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


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

 


Up with Hot-Air-Balloon in Phan Thiet

By: Quang Mai

Unless you have a great plan for this weekend, City Pass advices you to enjoy the first Vietnam International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta (VIHABF) 2012 in Phan Thiet City from August 29 to September 3.

Around 50 international balloonists from the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, U.K., U.S., China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and of course Vietnam will take part in the festival, performing in hot-air balloons in varied shapes and sizes. Many site-activities such as trade and tourism fair, musical show, performances of kite flying and parachutes, art shows and glowing night show will thrill you and your family and friends during weekend. At night, you will enjoy watching the splendid balloons decorated with lanterns as well as nice musical background.

According to Binh Thuan Department of Culture, Sport and Tourism, there will be nearly 300 accommodations establishments with more than 10,000 rooms and homestay supply available during the fiesta.

Local Insight: On September 1 evening, the city will host a street festival as well as a fireworks display on Vietnam National Day

 


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



Adding A Stroke of Art To City Pass Guide

By: City Pass Guide

Vietnam in new style of capture

Richie Fawcett

British sketch artist Richie Fawcett has been living and working in Vietnam for almost three years, but it’s only in this past year that he, and everyone around him, has begun taking his inherent drawing skills seriously. Richie initially ventured to Vietnam to open a variety of bars and restaurants – something he’s spent a fantastic 15 years doing around the world.

Richie soon realised, however, how lucky he was to be in a country where he was surrounded by a visual feast, a photographer’s dream.

As a professional photographer in London in the late 90s Richie had been searching for an alternative way to capture the essence of the street scenes that had always intrigued him. Using a camera seemed far too easy - there was no reason for him to stay in the same spot and analyse a scene for hours on end.

At that point, Richie drudged up his long lost, and virtually unknown, talent and begun sketching his favourite street scenes and cityscapes.

Richie’s time in Vietnam, especially living in central Saigon, is what reignited his interest in sketching. Being able to capture the vibrancy of the people and culture gave him renewed energy to physically realise the way in which people live and work in the rapidly changing urban landscape of Saigon. 

Another aspect that has motivated him to start sketching again, is his appreciation for history and the fact at Saigon, especially, is developing so quickly; many of the old historic buildings of central Saigon have been torn down to make way for new developments.

Although the sites of these developments are often left untouched for years, it’s prompted him to capture the life of the city’s old streets before they’re lost forever. A specific instance of this can be seen in Richie’s four original drawings of Ben Thanh Market  - North, South, East and West.

These were drawn because there is a building development opposite that will one day obstruct the view of the Museum of Fine Arts  – a favourite and, thus, a place in which he has spent countless hours exploring. In fact, he’s spent so much time in and around this building that the staff know him commonly as Waisee . There’s always an exchange of smiles, “Xin chao,” and, “Have a look at what I’m drawing today.

Richie Fawcett

Richie often gets the same reactions when people catch him drawing a scene: they’re either really excited, “Dep dep dep!” or they im/mediately stop talking, have a seat and stare for ages. It’s a brilliant, and yet disarming, way in which he connects with the community. His connection goes as far as the street sellers who actually stop hassling him after seeing him frequent the same spot hour after hour – they’ve even been known to stop working and sit next to him while he draws.

Richie’s sketches now take an average of 4 - 5 continuous hours. This may seem like a long time, but in the beginning they would take weeks, even months, of dedicated time going back and forth to the same spot each day. The result of this work is a collection of panoramic cityscapes in pencil, pen, ink and Chinese ink wash. 

His style of work begins with a skyline, and ends with the characterisation of the people in the landscape. He has a second small pocket sketchbook crammed full of countless individual characters going about their daily tasks.

Since beginning his sketching, Richie has already held a successful solo exhibition at Au Parc titled, ‘Carte Postale de Saigon’ . He has been interviewed for Tuoi Tre TV and has been on the national news, celebrated as a foreigner who appreciates and expresses Vietnamese culture in his own artistic manner. As a result of this exposure, he now has a following of private collectors.

It was on the night of his very first exhibition that he bumped into Patrick Gaveau of City Pass Guide, who happened to be getting a takeaway, but took away an instant interest in Richie’s artwork instead. They im/mediately set a date to meet. The rest, as they say, is history.

Richie went on his first trip to Hanoi during Tet where he managed to produce over 15 panoramic cityscapes in six days. Hanoi has left a fantastic impression on him, and he’ll soon be back to capture the plethora of scenes still available.

Richie Fawcett

He’s currently planning a travelling exhibition, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, exclusively featuring his signature panoramic cityscapes from both Saigon and Hanoi. It will feature both old and new meter-long sketches demonstrating the contrast between two astounding cities in an amazing country.

The exhibition will be shown in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, with dates to be confirmed; watch this space for updates.

In addition to numerous individual commissions from businesses and residencies, Richie is currently working on sketching the vibrancy of Vietnamese life for the 11th edition of the City Pass Guide and for their upcoming website and mobile applications.


He looks forward to continued collaborations with City Pass Guide, where he is able to showcase his work while providing invaluable pieces for the premium travel guide company. And to think, it’s all thanks to a takeaway and a chance meeting.

Authors & Editors: Richie Fawcett & Kendra Bernard

Richie Fawcett


Michelle Phan discovering her Vietnamese roots

By: City Pass Guide

Video source: Michelle Phan

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