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!”)
Thai, 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 Tre—Vietnam’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.
A 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.
Another 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.
This 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.
A 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.
Ba Ba about to put on a private concert using this electric guitar with a built-in microphone that he made using coconut wood.
Ba Ba's masterpiece, a đàn bầu in the shape of his beloved country.
A 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.
The 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.