On golden pond

A group of my friends from the US recently travelled to the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta, home to Tra Vinh's legendary Ba Om Pond. While there, they visited Ang Pagoda which people claim is the best vantage point from which to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the pond.

Fairyland: Ang Pagoda, a marvellous Khmer pagoda, welcomes a million visitors a year.

Located on the outskirts of Tra Vinh Town, the pagoda complex is a fortress that offers travellers an escape from the heat and dust of Road 52.

One of the group, Duong Quang Chan, an overseas Vietnamese businessman, who has lived in the US for years, was returning on this occasion to seek out business opportunities and said he was considering a tourism project in Tra Vinh, which also happened to be his grandmother's birthplace.

"As we arrived at the complex, we were amazed by the century-old trees. From a distance, their strange stumps looked like giant snakes heading for the sky," said Chan.

The soft whispering of the trees combined with the low murmur of Buddhist monks reciting the scriptures from a distant pagoda to create a blissful atmosphere for those wanting to meditate, he said.

A local photographer Huynh Van Hung said that a great flood may have swept through the area long time ago, shaping it and marking the old trees,

Sitting on a hammock strung between two old stumps, Hung said visitors often come here to enjoy the view of peaceful Ba Om Pond, famed for its pure water.

Hung said although visitors have their own camera they still ask him to photograph the view.

Tree-lined drive: The Ba Om Pond complex in the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh.

Ba Om Pond is called a square pond, but is actually 300m wide and 500m long. The pond is carpeted with water lilies and lotus flowers which bloom white and purple every summer.

The legendary pond was formed as a result of a bet between young ethnic Khmer men and women. The exact date is unknown but according to the elderly monks known by the Tra Vinh Khmer as Luc Masters, the pond was formed about 500 to 600 years ago.

Nguyen Thu Anh, a guide at the Tra Vinh Khmer Museum, said that long ago Khmer society was matriarchal. Young women had to find partners and present betrothal gifts to the bridegroom's family. This habit made the young men selfish and they asked for gifts of ever increasing value.

Tiring of this, leader of a women's group, a lady called Om, sought approval from officials in the region for men to do what women had been doing for centuries. The clever official asked the two groups to dig one pond each. They were to be a kilometre apart. Whoever finished first would be the winner and could ask the other group to do their bidding.

This decision would benefit the entire region, as two big ponds contained a great deal of water, which was much needed in the dry season.

In a story that mirrors the fable of the turtle and the rabbit, the group led by Om pretended that they was not up to the task and tried to shelter from the sunshine. Om responded by asking some of these lazy women to lure the men by holding a party to last all day and night.

While half of her group were busy with the men, the others lit torches and dig all night. Their pond was finished by the next morning and took her name. The unfinished men's pond can still be seen at the site of Pras Tropeang Pagoda.

There is another legend which states that the two are natural ponds and that both were there before the Khmer settled in Tra Vinh. Indeed, many Khmer people still use the name Srar Cu (twin ponds) when talking about the ponds. The name Ba Om (Lady Om) is also one way of pronouncing the name of the vegetable which grows naturally around the pond. The cows in the region love this vegetable, and their flesh is very tasty as a result. Visitors can try this special beef in food stores in the region.

The Ba Om Pond complex was recognised as a national historical-cultural relic in 1996. It is popular site for Khmer festivals, especially the Ok Om Bok, which takes place in the middle of the tenth lunar month. At that time, the Khmer of the entire Mekong Delta gather there to host traditional customs and games.

Dang Phuoc Tho, director of the Provincial Cultural Centre, said the festival was held for people to express thanks to the moon for good weather and a good harvest.

Last lunar month nearly 30,000 local and foreign visitors watched a boat race on the Ba Om Pond as part of this festival. The event attracted 500 boatmen from the province and eight boats competed over 700m and 1,500m.

The boats, called ghe ngo, are pirogues crafted from tree trunks. They have a curved head and tail and are managed by skilful boatmen.

On the night of the festival, family members gather before the communal pagoda or in their houses, preparing a feast with farm produce like green rice flakes which are the speciality of the Khmer people, ripe bananas, fresh coconuts and mangoes. These are all offered to the moon.

As the moon rises, the ceremony begins. Family members sit on the ground, hands clasped. An elderly man expresses the village's gratitude and recites prayers for continued good crops and good health.

After the ceremony, everyone joins hands and looks at the moon. They receive green rice flakes from the elderly man and make a wish. People then release paper lanterns into the sky and banana-tree rafts decorated with colourful lights and loaded with offerings are set adrift on the river.

Tran Hoang Be, director of the Tra Vinh Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said the province plans to invest billions of dong to expand the Ba Om Pond culture-tourism complex to 84ha. It will include a Khmer museum, a sports centre, a service-trade and a tourism centre.

The aim is to attract more visitors to the area by preserving and improving the site's original landscape, said Be.

The site welcomes millions of visitors every year.

(By Ha Nguyen)

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