Coconuts and Cultural Tourism: Exploring Ben Tre with VTV4

By: JK Hobson

I’ve been a resident of Saigon for a little over a year. Like many metropoleis, the hectic and frenzied energy of it has a way of sucking its denizens in. Often, our ways of viewing Vietnam become limited to Saigon’s many districts. (“What’s Vietnam like? Well, I live in Thao Dien, which is kinda like Brooklyn with more motorbikes!”)

Ben TreThai, the one of the cameramen for VTV4 snagging some footage of women bailing coconut fibre hay.

VTV4’s Vietnam Discovery Tours Ben Tre Province in Vietnam

I’m always looking for opportunities to get out of the insanity of the traffic and smog and to experience culture in Vietnam’s rural areas, so when I was invited to guest host VTV4’s travel show Vietnam Discovery I jumped at the chance.

The two filmed episodes would take us through the rural areas of Ben Tre Province, which I was slightly familiar with from the year that I had spent in the Mekong Delta. During the Vietnam Discovery filming, I was able to experience a different level of cultural immersion than I had while living there as I was invited into the rural areas and engaging with people living their everyday lives, rather than living in the city and visiting rural areas as a part of some tour or another. Just outside the city limits, I found a lush countryside brimming with scenic beauty and friendly local folks willing to share and engage in dialogue about their lifestyles in the Mekong Delta province.

Touring Ben TreVietnam’s Coconut Kingdom

Ben Tre is most well-known for the ubiquity of the coconut, which is why it’s widely understood to be Vietnam’s “Coconut Kingdom.” For local people in Ben Tre, the coconut trees have a special place in their culture and their economic development. The presence of coconut in Ben Tre even had an impact on religion in the province for a time. At one time a monk in Ben Tre a monk named Nguyễn Thành Nam was locally renowned for having legendarily founded his own religion centering around the coconut, sustained himself entirely on coconuts for over three years, and even had a presidential run in 1971.

Along both sides of the Ba Lai river, which runs between the districts of Mo Cay Bac and Mo Cay Nam, there are a seemingly endless number of coconut processing plants where coconuts are sorted, processed and exported.

Ben TreA woman in Phu Le VIllage proud of the water lilies she has gathered.

Over the generations, the people of Ben Tre have uncovered the versatility of the coconut and have become masters at turning it into hundreds of products. Coconuts are used to make candy, oil, milk and water among other comestible products. It is also used for skin care, hair care, fuel, and even musical instruments. (More on that later.)

While visiting the processing plants, you can see people hard at work, often with their bare hands, separating the coconut. Each part will be utilised in some form or another. The variety of ways in which Ben Tre’s most valuable resource has been employed reveals the resourcefulness of its people.

Ben TreAnother worker in the coconut processing plant. His daily workout regimen involves spinning coconut husks into fiber, which are later used to make rope and fishing nets.

While on the Thom River, which splits Mo Cay Bac and Mo Cay Nam, I met locals performing their daily duties. Some splitting coconuts from their husks, some extracting water, others separating the husk into a kind of hay used for constructing rope, and even for fire fuel. These processing plants line both sides of the river and run as far as the eye can see.

Ben TreThis husband and wife work hard every morning ripping coconuts out of their husks. They work side by side and in unison, radiating with the intense energy of a young couple in love.

Ben TreA brother and his twin sisters entertaining themselves in the coconut processing plant where their mom works. They were making some concoction of dirt, twigs, and other things they found around the plant. Impressive in this digital age where kids have iPads and still find themselves bored.

Meet the Local Artisans of Ben Tre Province in Vietnam

The local people have also learned how to repurpose the coconuts and the wood from coconut trees to make ingenious artwork. The coconut is an integral part of Ben Tre culture, so it’s not surprising that the local folks incorporate it into their craftsmanship.

Perhaps the most resourceful of all the people I came across on my travels in Ben Tre was a craftsman who went by the name of Ba Ba. In Ba Ba’s home, the living room looked like a music shop for string instruments. Lining the walls were all sorts of guitars, basses, as well as traditional Vietnamese instruments like the đàn tranh, and the one-stringed lute known as the đàn tỳ bà.

Ba Ba modeled his dan ba in the shape of Vietnam, complete with two arms that unfold revealing representations of the contested islands of Truong Sa and Hoang Sa, an epic show of patriotism. Ba Ba goes to bed at night thinking about his next project and still wakes up in the morning excited about completing it. Etched in his face is the serene look of a person who does what he loves.

Ben TreBa Ba about to put on a private concert using this electric guitar with a built-in microphone that he made using coconut wood.

Ben TreBa Ba's masterpiece, a đàn bầu in the shape of his beloved country.

Ben TreA sac bua singer in Ben Tre.

In Phu Le Village of Ba Tri district, I found an enclave of people that shared a deep interest in preserving cultural traditions. Among them, a woman who is a renowned sac bua singer.

Sac bua is a form of music recognized as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage that originates from Quang Ngai in the central province of Binh Dinh. Many people from that province moved South during the 18th century and brought this vocal tradition with them. The songs are a wish for peace and prosperity for listeners and are generally performed around the Tet holiday.

These are just a few of the people that I encountered on this adventure. It’s heartening to know that just a few hours outside of my home in busy Saigon there are places rich with scenic natural beauty and culture. I would advise a trip to the province of Ben Tre for anyone looking to get a sense of Vietnam’s vibrant artistry.

Ben TreThe slow pace of life in the rural areas of Ben Tre is such that it is not uncommon to share a smile with a stranger passing on the road.
I asked this woman if I could take her photo. She acquiesced and smiled brightly without hesitation.

Video source: Huỳnh Phan Tùng Kha

Image source: JK Hobson


What to do in Phu Yen, Tuy Hoa?

By: Bob Johnston

Phu Yen, Tuy Hoa…why bother

That’s the question however, the answer is getting easier with every year. Lonely Planet tells you to pass it by; most of the other guidebooks give it a small paragraph at best but say about the same thing. The ones that provide any information at all are telling you things which are six to ten years out of date at best.

Until last summer, when someone got off the bus or train here and found our place, the few visitors would ask ‘So, how many tourists do you normally get here?’ My pat answer was ‘Tourists here are like Bigfoot sightings in other places.’ Then, last spring, some Russians picked Tuy Hoa as a destination; since then (through no fault of the Ministry of Travel and Tourism) we seem to be getting more casual visitors to the area.

What Phu Yen, Tuy Hoa can offer

Tower in Phu YenThose looking for a highly charged night life will be sadly disappointed, it just ain’t here. There is one ‘disco’ operated by the same group who own the CenDelux hotel complex. It’s populated by a very small group of zombie-like young men most of the time. The same area is peppered with karaoke bars as is the rest of the town.

What we do offer is a dip into the real Vietnam with very short travel times to do so…we can offer relaxation and a severe lack of street peddlers. Chill time of the first order.

Miles of deserted beaches, short trip times will get you deep into the farming country or into the lush green of the local mountains. Tuy Hoa is a nice clean town to walk around in with friendly people where you will still find relaxed tourism. Trekking around or into the hills is relaxing, enjoyable and convenient. However, you won’t find many amenities so plan on bringing your own.

Also, you won’t find tourist information readily available. A simple thing like a local map with points of interest listed makes a showing once in a while then quickly becomes unavailable. The major points of interest (in the province) can be found by doing a quick search on-line; getting to most of them takes some work.

When to visit Phu Yen, Tuy Hoa

There is no hard and fast rule about ‘best time’; the best guess answer to that is normally April through the end of September, give or take a month on either end. It all depends on the weather patterns. Two years ago a Vnese friend announced that the monsoon season was over when the sun came out for a week in February; at the end of that week the sun went away and it rained for the next three weeks solid.

How to get to Phu Yen, Tuy Hoa

Located about half way between Nha Trang and Qui Nhon it’s about a two and a half hour trip by bus from either city. There is a local bus service from Qui Nhon which runs pretty much hourly seven days a week. Both north and southbound trains have this as a stop about 6 times a day and there is a ‘local’ which originates in Qui Nhon and runs south to Phan Rieng some days (they don’t really have that schedule nailed down yet).

By air, no problem. There’s a small plane going north or south once a day so you can arrive in the morning or mid-afternoon. The airport is a short taxi ride from town.

You can also find some tips for accommodation and food in Phu Yen, Tuy Hoa in my next article.


Other articles:

Top 5 things to do in Saigon

Top 5 things to do in Danang

Top 5 souvenirs to buy in Vietnam

Top 5 things to do in Quy Nhon

Top 5 dishes to try in Nha Trang

Top 5 things to do in Nha Trang

Top 5 dishes to eat in Hanoi

Top 5 places to go shopping in Ho Chi Minh City

Top 5 Che-sweet soups must try in Saigon



Ghenh Da Dia Phu Yen (The Sea Cliff of Stone Plates)

By: City Pass Guide

Video source: Du Lịch Quy Nhơn Bình Định

Banner Image source: ibb.co


Top things to do in Quy Nhon

By: Fabrice Turri

Relatively unknown and free of mass tourism, the coastal city of Quy Nhon (the capital of Binh Dinh province in central Vietnam) will seduce those who love to travel off the beaten tracks.

Called ‘Pulo Cambi’ by Portuguese Jesuits who settled there in the 1620s, its origins date back to 11th century Champa culture.

Quy Nhon is also known as the birthplace of the eighteenth Vietnamese Emperor, Nguyen Hue. The city experienced a major U.S. military presence and its hinterland was the scene of heavy fighting during the Vietnam War. However, only a half-buried U.S. tank (on the beach, south of the Lan Anh Hotel) reflects this dark parenthesis of history.

Quy Nhon made up the main port for all military forces in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region. Almost all the supplies for the area were unloaded from ships moored in the port before being transported by aircraft.

A large number of U.S. Army support units were also based in the city and its suburbs, including a field hospital and a large supply center.

Quy Nhon In 1975 the South Vietnam Navy evacuated its soldiers and some civilians before abandoning the strategic city of Nha Trang in May 1975, leaving North Vietnamese tanks and infantry to occupy nearly half of the territory of the Republic of South Vietnam.

Today, things have changed.

Quy Nhon has just begun to capitalize on its huge potential for tourism. At 42 km long, the coast is indeed ​​remarkable with its white sand beaches. Abundant seafood is served in local restaurants at a price that defies competition.

And if historical remnants aren’t Quy Nhon’s greatest strength, we must admit the city and its outskirts still contain some interesting sites worth visiting.

Quy NhonThe picturesque Queen’s Beach, in particular, deserves a visit.

Named in memory of last Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai’s wife, Queen’s Beach is accessible via An Duong Vuong Street, with your back to the peninsula.

On the way, a paved road leads to a ledge where you can see the tomb of famous Vietnamese writer Han Mac Tu, one of the great figures of Vietnamese literature. Further on, you’ll come to the famous beach where you can stop for refreshments.

Although not a good place for swimming, Queen’s Beach is interesting because of its many blue, egg-shaped, smooth stones superimposed on the small beach pummeled by waves. That is why Queen’s Beach is also called ‘Egg Stone Beach’.

Continuing on the road along the headland, you arrive at Qui Hoa Beach, very quiet and ideal for swimming. A hospital Leproserythat specialises in treating leprosy has been built nearby. In its charming garden, you can admire statues of famous French and Vietnamese doctors. Visitors are welcome.

Arguably the best spot for swimming is probably Bai Dai Beach, a beautiful stretch of white, fine sand.

Located on 13.5 hectares, Bai Dai Beach is frequented by few tourists. With a beautiful view of Cu Lao Xanh Island, Bai Dai remains quite wild. Activities available from the beach include kayak trips to neighboring islands.

The Cham towers of Banh It (20 km north of Quy Nhon, at the top of a hill that boasts panoramic views of the countryside) and those nearest to Thap Doi are remarkable for their sculptures. Despite their years, both sites are in good condition and worth visiting.

If you have time, you can also have a look at Long Khanh Pagoda, Quy Nhon’s main pagoda, built in the 18th century and famous for its 17-meter-high Buddha.

Practical Information:

- Binh Dinh Province is 1065 km from Hanoi and 680 km from Ho Chi Minh City. You can get to Binh Dinh by car, train or plane. Note that the train stops at Dieu Tri Train Station, about 10 km west of Quy Nhon.

- There is a VND 5000 admission fee to Queen Beach (plus an extra 2000 if you’re riding a motorcycle).

- You can go to the hospital that treats leprosy by turning left at the end of An Duong Vuong Street. The hospital entrance is well marked, a few hundred meters further down the road.


Other articles:

Top 5 things to do in Saigon

Top 5 things to do in Danang

Top 5 souvenirs to buy in Vietnam

Top 5 dishes to try in Nha Trang

Top 5 things to do in Nha Trang

Top 5 dishes to eat in Hanoi

Top 5 places to go shopping in Ho Chi Minh City

Top 5 Che-sweet soups must try in Saigon



Should Vietnam Rethink Tourism? Interview with Patrick Gaveau

By: Keely Burkey

The typical travel route for tourism in Vietnam is from the north to the south, and sometimes the other way around. How is this style of tourism killing Vietnam’s potential as a tourist destination?

I wouldn’t say it’s killing it, but certainly it’s restricting the potential for growth. For many travellers, in particular from Australia and other English-speaking markets, Vietnam is still very much seen as a “bucket list” destination, a once-in-a-lifetime trip not to be repeated. For some it is their first trip to Southeast Asia, though more often than not they’ve already travelled multiple times to what we call “fly and flop” beach destinations like Thailand and Bali.

travel in vietnamImage source: baohaiquan.vn

Though Vietnam has some very attractive beaches, it is seen more as a cultural travel experience and it struggles to compete with its more established, experienced neighbours. When the potential of new sites or areas is recognised, these are too often monopolised and destroyed by local interests.

What does the current tourist industry look like in Vietnam?

If you look at these source markets, you will see they are filled with competing general sales agents all offering what on the surface seem to be similar types of travel itineraries, and they are all fighting for a piece of the same pie. There are plenty of unique and specialist offerings out there, but these are primarily suited to niche interests and usually don’t receive the same sort of marketing attention. There are real costs associated with all forms of distribution, so products need to pay their way, so to speak, in terms of return on investment.

So, you think it’s primarily a marketing issue?

The issue around effectively marketing and promoting non-generic itineraries is there, but it’s further challenged by the limited knowledge of traditional travel agents. Many of them haven’t travelled to this part of the world, so they stick with what they know and trust, through a tried and tested product.

travel in vietnamImage source: baomoi.com

Familiarisation or educational trips invariably focus on the main highlights of the country through a north to south trip (or vice versa), so they just don’t have the confidence or knowledge to go beyond this.

Few tourists return to Vietnam for a second trip. Why do you think this is?

There are a host of reasons: the lack of an effective national tourism body to market the destination; the relatively high cost of travel; the cumbersome and expensive visa process; the over-development and pollution of natural attractions; the constant tourist rip-offs; substandard services and a flawed hotel rating system.

What other travel patterns or tours should be created to change this and to encourage more return trips to Vietnam, as it is in Thailand, for example?

There are probably only two main reason travellers would return: to visit an area not previously seen, or for a traditional beach-style long stay. Of the latter, we are seeing the emergence of Danang/Hoi An as a destination for repeat travellers (more so than Phu Quoc, though this is also increasing), though the percentages are still relatively small. This should continue to grow as infrastructure slowly improves.

travel in vietnamImage source: baotuyenquang.com.vn

As the number of hotels and resorts increases, so will the competitiveness of rates, along with an increase in international carriers adding direct routes to Vietnam.

How can travel agents help tourism in Vietnam grow sustainably?

They can market and develop a range of innovative packages specifically aimed at these returning travellers. These could include (but aren’t limited to): special city stays with unique inclusions, like going to the less-visited central highlands region. This could be easily combined with a Danang or Hoi An beach stay or a stay in the country’s far northwest, like Sapa, Mai Chau which are both easily accessible from Hanoi. Or you could have Mekong Delta overnight cruises as opposed to the commoditised day tours. This could also include the longer Mekong cruises, which have become so popular in recent years. All of this can be combined with the proper promotion of Vietnam’s best beach locations and advice on the best time to visit the various regions. These more often should be included in planned familiarisation or educational trips, ensuring that travel agents broaden their knowledge for use in the sales process.

travel in vietnamImage source: zone8.vn

Banner image source: dulich.dantri.com.vn

 


Is Tet Trung Thu still there ?

By: Quang Mai

“Why not? It is still there! Can’t you see all the mooncake boxes ready for gifts? Aren’t you going to the neighborhood with all the lanterns where children are asking their parents for the most beautiful festival stuff? Mooncake StallAnd surely you didn’t miss the preparations for the festival events for this weekend?” Yes, Vietnam is surely preparing to celebrate one of the most traditional and popular family holidays.


According to legend, Tet Trung Thu, Full moon Festival or Mid-autumn moon Festival is for parents to make up for lost time with their children after harvest season. Appropriately, this could be called the Children’s festival. With the harvest finished in September, parents turn their attention back to family life with an opportunity to show love and appreciation for their kid in the most charming and fanciful night of the year – the full moon night of August in lunar calendar. The festival brings the family back together, as well as to celebrate a successful harvest that has separated family members for at least 3 months.



Children’s festival


Baby with lanternIn the cities, the streets are still full of people celebrating the tradition of family bonding. During the festival, parents buy their children toys such as rattles, drums and lanterns at the lantern neighborhood. In the past glossy paper lanterns with tiny candles inside were common place as the traditional festival toy, more child-safe modern battery-run lanterns have become more popular.


Carrying beautiful lanterns while singing and parading along the streets is a tradition of Tet Trung Thu. Little boys and girls walk hand in hand along the streets and show the best of their lanterns to their friends. They may also enjoy hearing from elders the legend of Cuội, whose wife was jealous of the magical banyan tree which can cure illnesses. In a jealous rage, she desecrated the tree. The tree then unrooted itself and rose up until it finally reached the moon. Desperate to keep the tree, Cuội tried his best to pull it down but unfortunately was pulled up with the tree and left his wife lonely on the ground. Every year, during the Tet Trung Thu, children light lanterns and participate in a procession to show Cuội the way back to Earth.



Side activities during Tet Trung Thu


Lion Dance


In Vietnam, there are many traditional activities for both adults and children during the festival including lion dances performed by both trained professional groups and amateurs. Lion dance groups perform on the streets and go to houses asking for permission to perform for the people living there. If accepted by the hosts, the ‘lion’ will go in and start dancing to wish the household good luck and fortune. The Earth Lord, ‘OngDia’, dances around the dragon, urging it on. 'OngDia', who has a smiling moon-shaped face, represents the prosperity and wealth of the earth.


Gifting and tasting mooncakeswith relatives, friends and colleagues is an indispensable delicacy for this festival. Mooncakes are perfectly packaged in square box with red or gold theme to demonstrate prosperity and wealth.The cakes are filled with lotus seeds, ground beans and orange peels and have a bright egg yolk in the center to represent the moon.


Vietnamese parents tell their children fairy tales and serve mooncakes along with other special treats under the silvery moon. A favorite folklore tale is the story behind the mythical symbol, "Ca Hoa Rong" who was a carp that wanted to become a dragon. In the story, the carp worked harder and worked harder and eventually transformed itself into a dragon. Parents use this story to encourage their children to work hard so that they can become whatever they want to be.



Festive Events in 2012


In Hanoi, on September 28th and 29th, from 5:00 PM onward, West Lake Park will feature children musical shows with a special activity for kids to make mooncakes. The West Lake Water Park has also organized a special family event on September 30th.


Bao Son Paradise also organizes an outstanding performance with laser lights, fireworks with lots of well-known Hanoian co/medians.


Visit lantern neighborhood on Hàng Mã Street in Hanoi.


In Nha Trang, Vinpearl Land offers wide range of culutral activites for children such as lighting up lantern, parading around the playground and plenty of performances like dancing, singing, magical show, "nhảy sạp" (dance with bamboo poles) in 2 days 29th and 30th. From now, you can travel to Vinpearl Land and receive special mooncakes made by Vinpearl Luxury Đà Nẵng.


In HCMC, Saigon Sky Deck will display 200 lanterns in the “Lantern Galore” from September 23th – 29th


Visit lantern neighborhood on Lương Nhữ Học Street from now (please don’t take any pictures if you don’t intend to buy any products)


Not only locals, but also foreign tourists are warmly welcomed to join in this special festival. So come out and take part in the event, seeing children carrying the lanterns, eating cakes and receiving gifts of celebration during the Tet Trung Thu!


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