconuts. This was reflected in his clothes: he used to wear Buddhist robs and a crucifix around his neck. According to some accounts he spent three whole years eating only coconuts in Ben Tre, which is known for its coconut candies and sweets and is often referred to as coconut kingdom. His strong advocacy for pacifism gained him many followers, including the son of the great American writer John Steinbeck, and made the sanctuary of  Phoenix Island a symbol of peace and reconciliation. He tried to convince South Vietnam rulers of his pacifist points of view, but no politician took him seriously and he just stayed in his homeland until his death in 1990.

This video shows him and other “coconut monks” when the religion was at its peak.

Ghosts in Con Dao island, the haunted paradise

With the fast pace of development in Phu Quoc, Con Dao has become one of the last unscathed island paradises in Vietnam. Formed by 16 islands in front of Vung Tao, it is a wonderful place for a bike ride through empty roads in the middle of the nature. And, of course, a wonderful choice for a relaxed vacation by the sea. But it also happens to be one of the most notorious haunted places in Asia, as many locals claim that they have seen ghosts.

In thisNational Geographic TV show, a witness says he has seen a spirit with long white hair and white trousers coming to him near Ma Thien Lanh bridge, an abandoned structure in the middle of the jungle. Another woman claims she has seen two ghosts in a former prison. Why would such a beautiful land be haunted? As other places on Earth, such as the nazi concentration camps or Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Con Dao island has a horrifying past as a torture place for prisoners during French colonial rule and also during the American war. Many Vietnamese believe that the soul of a person who had an unjust death, or was tortured before dying or starved to death will never be satisfied and will not reincarnate. It will just wander around.

Though more difficult to believe for rational Western minds, if there is a place to be haunted in Vietnam, it is Con Dao island, formerly known as Poulo Condore (island of squashes). Let’s have a look at some of the supposedly haunted places on the island. The aforementioned Ma Thi Lanh bridge, for instance, is an unfinished bridge in the middle of the jungle that the French wanted to use to build watchtowers along it. It was built by prisoners working in horrible conditions under the torrid tropical heat, with little food and water and no medicine against illness. 356 prisoners couldn’t resist it, died there of starvation, exhausted or victims of tropical diseases. According to some locals, their souls stayed there, wandering in the middle of the jungle.

Author: Rolf Bern Arnold
Author: Rolf Bern Arnold

Since the late nineteenth century Con Dao had been a penal colony where the French rulers sent political dissidents fighting for independence. There have been four prisons in a century and locals believe some are still haunted by the sufferings of their inmates. In some of them, such as Phu Tuong prison, the French, and later the Americans, used the so-called tiger cages for the most defiant prisoners. These were small 4 square meters concrete pits and each held about six prisoners who could only lie down. Steel grates covered the top of each pit and guards used to beat them from above. According to an account by journalist Bob Swartzel, “after months of internment, prisoners would lose the use of their legs, develop tuberculosis, gangrenous feet and life threatening dysentery”.

About 200.000 prisoners were overall incarcerated in Con Dao island and 20,000 of them died. Wether you  believe in ghosts or not, a quick look at the island’s history is scary enough. That said, you should visit and cycle in this Paradise that used to be hell not so long ago.

Bikes of war (II)

The_Vietnam_War,_1962_-_1975_CT212
American Soldiers instructed on how to neutralize bikers during the Vietnam War. Photo from the Imperial War Museum

Last week we saw the crucial role of bicycles during the independence war with the French and specially on the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu. As we know, there was almost no pause between this war and the one known as the Vietnam War in the West and the American War in Vietnam. And during that conflict, bikes also played a big role, although not as preeminent as in Dien Bien Phu.

The U.S. military were somehow aware of that, and despite the incredulity of some generals and Senators,  the Pentagon commissioned a report about this matter in 1965 to find the best way to counter them. The report seemed not to be good enough, though, with references to the use of bicycles in the past or in other Asian countries, but little information about their use during that war. The Americans ended up using the same tactics that made the French fail : bomb the routes. Their B-52 bombings were more powerful, but hardly more effective to neutralize the Vietnamese network of bike pushers along the Ho Chi Minh trail. According to Arnold Blumberg on Historynet.com,  more cyclists perished by tigers, elephants and bears than by bombs or bullets.

As the war progressed and North Vietnam got more help from the USSR and China, the trails improved and bicycles were gradually replaced by trucks, but they never completely disappeared from the scene. They were still more quiet, and more flexible to go to the difficult paths. Around 2,000 cyclists were engaged in moving supplies to areas of very difficult access along the trails, difficult to spot by American helicopters who were flying low to cut the supply routes. It may have been embarrassing for the most powerful army in the world to know that a simple army of bicycles could cause so much trouble.

Bikes of war (I)

P1070400Bicycle history is very rich in Vietnam. Until motorbikes expanded everywhere a few years ago, bicycles were the main transportation. And in a  country that has been haunted by so many wars in the last two centuries, it is not surprising that they played an important role in some of them. One of the most remembered battles in Vietnam history is the one in Dien Bien Phu, where general Giap earned worldwide respect for his military talent after defeating the French Army. Not that we want to diminish general Giap’s merits, but according to some historians, that victory would not have been possible without the help of bicycles.

According to researcher Dong Xuan Dong in an article published in the may-june issue of the magazine Vietnam Heritage, over 21,000 bicycles were mobilized during that battle. The bikes were used for logistics and most of the time the pushers couldn’t even ride them, since they were packed with goods for the fighters. At the beginning they could ‘only’ carry 80 kg, but they reinforced the frames and made it possible to carry between 200 and 300 kg. The official record was held by Mr Ma Van Than, who loaded his bike with 352 kg.

The Pack Bicycle Force, as it was called, was operating on more than 1,500 km of forest and rural paths where they could easily hide from the French troops. Each town had its caravan of Pack Bicycle Force, which were divided in smaller platoons of 30 to 40 bikes each. We can imagine how difficult it was to push them, but it made sense, since a single bike could bear at least five times the weight a man could carry, it could go in rough paths easily compared to motorized vehicles, they are not noisy, and they don’t consume fuel. They always carried spare parts and tools with them and at least one member of the platoon knew how to repair and weld the bikes.

No matter how hard the French tried to cut the supply routes with bombings, they never managed to stop those sturdy bikes and their brave pushers. As French journalist Jules Roy wrote in his book about the battle of Dien Bien Phu: “General Navarre (the French Commander in Indochina) was defeated by no one but the pack-bike pushers, who carried 200 to 320 kg each, who never had enough to eat, and who slept on a piece of nylon spread on the roadside”. After reading this, any ride with an unloaded bike in peaceful Vietnam should feel like a walk in the park.

Delta visitors enjoy festivals, history

Visiting the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta is a dream of many people including those abroad because they could enjoy virgin land in Ninh Thuan and fresh fruits, beautiful landscapes and cultural, historical sites in Ben Tre.

“My first trip is to Ben Tre Province (or the land of coconuts) because I learned about it a very long time ago but only through books and the internet. Now I want to see it with my own eyes to enjoy its beauty and landscape, as well as the cultural and historical sites,” said businessman Duong Quang Thieu, 45, who has returned home from the United States.

Thieu started his trip by visiting fruit gardens in Cho Lach and Chau Thanh districts.

Tour guide Tran Thi Ha said visitors can satisfy their curiosity by taking an exploratory stroll through the gardens while enjoying the taste of fresh fruit hand-picked from the low branches.

“The fruit are sold by kilogramme, or by the ‘belly’, a popular way to sell food in the Delta region similar to a buffet which allows you to eat until you are full for one price,” garden owner Huynh Van Sam said.

Thieu said he saw coconut everywhere but he preferred to eat Cai Mon durian, rambutan and mangosteen because of their unique flavours and freshness.

“You could come here to enjoy fresh fruit year round,” Sam said. Ha said eco-tourism excursions to fruit gardens are booming and drawing an increasing number of visitors, leading fruit garden owners in Cho Lach and Tan Phu to add special food services to their catering programmes.

Some of their special dishes include rice gruel, made with free-range chicken, ensuring the natural quality of meat, mussel rice gruel, and rice pancakes with mussels from Phu Da Islet in Cho Lach District.

“Visitors shouldn’t miss these specialities on their tour to Ben Tre,” said Ha.

Ben Tre also hosts three very interesting festivals, including the Nghinh Ong Festival, Nguyen Dinh Chieu Memorial Day (July 1) and Concerted Uprising Anniversary (January 17). Each has its own social and historical significance to the public life in the province, said Ha.

The Nghinh Ong (Whale Greeting) Festival, which takes place on the 15th and 16th days of the sixth lunar month in Binh Thang Commune, Binh Dai District, is the largest festival in the province. It is significant because it provides a forum for local fishermen to worship and celebrate the sacred merit of the Whale they regard as Ong – their saviour whenever they face mishaps and adversities on the high sea, fisherman Hoang Thuy told the guests.

During the festival, all fishing boats and fishermen, wherever they are at the moment, must completely stop their work and gather on the commune’s seashore. There, hundreds of local fishing boats and others from neighbouring localities such as Tra Vinh, Tien Giang and Can Gio in HCM City get together for the annual ritual offering, said Thuy.

For the ritual, participating boats are brilliantly decorated with lanterns and flowers. A tray of offerings including fruit, steamed glutinous rice, a pair of boiled ducks, a pig head and some other ritual items are placed on the prow of each boat.

On the first festival day, locals and travellers get together at the Ong Temple to pray for peace. On the second day, the main ceremony of the festival is held early in the morning, drawing the attention of all fishermen and people who depend on fishing for their livelihoods.

From the Ong Temple, the crowd of worshippers follows bonzes carrying ritual items onto boats made ready for the offshore rites. A boat of unicorn performers follows the lead boat which is in turn followed by a flotilla of hundreds of boats, all of which sail out to the high sea to perform the formal rites. Then, the bonzes are silent while waiting for Ong (the Whale) to surface, said Thuy.

“People here believe that the village will be lucky and happy for an entire year if Ong surfaces during the ritual. Then fireworks are set off to begin a rollicking time that lasts until the entire flotilla returns to shore. Here, the chief ceremonial bonze will lead the final rites at the temple in what is called the Forefather Celebration. At this time the bonze requests well-being for the village and a good fishing season,” he said.

Thieu said he was very interested in the festival and would bring his mother to return to participate in the next sacred festival.

After leaving the Ong Temple, Thieu and his group travelled to Nguyen Dinh Chieu Tomb in An Duc Commune, Ba Tri District, where the teacher-poet has been lying in rest for more than a hundred years.

After the south was liberated in 1975, Ben Tre, with support from the Government, upgraded the tomb into a memorial complex in a meaningful effort to celebrate and honour the great poet who devoted his entire life to supporting poor people in the rural community where he once lived and taught Confucianism.

Chieu held many roles. He was not only one of the great poets who used his poetic powers to fight the French invaders but also a whole-hearted Confucian teacher and physician in the late 19th century.

On leaving Chieu’s tomb, Ha led Thieu and his friends to visit the Concerted Uprising Memorial Complex in Dinh Thuy Commune, the breakout point of the movement, which was built to let later generations know of their homeland’s unyielding tradition of fighting foreign invasion in order to foster their patriotic spirit and nurture their national pride, Ha said.

The uprising movement was the first large-scale political and military action against the US-backed Sai Gon regime. The triumph of the Ben Tre uprising led to the establishment of the National Front for Liberation of South Viet Nam on December 20, 1960, said Ha. The complex covers 5,000 sq.m and includes a two-storey museum. A 12m-high model of a red flame made of reinforced concrete was built on the roof, representing the symbol of the Dong Khoi eternal flame in the land of coconuts. A grandiose exhibit of objects, dummies, images, charts and home-made weapons used during the uprising is on display in the house.

“The complex is currently one of Ben Tre’s most visited tourist sites. It was classified as a national historical site by the Ministry of Culture and Information in 1993,” said Ha.

The last leg of Thieu’s Ben Tre visit was the grand home of Huong Liem in Thanh Phu District’s Giong Luong, now Dai Dien Village, which was built in late 19th century. Liem paid his workers according to the volume of sawdust and wood shavings they produced.

Little more than a century later, his descendants are working with heritage managers to prevent the home from returning to dust.

The house is currently occupied by 76-year-old Huynh Ngoc Chat, who said there was no record of exactly when the mansion was built.

Local residents still remember stories of Huong Liem as one of the first people to settle in the area in the middle of the 19th century and begin cultivating the land.

Many other legends about the house are in circulation, such as how long it took the workers Huong Liem brought down from the north to build the house.

“When the workers first arrived here, my family invited them to eat in our home. The workers spat their orange seeds on the ground, and by the time the house was finished the orange trees were bearing fruit,” Chat said.

The home includes 48 thick ironwood columns, which, along with the beams and bars, were carved or inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Visitors to the house can see the everyday life of the turn of the century captured in the images on the roof tiles, while the walls bear landscapes and pictures of animals, said Chat.

One of the most unique features of the house is outside. The building has a square well lined with slabs of rock which provides more than enough water to meet the needs of dozens of local families year-round.

Despite the effects of war and time, the more than 100-year-old home still stands – but the elements have taken their toll.

“Whether or not the State contributes to the conservation of the building, my family is still responsible for maintaining the home of our ancestors,” Chat said.

“We aim to preserve the architectural heritage of this building for future generations, and honour the craftsmanship of our forebears.”

Thieu said he was really impressed about Ben Tre, saying he would invest in building a hotel complex in a lucrative tourism site in Cho Lach or Chau Thanh districts.

Tran Duy Phuong, deputy director of the Ben Tre Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said Ben Tre had passed master plans for tourism development until 2015 and 2020.

Under the plans, the province aims to develop its tourism potential: eco-tourism, cultural and historical tourism, and entertainment tourism while also encouraging community tourism.

“We will invest billions of dong to upgrade tourism sites in villages along rivers in Chau Thanh, My Thanh An and Giong Trom districts,” said Phuong, adding that his province was calling on business people to invest in constructing more quality hotels and restaurants to lure visitors while it takes care of promoting personnel training for tourism businesses.

In addition, Ben Tre has announced that it sees the importance of co-operating with HCM City and other Delta provinces such as Can Tho to develop a sustainable tourism market.

Ben Tre was expected to welcome 1.2-1.5 million visitors by 2020, said Phuong. — VNS

Crowd pleasers: Ben Tre Province is home to villages with green and bountiful coconut gardens, attracting both domestic and international visitors. — VNA/VNS Photo Vu Tin

Tasting the produce: The family of farmer Nguyen Viet Hai in Ben Tre Province has collaborated with the provincial Tourism Company to open their orchards to tourists. — VNA/VNS Photo Minh Quang

Birds in paradise: Bird yards are popular in Vam Ho District.

Blast from the past: An ancient house in Ben Tre Province has become a tourist attraction. — VNS Photos Giang Son

Gliding along: Sightseeing along the rivers and canals of Ben Tre Province has proved popular.