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.