Heroes and Coconut Palms
While traveling through southern Vietnam, I was lucky to visit the town of Ben Tre during the 2010 Coconut Festival. I doubt that Ben Tre has ever been so festive. Passing over the Rach Mieu Bridge onto the island of Ben Tre, I was reminded of a popular Le Anh Xuan poem about the town on the far side of the bridge: “Ben Tre with pretty women and gentlemen, with green coconuts, silver water, country grass. Stopping by at noon, enjoying the shade, loving this coconut land. Ben tre! Ben Tre! I love your land. I love your people.”
As I passed through the town, I found myself on Dong Khoi Boulevard, which was full of colorful flags and bright flowers. Standing on the sidewalk, taking in the flutter of activity around me, I heard a sincere voice in a thick, southern accent ask, “Do you find my homeland beautiful?” A kindly man, who was a former soldier, offered to introduce me to his homeland.
His homeland – the land of coconut street – was beautifully green. Captivated, I was reminded of another verse by Le Anh Xuan, A soldier-poet who died in the war: “The coconut trees stand tall and proud. The green leaves wave gently.”
“It’s not a series of island any more,” said my guide, looking at the people gathered along Ham Luong Bridge, which connects Bao Island with Minh Island, both parts of Ben Tre. In 2009, two bridges were built – one connecting the two smaller islands to each other and the other connecting Ben Tre with the outside world. As my guide led me through the crowded streets, he explained the local history.
Ben Tre consists of three islands – An Hoa, Bao, and Minh. Fifty years ago, the islands became the home of the 1960’s Uprising Movement in which around 10,000 people from the Mo Cay district initiated a politically-motivated, armed struggle against a similar number of Vietnamese and American soldiers. The movement is believed to be one of the original attacks that initiated the Vietnam War. During the island’s hardest year, in the land of “a mountain of meat, river of blood, and unlimited sacrifice,” the Long-haired Army (an all-female group of soldiers) was formed. They became one of the most legendary armed forces of the 20th century. Under the direction of the heroic Nguyen Thi Dinh, the Army “marched in fire and attacked like a flood.” Their courage represented the people of Ben tre.
Ben Tre suffered a great deal during the war. Development came slowly to his area. Up until last year, the main access to the island was by boat. Now, standing on the longest bridge in Vietnam and looking towards ham Luong Island, I was so impressed by my guide’s homeland. He and his comrades had fought for every inch of this land.
“In the war, the coconut trees protected the guerillas, surrounded the enemy and were like a magic torch to light our way,” said my guide. Today, coconut trees are Ben Tre’s main agricultural products. The town has more than 70 enterprises that process products from coconut trees, including dried copra, coconut milk powder, coconut cream, coconut jelly, coconut sweets, coconut ladles, activated charcoal, and handicrafts.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Economics, Ben Tre and a Danish-funded project are working to create new markets for the products of Ben Tre. Partly thanks to this initiative, Ben Tre’s products are now exported to 103 countries worldwide.
As we walked and shared stories, I realized that Ben Tre is no longer a secluded island – it has been opened to the world. As the locals celebrated their heritage at the Coconut Festival, I could see hoe history had shaped the local’s characters. They are brave and determined, yet cheerful and friendly.
Later in the evening, I was moved to tears, touched by the thousands of candles that were put in the river to honor the region’s revolutionary martyrs. As 50 torches were lit, symbolizing the 50 days of the 1960’s Uprising Movement, I felt the bond that these people share. Heroic Mother Mrs. Ta Thi Hiep struck a wooden bell, its sound then echoed by the sounds of thousands of wooden bells to honor the Long-haired Army.
My gentle guide, the old soldier, is now the chairman of the Ben Tre People’s Committee. He stood before me, a simple and sincere guerilla, like a “coconut tree rooted in the soil.” As we shook hands and said goodbye, I thanked him for my tour and for sharing his story.
Later, when the chairman of the Ben Tre people’s Committee shook the hand of the festival’s organizer, Le Quy Duong, I overheard the chairman, say: “What a wonderful Festival!”
I couldn’t agree more! Thinking back on my time in Ben Tre, I recall another song by Ha Huy Ha: “Back here- come to forget all of life’s troubles. To love- love you very much, the coconut trees. The heaven, the earth and the people, Ben Tre.”
Tags: Ben Tre, coconut, Festival