Binh Duong's hidden charms

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The 52-meter long reclining Sakyamuni Buddha statue, the longest in Vietnam, at Hoi Khanh Pagoda

Two days in Binh Duong? That industrial place?

My friends were understandably skeptical when I said I'd spent that much time in the southern province neighboring Ho Chi Minh City.

Well, it does have well-known tourism spots as well, like the Ba Thien Hau Pagoda and the Dai Nam theme park, but I was after other "prey." And believe it or not, I felt the trip was too short, given the number of places in the province worth discovering.

My first stop was at the Hoi Khanh Pagoda in Thu Dau Mot Town. Originally built in 1741, the pagoda was destroyed by French troops in 1860. It was reconstructed by a monk named Chanh Dac in 1868.

Hoi Khanh Pagoda follows traditional southern architecture with a low roof and sophisticated carvings in its interiors.

Thich Hue Thong, the pagoda's abbot, told me that Hoi Khanh's treasures included a prayer-book carved in wood dating back to 1885 and three wood bas-reliefs: one featuring a dragon, unicorn, tortoise, and phoenix; another displaying the four seasons; and  one with nine dragons. The bas-reliefs were made when the pagoda was rebuilt in 1868.

The pagoda also houses the statues of Thap bat La Han (18 Arhats) and 10 Kings of Hell. Arhats are those who have attained enlightenment or Nirvana, the state of absolute freedom from worldly cravings and thus no longer subject to reincarnation. The Kings of Hell, meanwhile, are around to punish sinners and reward good persons after their death.

Just to spend a few minutes, hours or more, contemplating the Arhats and the relevance of what they attained makes the trip worthwhile.

The most prominent physical feature of the Hoi Khanh Pagoda is a 52-meter long statue of the reclining Buddha, the longest in Vietnam, on the roof of the pagoda's Buddhist school. Again, the Sakyamuni Buddha reminds us of the ephemeral, suffering-filled nature of life as we know it, most of the time.

In 1920, all statues of Hoi Khanh were exhibited in France.

Seventy-three years later, the pagoda was recognized as a national historical and cultural heritage monument by the then Ministry of Culture and Information.

There's more

Around three kilometers from the center of Thu Dau Mot Town is Phu Loi, a prison built in 1957 to house and torture Vietnamese opponents of the US-backed Saigon regime in south Vietnam. Some of the cells and the watch tower still exist today. In the center of the prison's yard is a bronze statue featuring a prisoner raising his hand to the sky in a powerful expression of never being daunted and never giving up. The 3.5-meter high statue was made by late sculptor Diep Minh Chau in 1995 when Binh Duong authorities restored the prison.

Next, I moved to the Bach Dang Isle in Tan Uyen District. The isle is home to a very impressive 150-year-old house belonging to Do Cao Thua. The 2,500 sq.m. house, built with doussie wood in the 19th century. The house boasts of traditional southern architecture, divided into two sections: the front has an altar and duilians in wooden carvings, while the rear is used as living space.

The Bach Dang Isle is well-known for its delicious pomelo, and visitors can visit several orchards and pick their own fruit.

Binh Duong is also home to many traditional trade villages that have retained their respective crafts, and these are always interesting sites to explore. I chose the Tuong Binh Hiep lacquer village in the namesake commune, also in Thu Dau Mot Town, as my next destination.

The village is home to around 1,000 families engaged in making lacquer products mainly for export to England, France, US, Germany, Japan, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. A special product of the village is images made with conch shells.

My next stop was an easy decision. The Tuong Binh Hiep Commune also hosts the Dai Hung clay jar factory, the oldest of its type in Binh Duong. The factory has used its kilns for more than 150 years to make water containers and flower pots to supply to the Mekong Delta region as well as Cambodia.

My trip to Binh Duong was done, I will be back because the province has more places to visit than its reputation as an industrial hub suggests.

Tourists can learn a lot about the province's ceramic industry by visiting one of three guild villages: Lai Thieu in Thuan An District, Tan Phuoc Khanh in Tan Uyen District, or Chanh Nghia in Thu Dau Mot Town.

The Chau Thoi Mountain, Dau Tieng Lake, Tan An Communal House, Phu Long Communal House, Lai Thieu Orchard and Thu Market are other places of interest in the province, and for the noveau riche, there is always the Song Be Golf Resort.

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