Riding down recent history lane

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Artisan Tran Van Hai in Lai Thieu Town, Binh Duong Province, rides his 70- year-old xe tho mo, No. 146

My memories of days when I was just seven years old, two decades go, are mostly hazy, but some things stand out.

One of them is travelling on a packed horse-drawn cart, irritated because there were so many people, but thrilled because I could sit with my legs dangling out in the air and have an open view of the surroundings we were passing through on all sides.

The memory is clear, but sometimes I have to pinch and ask myself it was true. My mother provides confirmation. Yes, it was true. It took about 20 minutes to travel about three kilometers and cost today's equivalent of VND3,000, she says.

Twenty years on, this form of public transportation has disappeared as though it had never existed, taken over by swarms of motorbikes and other vehicles. And amidst this sea of change, this ocean of noise that today's traffic brings us, is it possible to hear the tinkling of bells, the tip-tap of hooves and creaking of wheels?

Yes, if you really want to. In fact, you can even have one of the carts custom-made for yourself. In a heartening twist of fate, one man has kept alive the tradition of making the xe tho mo (horse-drawn carts), albeit driven by the demand for period pieces, mostly film makers.

Tran Van Hai in Binh Duong Province's Lai Thieu Town, 73 years old, has continued the family tradition. His father is believed to have been the first owner of the xe tho mo in the province.

Among the different kinds of horse-drawn carts in Vietnam that is believed to have debuted in the late 19th century, xe tho mo has drawn the most attention because of its origins, its simple aesthetics and convenience.

For nearly one century, the two-wheeled cart fulfilled its mission of transporting goods and people, becoming a cultural icon in the process.

Stories and information exchanged on these journeys eased the discomfort of the scorching sun and shortened the distance. Average trips usually cost approximately the price for a bowl of noodles.

Nguyen Thi Yen, vice director of the Binh Duong Museum, said she cannot forget the sounds of the xe tho mo rattling down the streets, their bells tinkling day and night when she decided to settle down in the province more than 20 years ago.

"I even paid money for a tour on the cart, together with other passengers, who were small traders and workers," Yen said, "I wanted to have the experience of having my feet hanging down, watching landscapes along the street, enjoying the cool wind from all sides."

"At first, five to six people didn't know each other, but since they sat so close that their backs leaned on one another, in a few minutes they were chatting as if they were friends, and by the end of the trip, they were more than a family."

Reel help

Tran Van Hai, known as Hai Sop (Generous Hai), is not just keeping the profession alive, he is keeping the cart in public consciousness, by taking his 70-year-old xe tho mo (No. 146) out on windy afternoons.

He has been greatly helped in his efforts by the film industry

A xe tho mo station in Saigon in the early 20th century

In 1990, he began his acting career (almost always as the coachman) with the French movie Nguoi tinh (The lover). Since then, he has been invited to play the role in Thoi tho au (Childhood) in 1995 by script writer Nguyen Quang Sang; Chan troi noi ay (That horizon, directed by Tran Vinh); Truong xua ky niem (Old school memories); Scent of the Green Papaya, and Nguoi Binh Xuyen (People of Binh Xuyen). He has also acted in the recently released TV serial Vo ngua troi nam (Southern horse step).

For Hai Sop, his acting career has value only because it supports his real vocation.

"I want to keep the cart for my descendants. I am not afraid of being poor, but if I quit, my offspring will have no chance to see this unique vehicle."

To realize his wish, the artisan bought all accessories for xe tho mo building from his colleagues when they quit the job. He said these accessories, especially the spring sets, made in France and imported to Vietnam, are very durable, but are no longer produced.

Hai Sop's concern as well as his efforts to revive the traditional vehicle has borne fruit. More people are going to him, to order his xe tho mo for special events like festivals and weddings. The requests to act in films along with this beloved vehicle also continue to pour in.

For Hai Sop, however, these achievements cannot compare to the real prize his two sons have decided to continue in their fathers' steps. His son, 42-year-old Tran Huu Chinh, sees the continuation as a given.

"Even my little son will continue his parents' job like me."

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