Welcome to Ben Tre
Ben Tre province has less natural advantages than other areas in Mekong delta because land is less fertile and location is isolated with main land. However, people here are not less hospitality and hard working than others. Ben Tre was also famous of iron and persistent will during Vietnam War. From last year, people here have been excited for new bridge as a figure of a new future. The Rach Mieu is the name of bridge that you were driving over before coming here.
Mekong River-General information
We are on one branch of mighty rive called Mekong river. In Vietnam, people don’t call it by “Mekong” name; we call “9 dragon rivers” because the river itself got 9 river mouths from 9 sub branches before going to sea. The number 9 also very good number can bring “great fortune” for residents who are living here. Actually, People are still difficult because many years of war has turned the country into poverty. Beside that, many years after war, the area is still under poor living conditions because it has got a very economic basis structure as well as low education and now there are more obvious information about the river such as tidal and how local uses river for daily livings.
Mekong starts from other countries, which countries are they? Tibet, China, Myanmar, Lao, Cambodia and finishes itself in Vietnam. From here both ways can to go to Eastern Sea (South China Sea) about 50km and 150 km to border of Vietnam and Cambodia. 20 Million Vietnamese people are living on the both sides of the Main River, sub-river, and big, medium and small canals. This is a tidal river, the water up and down twice a day and between 6 hours for its round, two metre high different between the highest and the lowest level of the river. The water level is highest in the full moon and water level is higher during the flood season from September to October.
Thanks to its tidal system, the river is very productive in term of fishing, farming and transportation. It gives a lot of benefits to the locals. Taking advantage of tidal system, people can catch fishes. In the low tide, they set up fishing net or trap with various forms, when water rises up and brings a lot fishes swimming along of river’s stream. People will catch fishes or crap, shrimp at the next low tide level. For the farmer, they also use tide of river to get water into their farms or rice fields. Flood also brings a lot of rich sediment and built up the delta every year. How about the transporter? Many cargo boats carry heavy stuffs such as sand, rice, cement are going along the current of water, transporter usually take advantage of water current power for saving fuel. On top of that, Basa-cat fish in Vietnam is famous and grows quickly because living in the strong current water of Mekong River.
As one of the popular industries in Mekong delta, brick factory. In the old time, Vietnamese used many natural materials for building house such as clay mud, timber and water palm leaves. Especially, Mekong’s got a friendly weather all year round, it rare to have strong storm or typhoon, people tended to make their house simple and temporary! However, until late of 19 century, French governors built palaces and houses which were more solid and strong and use to be made by cement and brick. Vietnamese quickly learnt from French techniques and gained more skills to make brick. With large of clay resources around Mekong and full of natural fuel such as rice husk, char coal and mud coal, local people have fulfilled demand of bricks in constructions.
There are many brick factories in Mekong in general and Ben Tre in particular. During state economic system, brick factory belonged to government but since 1990, most of brick factories are private own, this one is private own. There are 15 workers working in here and capacity of each kiln from 8000 to 12000 bricks. For the worker, there are 3 types of worker, from simple work to complicated work, simple worker is carry brick for drying and load and unload brick before and after heating, the worker also moving brick from factory to truck and they are paid by per day work. Skilled workers are people operate cutting machine and look after kiln during heating time. Brick is used for popular construction works such as building house, building, pavement and even house for animal for pig, chicken or cow. At the moment, there is great demand of new house built.
There are two popular types of brick called “gạch thẻ” – solid block about 20cm x 10 cm x 5 cm, it uses for foundation built, another type is “ gạch ống” brick with 4 holes for air-ventilation, this type uses for wall built because it’s thick and good for sound proof and temperature roof, from here, there are also 3 categories of quality for each type of brick depends on the colour of brick.
Where do people get raw material? Clay is mined from second layer of soil and could only get from particular of area of Mekong delta and other places just. Clay is transported from mine to factory by truck or boat. Natural clay should be used just few days after collecting because it will become harder and difficult to get clay formed. Clay is formed by machine running by electronic power. After brick are formed, they are moving to large ground for drying up to …5 days and move to covered house to get it dried slowly.
Brick kiln and it also built by bricks and brick uses to built kiln must be thicker and good quality. Some other areas use char coal or coal but however, rice husk is the best economic material especially in Mekong delta. A biggest rice bowl in Vietnam and the world!
Wet bricks are arranged by 4-5 workers inside and 4-5 workers outside brick kiln. Inside, bricks are arranged from ground to top and leave rooms for fire and smoke going through. Quality of brick depends on where brick are arranged and fired. There are 1200 bricks in one kiln like this. After 30 days of heating, worker will stop firing and leave it for 2-3 days for cooling down. The door is covered by special materials that consist of clay, sugar meld and water in order to keep it away from broken. Worker will make many holes at the top for heat exhortation. When they open the kiln completely, worker will move brick out and that needs 5-6 people. For 1000 brick, it cost about 800,000.Vietnam Dong and a worker can earn around 100,000 VND/day work
Ben Tre is well known as coconut island because it has a largest coconut growing area in Mekong delta. A thousand of people are living on 40,000 hectares of coconut tre,First is the farmer, who has land and grow coconut trees, they sell co coconut fruit to middle man. Second is basis processing workshop where we visit now, people separate coconut flesh from coconut and sell them to manufacturer. Third is coconut candy and many people working for making candy, most of processes are making by hand so it requires number of workers. Ben Tre hasn’t got a fertile land as other prince of Mekong. Soil is not good if famer grows other fruit trees such as mango or orange, that’s why, hundred years ago, farmer grows coconut for many generations; therefore they are most experience in growing this type of tree. Coconut tree grows up to 3 years before having fruits, root of the tree going very deep and large in land, and so can’t grow other type of tree. However, coconut fruit can be harvested all year round. From flowering time to fruit time it takes about 30 days and only some coconuts of one bunch could be picked at a time, people have to climb up the tree and pick by hand or they uses a long bamboo stick, they throw coconut into the irrigation water way so it not broken. Local also uses a string put around their legs so they can climb up easy but require strength. Coconut when it still green, the juice is sweet and refreshable, it’s got very highe nutrition and more than energy drink you have at home. However, when coconut become brown, lighter which we call ‘dry coconut” the flesh inside thicker, harder and the juice is sour, we don’t drink the coconut at this age instead we use the flesh to make coconut milk, oil from which we can make candy, cooking or perfume.
Coconut is sold to the workshop like this, where people open the soft shell to take fibber (xơ dừa). Fibber uses to make chair, mattress, sound roof wall or rope. After separating the soft shell, we open the hard shell by special knife with a hook, the coconut need to be chopped evenly and roundly with small techniques; you have to use your two fingers putting on “coconut eye” and just one strike only! Putting the juice into a can. Coconut juice uses to make coconut jelly.
On this side we can see how coconut flesh is separated from the hard shell and then, coconut flesh is moved to the house behind for cleaning and female worker slices off the brown thin layer to get the white meat only, coconut white meat is soaked into water again for washing off all dirt that finishes for sale product. What do they do with the hard shell? It’s also quite pricy for this part because it’s very good quality char coal; we use this char coal for any cooking that requires very good heating for example making candy. The brown stuff is sold to make fertiliser after getting all oil. If you make candy you don’t have to slice off this part. Now, going back to the coconut tree. There are several of coconut trees in coconut family. Some type of coconut for drink only with a smaller size and with different colour, green, yellow, red…etc. The juice is much sweeter and tastier than coconut for oil. However, coconut for drink requires more fertile soil such as in the middle of Mekong delta. Drinking coconut tree is shorter than oil coconut. Oil coconut tree is higher and the colour of fruits changes from green to brown and the size is bigger.
In here, people count coconut by “dozen” and a dozen not 10 coconuts but 12 coconuts. I don’t know how they count like that but it has been tradition for century or a good way to offer promotion in old days. In the market, a dozen cost at 120,000 Vietnam dong.
Besides buying half -processed product, sometime, many business people buying raw coconut for export and mostly they are Chinese at the moment. Price of coconut is up and down also and decides by the need of market and supply of the locals.
Vietnamese food are cooking with coconut milk is quite popular in Mekong. Local dishes such as pork meat cook with coconut milk, shrimp cook with coconut milk is delicious but coconut milk uses for making cake, sweet soup and candy is most popular. Coconut harvestmen is also some time good year but some time bad year, specially, Ben Tre has got 2 months water is brackish in Feb and March, if the brackish time is longer than 2 months and will affect on the crop, a side from that, insects also attack coconut make its leaf falling down and then the tree die out. Sometime, coconut are eaten by rat although it quite rare in the country side.
Mat weaving workshop
In the country side like here and the whole Mekong delta, Agriculture is the main income of local people, beside of main income from farm (rice, coconut or fruit), locals do have a lot free time in between and middle of the crop, therefore, locals try to do something to make money. Beside there, another reason is killing free time during because like you we also know “leisure time is the devil in the workshop”. But it seem only women uses their free time wisely and man uses their free time as devil such as drinking or gambling.
Here we are, This is a family has many years to earn their extra income by weaving mat. We call the owner Ant number six because she is number 7 in her family. In Mekong, we should call older person by number in order to show respect, only peers are called each other by names. There’s no number one in family, the eldest person is called number 2. She has doing this job in her free time with 2 other neighbors. They have been doing the job at the young age and expect to teach younger generation to keep family job.
Mat is weaving from sedge plant or some people call reed which is grown wildly in the brackish water low land. People cut and bring it home and then they dry them out under sun for few days. Mat is weaving by hand only. String has got from park of jute and also being dried. During the work they can talk everything from the villagers to children education. One day, one person can weave 6 double mats from early morning to afternoon and stop working at 4PM. There’s a middle man will come to house and buy mats from the maker. If you want to have a special mat such as thicker or different sizes, you have to order in advance. Mat is popular uses because Mekong is hot and humid. It’s not good to sleep with mattress either not good sleep on ground or floor. People usually sleep on wooden bed and covered with mat, as our custom, a new couple will sleep on mat which should be chosen by a good virtue relative in the family who has a happy life. Mat for new couple is colourful with design of dragon and phoenix. After weaving, mat is dry for half day before being storage for sale.
In summary, Ben Tre is particular place in Mekong delta, the area is still poorer than other provinces but it has many typical figures such as hard working people, traditional industries such as brick kiln, coconut workshop and mat weaving. Ben Tre is very peaceful today but it was a horrible place during the war.