A SOJOURN IN THE DELTA
A RETURN TO ĐỒNG THÁP

To the Friends of the Mekong Group

[Foreword: this is only an excerpt from notes taken during a field trip to the Mekong Delta in December, 2017. Đồng Tháp was also the last leg of that trip].  

Reaching Cao Lãnh at almost midnight. The van driven by Sang was equipped with Wi-Fi so throughout the trip we were able to log on and use our iPhones, iPads. The following day, 12.12.2017, we woke up early to embark on our journey to Đồng Tháp Mười, via Gò Tháp.


Picture 1: The observation group to the Mekong Delta in 12.2017, from left: Ngô Thế Vinh, Lê Anh Tuấn PhD Research Institute for Climate Change UCT, Dương Văn Ni PhD Department of Natural Resources Management UCT, Phạm Phan Long P.E. Viet Ecology Foundation, Nguyễn Văn Hưng MD, Nguyễn Hữu Thiện MS Expert in Wetlands, Lê Phát Quới PhD Institute of Natural Resources and Environment - National University HCM City, and driver Sang.  


Picture 2: Gò Tháp with the archeological site Ốc Eo served as a base for the resistance group against the French led by Thiên Hộ Dương, nowadays it is a special national archeological site. (source: Gò Tháp, Nxb Văn Hoá - Văn Nghệ, Saigon 2016)

At the Đồng Tháp Mười lowlands, we were instantly reminded of the brief travelog Bảy Ngày Trong Đồng Tháp Mười authored by Nguyễn Hiến Lê. At the young age of 22, he graduated from the School of Public Works in Hanoi/ Trường Công Chánh Hà Nội in July of 1934. As a technician, he chose to go to the Mekong Delta in the South to do his survey works “navigating the canals from Hồng Ngự down to Thủ Thừa, from Cái Thia up to Mộc Hóa, at times walking for a whole week in a vast area overgrown with reeds for twenty or thirty kilometers without seeing a house or encountering a soul”. (Nguyễn Hiến Lê (1912 – 1984), was known as an educator, author, scholar, and translator. His works include over 100 books, compilations, translations covering a wide field of interest.)

The etymology of the name Đồng Tháp Mười, Plaine des Joncs or Đồng Cỏ Lát is varied: it can designate the place, near the Lớn River, where the tenth commemorative stupa for Thiên Hộ Dương was built from the time of the resistance against the French, or because the stupa has 10 steps, or as some people explain it is the tenth pagoda built by the Khmer during the reign of king Jayavarman VII.

Đồng Tháp Mười lies on the left bank of the Sông Tiền River, and consists of the three provinces of Tiền Giang, Đồng Tháp, Long An covering an area of approximately one million hectares if the region between the two rivers Vàm Cỏ Đông and Vàm Cỏ Tây is included, [Plus the 300.000 hectares in Svay Rieng in Cambodia]. A little over half a century ago, Đồng Tháp Mười was still a wilderness of large swamps, with leeches swarming in bands in the water while mosquitoes flew in cloud formations in the sky… nowadays, Đồng Tháp Mười has been completely transformed. People flock there in increasingly large numbers, the wilderness including the melaleuca forests is receding giving way to houses, orchards, and farmlands. When lands grow scarce and people more numerous, mother nature can no longer remain nurturing and the living no longer easy – gone are the leisurely “days of milk and honey”.

                    In the Đồng Tháp Mười sky, the storks freely fly,
                   In the Tháp Mười water, fish and shrimps sparkle under the light...

Long gone the traditional image of a Southern land with the six provinces in the Mekong Delta as pictured in Phạm Quỳnh’s Nam Phong Magazine as well as in poet Tản Đà’s Indochina Times/ Đông Pháp Thời Báo . The latter visited from the North and spared no words in his praise of the happy and easy-going way of life in the South where the rice is white, the water clear, the fields teeming with shrimps and fish. Today, those generous and hospitable Southern farmers must toil and moil in their fields to plant the high yield rice three crops a year to hopefully“eke out a living”. 

On this second field trip to Đồng Tháp, we cannot help thinking of the seawater Selachian, scientific name chondrichthyes, a cartilage fish caught by fishermen on the Tiền River, between the villages of Tân Mỹ and Tân Khánh Trung. The fish measured over 4 m long and 2 m wide and weighed almost 270 kg. It was also the first time the fishermen in the Mekong Delta caught such a big seawater fish on a river section so deep inland ten days prior to Christmas in 2000. (2)

VISIT TO GÒ THÁP IN THE ĐỒNG THÁP MƯỜI DEPRESSION

Đồng Tháp Mười and the Long Xuyên Quadrilateral are the two natural depressions in the Mekong Delta. According to the article " Vùng Đất Ngập Đồng Tháp Mười" written by Trần Ngươn Phiêu MD, the Đồng Tháp Mười depression is probably the old riverbed of the Mekong River that has since changed course to the present location. (3) The Tonle Sap Lake is another large depression known as “the heart of Cambodia”. Those three depressions are considered the three gigantic reservoirs that regulate the current level of the Mekong River downstream during both the Rainy Season and Dry Season. Unsustainable developments carried out by humans are destroying that millenniums-long harmonious natural regulating process in the Mekong River.

To come to Gò Tháp is to come to the largest bar in Đồng Tháp Mười. It is known as the land of "sen hồng / pink lotus" to the south east of the Tam Nông Bird Sanctuary, less than 100 km from Saigon. At that place you can find the archeological site of the Óc Eo culture of the Funan Kingdom that lasted from the II century BC to the XII centuryAD in the Mekong Delta. 

Through successive diggings at the site, an ancient construction complex was discovered along with two statues of Vishnu.  The entire location was dated to be from the II to the XII century and designated as "National Treasure”. Nearby grows the 100 year old Trôm tree also designated a Heritage Tree of Vietnam.

Trần Ngươn Phiêu MD observed: "The well-known archeologists the like of Etienne Aymonier and Henri Parmentier of the French School of the Far East / Viễn Đông Bác Cổ had visited Tháp Mười on many occasions. [The Mission archéologique permanente en Indo-Chine was established in 1898. It was officially replaced by the French School of the Far East / Trường Viễn Đông Bác Cổ on January 20 of 1900. The latter is a research center entrusted with the mission to carry out on-site archeological research on the French Indochinese peninsula.] Louis Malleret served as curator of the Saigon Museum, Director of the Viễn Đông Bác Cổ and the leading contributor to the study of Tháp Mười. In addition, he also authored the collection Le Delta du Mekong, whose 4th volume (Le Cisbassac) consists of a monograph of Đồng Tháp. L. Malleret was instrumental in the discovery of the ancient bricks at Tháp Mười now on display at the Saigon Museum." (3) 


Picture 3: Excavation of the statue of Vishnu at Gò Tháp Mười.
[source: collection of the Bảo tàng Đồng Tháp]


Picture 4: The ruins of the Shiva Temple at Gò Minh Sư: Gò Minh Sư, first excavated in 2009, consists of two adjacent semi square constructions. The large square in the west side measured 14.95m on each side and the smaller one in the east side 4.20m. At this site, acheologists retrieved a gold ring in the shape of a Sankha snail, the symbol of the Vishnu god; bronze bracelets; a fragment of a Yoni and especially a sacred gutter (Somasutra) – an indication that this is a Shiva Temple. Archeologists have determined that this is really a Shiva Temple, dated from the VI to the XII century. In 2012, a shelter was built over the site for protection. [Photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]


Picture 5: left: the Centennial  Trôm Tree - Sterculia foetida L., [source: Gò Tháp, Di tích Quốc gia Đặc biệt. Nxb Văn Hoá-Văn Nghệ, Saigon 2016].  right: a sign showing that it is a Vietnam Heritage Tree.


Picture 6: a legend has it that during his escape from the pursuing Tây Sơn troops, Nguyễn Ánh lost a sister at this place, she was very young at the time and the local inhabitants built a shrine in her memory. Her ancient grave called Hoàng Cô can still be seen nowadays. [Photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]   

In the second half of the XIX century (1862-1866), Thiên Hộ Dương / Võ Duy Dương used this place as a famous base for his resistance against the French. During 3 long years, in spite of their strenuous effort and casualties the French were unable to make inroad into the base held byThiên Hộ Dương and Đốc Binh Kiều in Đồng Tháp Mười. Besides the determined resistance put up by their opponents, the French expeditionary forces had to contend with the arduous conditions of the terrain. They dreaded having to slog through soggy swamps covered with reeds taller than their heads even during the Dry Season. In addition to the teeming horseleeches, swarming mosquitoes and gadflies, the place was cursed with humid weather and the scorching heat of a tropical sun close to the equator. Eventually, with the help of the two traitors Quản Tấn and huyện Lộc, the French-led Vietnamese troops were able for the first time to win the battle of the swamps. Admiral De Lagrandière considered it a huge political victory. (1)


Picture 7, left:  The Thiên Hộ Dương Temple is of recent construction [Photo by Ngô Thế Vinh], right: The statue of Thiên Hộ Dương [source: Gò Tháp, Di tích Quốc gia Đặc biệt. Nxb Văn Hoá-Văn Nghệ, Saigon 2016]

During the reign of Emperor Thiệu Trị (1841-1847) a stupa named Ngôi Tháp Cổ Tự stood on top of the mound. In 1956, during the First Republic, President Ngô Đình Diệm’s government moved it to the north to build a 36m ten-story observation tower "Viễn Vọng Đài" at the place in order to "observe the activities of the Revolutionary forces in Đồng Tháp Mười. In the early dawn of Jan 4, 1960, commandos of the 502 Battalion in Kiến Phong Province blew up the "Viễn Vọng Đài" leaving only debris lying all over the mound." [sic]

With an area of 300 hectares, Gò Tháp is not only the site of archeological excavation. It is also the place where annual festivals take place: the commemoration of Bà Chúa Xứ on the full moon in March and the anniversary of Thiên Hộ Dương and Đốc Binh Kiều on the full moon in November.


Picture 8, left: Viễn Vọng Đài also called Tháp Mười Tầng, was built by the government of the Republic of Vietnam under President Ngô Đình Diệm at Gò Tháp as an observation tower. [source: Gò Tháp, Di tích Quốc gia Đặc biệt. Nxb Văn Hoá-Văn Nghệ, Saigon 2016]. Right: the plate Di Tích Gò Tháp stated that on 01.04.1960 the Viễn Vọng Đài was blown up. Nevertheless, in the handwritten sign, above the poem “The people of Đồng Tháp are grateful to President Ngô Đình Diệm/ Toàn Dân Đồng Tháp ghi ơn Tổng thống Ngô Đình Diệm” the date is given as12.20.1959 [Photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]

THE ECOSYSTEM IN ĐỒNG THÁP MƯỜI

The main purpose of our trip was not tourism, we were mosty interested in the ecosystem of Đồng Tháp Mười. Our friends Nguyễn Hữu Thiện MS, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and expert in wetlands; Lê Anh Tuấn PhD, expert in Climate Change; and Lê Phát Quới PhD, Institute of Natural Resources and Environment, a native of Long An concurred that though Gò Tháp is not a deep depression like the Bird Sanctuary of Tam Nông / Tràm Chim Tam Nông it can be considered a miniature Đồng Tháp Mười. This place possesses all the latter’s ecosystem’s characteristics with the typical floristic composition of melaleuca forests, strabismus grasses, tapioca, and lotus ponds, bông điên điển / Sesban-River Bean, along with a very diverse variety of fauna like seasonal fish, shrimps, crabs, snails, turtles, eels, snakes and other fowls.


Picture 9, from left: Nguyễn Hữu Thiện MS, Lê Anh Tuấn PhD, Lê Phát Quới PhD, Dương Văn Ni PhD (pictured below), On this field trip to the Mekong Delta, we are fortunate to have ideal companions who are experts in various fields. They represent the “gray matters” who are doing their utmost to save the Mekong River and Mekong Delta as well as the entire region beyond. The remarkable thing is their voice is beginning to be heard. It was initially planned that Nguyễn Ngọc Đệ PhD, Department of Agriculture CTU would join our group but unfortunately he had to attend a conference on rice in Chiang Mai, Thailand. [Photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]

For millenniums, the 4,800 km long Mekong River that originates from the snow country Tibet meanders for about half of its length through Yunnan Province, China. From there it enters Thailand, Laos then Cambodia where it divides into four branches at Phnom Penh (The French call that location Quatre Bras / Four Arms): The first branch is the Upper Mekong or the main current flowing in from Laos, the second branch the Tonle Sap River that ends at the Tonle Sap Lake and the remaining two are the Lower Mekong River and the Bassac River renamed Sông Tiền and Sông Hậu respectively after they cross the border into Vietnam. (2)

The water level in the Mekong River is regulated by three huge water reservoirs: the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia with a capacity of 80 billion m3, the Mekong Delta including the Đồng Tháp Mười Depression with a capacity of 10 billion m3 and the quadrilateral Tứ Giác Long Xuyên with a capacity of 9.2 billion m3 [The quadrilateral Tứ Giác Long Xuyên is connected to the Takeo field in Cambodia hydrologically]. During the Rainy Season, the Mekong River’s current flow swells, the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia reverses course and flows into the Tonle Sap Lake causing its area to expand fivefold compared to the Dry Season.

As the two rivers Sông Tiền and Sông Hậu reach the Mekong Delta, their water levels rise then overflow the banks turning into a sheet flow – "flowing and remaining contained simultaneously / vừa chảy vừa chứa" covering the two gigantic natural depressions Đồng Tháp Mười and the Quadrilateral Tứ Giác Long Xuyên. Besides the overflowing water of the two rivers Sông Tiền and Sông Hậu, we must also take into account the water overflowing from the section of the Mekong River in Cambodia that crosses the border and covers the floodplains of Đồng Tháp Mười and the Quadrilateral Tứ Giác Long Xuyên in the Mekong Delta.

It is thanks to those three large reservoirs: one in Cambodia, two in the Mekong Delta Vietnam that, during the Rainy Season, the water levels in the Sông Tiền and Sông Hậu Rivers  only rise gradually in spite of their extremely high current flows of 36,000 m3/ second, at times even up to 39,000 m3/ second. As a result, the South is spared the destruction one often sees in the provinces of the North and Central regions of the country. The people in the Delta call this “The High Waters Season / Mùa Nước Nổi” and learn to coexist harmoniously with the floodwaters they consider as an asset. 

Going into the Dry Season, the Tonle Sap River reverses course [The Tonle Sap is the only river that flows in both directions depending on the seasons]; the current flowing out of the Tonle Sap Lake carries with it tons of fish to the Mekong Delta. At the same time, waters from the two reservoirs of Đồng Tháp Mười and Quadrilateral Tứ Giác Long Xuyên start to flow into the rivers for 2 to 4 consecutive months thus saving the fields from drought and salinization.

Unfortunately, that harmonious and extraordinary regulating process of the Mekong River’s ecosystem is facing many "human disasters": first from the gigantic hydroelectric dams built upstream the Mekong River, in China and now in Laos. Those dams not only retain the water but also prevent the alluvia from flowing downstream. What’s more, as the Tonle Sap Lake is being drained dry, its area is shrinking while the two mammoth reservoirs of Đồng Tháp Mười and the Quadrilateral of Tứ Giác Long Xuyên, with a combined capacity of almost 20 billion m3, suffer the same fate due to dikes building to produce three rice crops a year and expansion of housing developments.


Picture 10: The flood area in Cambodia and Mekong Delta[source: Akira Yamashita, Department of Environment and Natural Resources Management, Cần Thơ University, Vietnam]

In regard to the future of Đồng Tháp Mười, Nguyễn Hữu Thiện MS, expert in Wetlands offered this analysis:

"There is no problem with the dykes per se, but the real issue lies with the  “enclosure dikes” that do not let water flow into the fields so that the  farmers can have three consecutive crops per year. The ideal solution is to reduce it to only two in order for the floodwater to enter the fields, bring in the alluvia, fish, shrimps and rejuvenate the soil. But this is a difficult proposition because when the people have been living within the dikes for 25 years, their houses, tombs, orchards are all located in lowlands. So, it’s no longer possible to let the floodwater in. The fact is when the “enclosure dikes” were first introduced into Đồng Tháp Mười, the people liked it a lot. They had more income, a dry habitat, dikes they could use as convenient means of transportation, salted fish and water were still plentiful. Ten years later they found out their cultivation expenses began to rise because of the lower content of nutrients in the soil but it’s still OK. Fifteen years later the expenses grew higher still, the water became too polluted, the salted fish disappeared, but it’s still OK. Twenty years later, they had a problem. The cost of cultivation almost caught up with the revenues from the rice. A family of five working on a one-hectare rice field with three crops could no longer make a living (before that they could do fine with just two), they were forced to leave their homes and moved to Bình Dương or other cities to survive. Those who stayed behind faced a real dilemma. They wanted to let the floodwater with its alluvia flow in but could no longer do it. A ricefield enclosed by dykes like that usually covers an area of 100-500 hectares. It means between100-500 families are living in it. To let the alluvia flow into the fields, they need to carry out a “referendum” but could never muster an unanimous vote because the floodwater will damage the houses, tombs and orchards mentioned previously. A point of no return!"

In addition, Nguyễn Hữu Thiện MS pointed to concrete figures to elaborate:

"At the present time, at a number of enclosed fields, people adopt a policy of  “rotation flooding”  to discharge  floodwater into the fields. They do it every three years so that instead of having 9 harvests in three years, it was reduced to only 8 and on the 9th one they release the floodwater into the fields. With only a few inches of water released at the end of the season, you can reduce somewhat the toxicity in the soil but cannot bring in enough alluvia or fish eggs. The fish could not live in such a polluted environment anyway. Intensive farming is extremely harmful. People no longer dare to bathe or swim in the water. It makes them itch too much. In the countryside along the Mekong, people only use underground water. In this entire delta, we can count about 1 million dug wells from which about 2 million cubic meters are drawn per day to be used in industries, fisheries, daily uses, all kinds of things. Consequently, the delta is sinking ten times faster than the sea level is rising. What’s more, nowadays, the people are dependent on the income from three crops. If we eliminate one crop the people do not know what to do to make up for the lost income. So, even though they realize that it’s no longer realistic to have the third crop in the long run, to do away with it will require time. It must be done gradually not overnight. The solution to this problem must come from the government. The first thing to do is to redirect agriculture. We must stop pouring money in intensive farming and switch to cleaner agriculture instead, increase the value of agricultural products, promote job creation in processing industries before we can slowly reduce the number of crops.

The government has now come to grips with the problem. Recently a resolution is passed to move away from quantity and focus on quality of agricultural production. However, such a process will take 10 years to be fully implemented. In the meantime, if we can keep the area used for three crops a year unchanged then it’d be fine. We’ll deal with it as we move along."

It is difficult to imagine that, nowadays, only 2% of the "primeval area of Đồng Tháp Mười" still remains intact.  Irresponsible human activities in the two depressions of Đồng Tháp Mười and the Quadrilateral of Khu Tứ Giác Long Xuyên have resulted in the disappearance of the water reserve in the Mekong Delta during the Dry Season and the irreversible exhaustive exploitation of the ecosystem’s resources in Đồng Tháp Mười. 

The people in the Mekong Delta are paying the price for such destructive development. It’s almost impossible to restore the ecosystem of the Mekong River and Mekong Delta to its original state, but we must learn to put an end to those ill-advised activities to limit the damages and avoid inflicting further harms to the already tragic situation we face today.  The issue is how to make the farmers become conscious of the situation as well as making the government officials who come mostly from the North understand what sustainable development really means. To attain a harmonious development for the entire Mekong Delta, instead of an unplanned or localized one, we need a lot of patience to persuade people as well as a lot of time.

Of small built, Dương Văn Ni PhD is the perfect personification of a farmer whose legs have trampled countless alum-infested fields. He was separated from his family at the age of 9. During the Tết Offensive 1968, that small boy had to sell baguettes to survive. Through education he found his ticket out of poverty. With the knowledge he obtained from advanced universities [he holds a MS from the Philippinnes, then a Ph.D from England], Ni and his friends belong to the generation that comes after those of Professor Võ Tòng Xuân and the much older Professors Phạm Hoàng Hộ, Nguyễn Duy Xuân. In their efforts to preserve the natural resources, they have tried to reinvigorate the past and integrate it to the present. Ni, the young man, constantly cares for the living conditions of the farmers he once was.

Stopping by a lotus pond, Ni explained: "The lotus is a very common plant in Vietnam, particularly in the Đồng Tháp Mười region. People are familiar with its usefulness: the flower, seeds, heart, roots, leaves – can be used for various purposes or consumed as food; even the lotus stem, after you peel away the dark skin you can make it into a pickle very delicious and crunchy – tastier than the water spinach. Only the fibers from the lotus stems are not yet optimally used. However, a young entrepreneur from Saigon has recently explored the prospect of using it to produce silk for the market.


Picture 11:Lotus pond in full bloom in Đồng Tháp. [photo by Dương Văn Ni]


Picture 12: young lotus leaves used as wraps for fish salad, roasted lotus seeds (in lieu of roasted peanuts) are popular dishes to the people of Đồng Tháp. [Photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]


Picture 13, left: Dương Văn Ni PhD lauding the versatility of the flora in Đồng Tháp: from plants and trees used as traditional Vietnamese medicinal herbs that can be dried and boiled in earthern pots to make tea; to the usefulness of the lotus plant: the flower, seeds, heart, roost, stems, leaves can be turned into many products or consumed as food; even the lotus stems after you peel off the dark skin you can use them to make a pickle crunchier and tastier than the water spinach. Only the lotus fibers remain to be optimally exploited. Right: Phạm Phan Long P.E., Viet Ecology Foundation learning to extract fibers from a lotus stem. [Photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]


Picture 14, left: extremely smooth lotus fibers being extracted from a stem; right: a lady from Myanmar weaving lotus silk. [source: private collection Dương Văn Ni]  

According to Lê Anh Tuấn PhD, the special silk woven from lotus fibers is not something new to a number of countries in Southeast Asia. It is a traditional craft that dated centuries back in the Paw Khon Village, Myanmar. Silk made from fibers extracted from the lotus stem, though rare and expensive, is very sought after by tourists. The production cost of a scarf made of lotus silk is higher than that of  ordinary silk and can amount to as much as US$ 100. [vnexpress.net] (4)

A few years ago, 2009, a young French businessman Awen Delaval, started a fashion company trading in silk made from lotus fibers in Siem Reap Province where the Angkor complex is located. This handicraft involves a lot of manufacturing steps and is time intensive: to produce a meter of lotus silk requires about 15,000 lotus stems to spin 3,000m of lotus threads. Therefore, the production cost of lotus silk is quite high. A blouse made of lotus silk can bear a price tag of US$ 2,000, a skirt up to US$ 4,000. Yet the demand for them is soaring. Since the supply cannot meet the rising demand from the tourists, Awen Delaval’s company has acquired a 20-hectare farm to grow enough lotus stems to expand its production. [vtv.vn/kinh-te] (4)

There is plenty of lotus in Đồng Tháp, what is wanting are young venture capitalists willing to put up the fund to create jobs for the girls in Đồng Tháp, or the Mekong Delta in general. In that way, they wouldn’t have to move to the cities to look for jobs or marry Koreans and Taiwanese. The new trend is to marry the legal or illegal Chinese workers in Vietnam. Hopefully the Sinicization drama we witness in Tibet will not be replicated in the Mekong Delta during the coming decades. The Tibetans are now being reduced to minority status in their own country.

A VISIT WITH THE NEGLECTED STONES

Scattered among the dry leaves, under the tall trees’ canopy, the huge stone blocks looking like square columns will capture your attention. Võ Tấn Nghĩa the caretaker of the Bảo tồn Gò Tháp explained that the stones belong to the over than 1,500 year-old Funan culture. They were parts of a gate leading to the Shiva Shrine; during a big flood in the VII Century, the gate collapsed and the stones drifted to the present site. [sic]

Only after careful scrutinization can one discern the letters scratched on the face of the stones. They seemed to be of recent date – in the last century – but are now barely legible due to the erosion of acid rains and the work of time. Lê Phát Quới PhD tried to read and take photograph, with a zoom lense, of the poems scattered all over the surface of the stones. The couplets Quới read aloud that I could remember came from the poem Đồng Tháp Mười, with the date and name of the author unknown.

The mounts, the sea and I are still there
The mounts worn down, the water dried up –
but my love for country remains full.


Picture 15: As explained by Nghĩa, the caretaker of Bảo tồn Gò Tháp, this is one of the stones forming the gate leading to the Shiva Shrine of the more than 1,500 year-old Funan Culture. The gate collapsed during a great flood in the 7th century and the stone drifted to the site. The poems and chess boards chiseled on the stone only go back to the previous century. From right: Nghĩa- Gò Tháp, Lê Phát Quới PhD – Institute of Natural Resources and Environment - National University HCM City, Lê Anh Tuấn PhD – Research Institute for Climate Change CTU. [Photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]

ANOTHER POEM ON THE STONE, GÒ THÁP 1956

On the flat surface of another stone, I could not help being surprised reading the still legible phrase: The people of Đồng Tháp are grateful to President Ngô [Đình Diệm]/Toàn dân Đồng Tháp ghi ơn Ngô Tổng Thống. It is also the first line of a plain yet touching poem commemorating the visit to Đồng Tháp by President Ngô Đình Diệm on 7.13.1956 or the year of the Monkey.

Nghĩa the caretaker of Bảo tồn Gò Tháp, in his forties, is the typical stereotype of the kindhearted Southerner. At the time of President Ngô Đình Diệm’s visit, he was not born yet but he still talked about it as if it’s an ancient tale: "In July of 1956, Ngô Đình Diệm came to inaugurate a monument in Đồng Tháp Province, he sat here to play chess, ate a bowl of steamed corn, drank a glass of wine of friendship with the people of Đồng Tháp." [sic]     

We strained our eyes to read and guess but still could not decipher the whole poem. More than 60 years have passed already, under constant exposure to torrential rains and the humidity of the tropical heat, those blocks of sandstone are eroded by the march of time.

When we inquired about the poem we were told that it was not included in the book Gò Tháp (3) that was just republished. However, Nghĩa had typed and stored it in his computer. We asked for a copy and Nghĩa promised to send it to us afterward.

Three days later, before our departure from Saigon, Nghĩa Gò Tháp sent me a photo of the complete poem via email. Below is the poem in its entirety “Toàn Dân Đồng Tháp ghi ơn Tổng thống Ngô Đình Diệm / The people of Đồng Tháp are grateful to President Ngô Đình Diệm” carved on the stone.


Picture 16: The poem “Toàn dân Đồng Tháp ghi ơn Ngô Tổng Thống” was carved on a stone on July 13, 1956, the letters have since faded, not many people pay attention to it. It lies neglected but not destroyed – probably due to the gentle nature of the people in the South\. [Photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]

At the top of the poem, one can read these three handwritten lines:
“This is the copy recording the carvings on the stele at the ten-story tower the enemy built in 1956 and destroyed by us on the night of 12/20/1959.”



Picture 17: the poem “Toàn dân Đồng Tháp ghi ơn Ngô Tổng Thống”
[source: private collection of Nghĩa Gò Tháp]

The people of Đồng Tháp are grateful to President Ngô
Once in a thousand years, Ngô the patriot left his footprints
At this remote area he paid a visit to a departed patriot who has surely found his peace
Tổng Đốc Binh Kiều. Feeling at peace, let it be known, from immemorial time he remains immortal, he died for the country, he died for moral principles
After he (President Ngô) rendered honors to the departed, he called on the people,
The people of Đồng Tháp came to pay respect to a man facing many challenges
For love of country, he gave his life to the land.
At this location 7/13 in the year of the Monkey “1956 "
The President shared a meal with the people,
Sitting on the floor, by a bowl of sticky corn,
Bottle of glutinous –rice wine, showing his humanity vast and lofty.
Colonel Văn Là recorded the event,
Of the illustrious visitor (President Ngô) to Tháp Mười City,
In defense of country, he gave up his life, a unique hero,
Judging from old and new it’s exceptional,
At this place in Gò Tháp engraved in stone. 

Gò tháp July 14, Year of the Monkey, 1956.         
[A liberation soldier of Đồng Tháp who suffered and took pain to deliver others from suffering. Copied from a foundation stone at the ten-story Tower.]

A page of history has been turned, not pondering the issue of success or failure, in sorrowful regret that the South [Vietnam] and Asia have lost an “upstanding” statesman. 

NGÔ THẾ VINH
Đồng Tháp Mười 12.2017

Reference:

  1. Nguyễn Hiến Lê, Bảy ngày trong Đồng Tháp Mười. Nxb Nguyễn Hiến Lê, Saigon 1954

  2. Ngô Thế Vinh, Cửu Long Cạn Dòng Biển Đông Dậy Sóng. Nxb Văn Nghệ California 2000

  3. Trần Ngươn Phiêu. Vùng Đất Ngập Đồng Tháp Mười. Amarillo, Texas 2006. [source Ngô Thế Vinh]. Diễn Đàn Thế Kỷ 6.12.2010

  4. Gò Tháp, Di tích Quốc gia Đặc biệt. Nxb Văn Hoá-Văn Nghệ, Saigon 2016

  5. Lụa dệt từ sợi tơ sen khá phổ biến ở Myanmar và Cambodia: https://vnexpress.net/tin-tuc/thoi-su/nong-nghiep-sach/che-tao-do-thu-cong-tu-cay-trong-3599645-p4.html

    http://vtv.vn/kinh-te/doc-dao-lua-lam-tu-cuong-sen-tai-campuchia-20170709110311059.htm
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