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Around Ben Tre

AROUND BEN TRE

Phoeneix Island

Until his imprisonment by the communist for his antigovernment activities and the consequent dispersion of his flock, the Coconut Monk (Ong Dao Dua) led a small community on Phoenix Island (Con Phung), a few kilometres from Mytho. In its heyday, the island was dominated by a fantastic open-air sanctuary (admission 10,000d) that looked a bit like a cross between a cheaply built copy of Disneyland and the Tiger Balm Gardens of Singapore. The dragon enwrapped columns and the multiplatformed tower, with its huge metal globe, must have once been brightly painted, but these days the whole place is fades, rickety and silent. Nevertheless, it’s good kitsch- check out the model of the Apollo rocket set among the Buddhist statues! With a bit of imagination, though, you can picture how it all must have appeared as the Coconut Monk presided over his congregation, flanked by elephant tusks and seated on a richly ornamented throne.

The Coconut Monk was so named, it is said, because he once ate only coconuts fr three years; others claim he only frank coconut juice and ate fresh young corn. Whatever the storym he was born Nguyen Thanh Nam in 1909, in what is now Ben Tre Province. He studied chemistry and physics in France at Lyon, Caen and Rouen from 1928 until 1935, when he returned to Vietnam, got married and had a daughter.

In 1945 the Coconut Monk left his family in order to pursue a monasti9c life. For three years he sat on a stone slab under a flagpole and meditated day and night. He was repeatedly imprisoned by successive South Vietnamese governments, Which were infuriated by his philosophy of achieving reunification through peaceful means. He died in 1990.

The Coconut Monk founded a religion, Tinh Do Cu Si, which was a mixture of Buddhism and Christianity. Representations of jesus and the Buddha appeared together, as did the Virgin Mary and eminent Buddhist women. He employed both the cross and Buddhist symbols. The plaques on the 3.5m-high porcelain jar tell all about him.

The Coconut Monk’s complex is visible from the car ferry that runs from near Mytho to Ben Tren Province.

It would be nice to think that money from admission tickets is going to maintain the place. But, apparently, this is not the case-the place is becoming increasingly dilapidated. As one traveller lamented

The Mytho police will not permit you to visit this island using a private boat, so you would have to hire a government one for at least US$30 in order to get here from Mytho. However, you can hire a private boat from Ben Tre province, which is just across the river.

Nguyen Dinh Chieu Temple

This temple is dedicated to Nguyen Dinh Chieu, a local scholar. It’s in the Ba Tri distric, about scholar, it’s in the Ba Tri district, about a 30-minute drive ( 36km) from Ben Tre. Its a very charming temple, excellent for photography

Bird Sanctuary

The locals make much of the storks that nest at the local bird sanctuary. San Chim Vam Ho ( tel: 858669, admission 10,000d), which is 38km from Ben Tre town. Ben Tre Tourist has speedboats that can make the round trip in about two hours, or slow boats that take about five hours. You can check the going rates at Ben Tre Tourist and compare them with what the freelance boat operators are charging.

To get there overland, follow Nguyen DinhC hieu east out of town for 20km to Giong Tram.Turn left onto the windy, rural dirt road leading to Trai Tu K – 20 ( prison K;200; you’ll reach the prison after travelling 11km ( you may see hundreds of prisoners out tilling the fields), and then turn right and drive the final 7km to Vam Ho

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