Going clippity clop in the Mekong Delta

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Tran Van Hong, 72, the first person to use horses for tourism purposes in Ben Tre Province's Chau Thanh District, rides his horse cart carrying a group of foreigners. Photo by Hoang Phuong

The main road between Tan Thach and Quoi Son communes in Ben Tre Province has been trod on by horses for the past 20 years.

As the only place in the country where one can still hear daily clops (after the only racetrack Phu Tho in Ho Chi Minh City was closed in 2011), the horsecart route of two kilometers has become an intrinsic part of the Mekong Delta tourism initerary.

They don’t look quite as fancy as those in Walt Disney fairy tales with wooden wheels and wooden carriages that are driven by well-dressed gentlemen.

Horsecarts in the province use rubber wheels to support an iron carriage that is open to the sky, and drivers are chubby women who smile very easily.

Nearly 50 horsecarts serve hundreds of visitors, mostly westerners and some Japanese, every day. The tourists  are brought here by travel agents in Ho Chi Minh City more than 80 kilometers away and usually offered a boat tour around many islets in the delta, or coconut candy factories, before the horse ride.

The horse-riding route runs along Chau Thanh District, through gardens of coconut palms that the province is also famous for.

The route has several potholes and crosses several bridges that have no barriers, which the foreigners find special, but they still ask the riders to step down and take the horses over the bridges slowly.

Locals say wooden carts were used a long time ago. They are more beautiful, but also more expensive. A wooden cart would cost more than VND30 million (US$1,425), ten times the price of the ones that they are using now. 

One Sunday morning in early January, they gathered from 6 a.m. onwards, although they said they usually receive their first customers a couple hours later.

Pham Kim Kham, a single mother, had the opportunity that day to serve a group of German tourists.

“Five of them will fill the cart,” she said, refering to their size, and quickly turned to greet her customers with cheerful hellos.

They ran nonstop until around 2 p.m. and Kham had nine rides, each for VND25,000.

“I only made that since it’s Sunday. It’s very slow on normal days,” she said.

As the horses rested, the owners set off to the fields to get grass for them.  

“Each horse prefers a different kind of grass and only its owner knows which one it is,” Kham said.

She said she’s devoted to her horse as she and her son depend on it to meet their daily life needs. 

“There are a lot of customers during the Tet (Lunar New Year) season. I am hoping to save money to paint the house’s walls.”

The biggest concern of those who ply this trade is choosing the right horse.

One rider, Bui Huu Tai, 30, who has been in the business for more than five years, said they prefer “normal ones” as racehorses are stronger but more difficult to handle.

Mares are more suitable for the job as they are gentle and can be tamed in one month, but they easily fall sick and sometimes have to take maternity leave, Tai said.

Stallions are strong but it’s hard to keep them in the line.

“Sometimes they run by a mare and pull the whole cart towards the mare,” he said.

The biggest crisis happens if the horse dies or sickness or in an accident. 

Tai said a dead horse is only bought at VND4-5 million, about a fifth of the price they paid for the animal. They buy most horses from Long An Province.

Tran Kim Chan, Kham’s mother, said horses are more sensitive to the climate than people and fall sick anytime it’s a bit too cold or hot.

“Anytime we sense changes in the weather, we will have to give them medicine in advance.”

This family has been involved with horsecarts for generations.

Kham said the job was passed down from the father of her great grandfather, long before it became a tourist attraction.

Her grandfather Tran Kim Hong was known as the horse riding “tycoon” in the area, and was the first one to use it for tourism purposes. 

Hong’s father rode horses from the early 1940s, and he started to travel along from second grade, dropping out after fifth grade to help with the business.

Hong can recognize if a horse is good or bad, or has been sick just by looking at one.

“A horse hoof is normally smooth, but after the animal is sick one time, it will look concaved. A fierce horse folds its ears and stirs its eyes when approached by strangers, while a horse that kicks tends to swings its tail at strangers.”

His experience tells him to choose a young one without those symptoms.

“I won’t take even a cheap offer if it is naughty.”

He was born in the Year of the Horse 72 years ago, but “I don’t want to leave the job yet,” he said.

With him out of action with a broken arm, 15 members of the family including his children and grandchildren are riding 13 horse carts.

Kham, 30, mastered the job early, but also started riding one for living from age 24 when she got married.

“But after a year, my husband probably could not stand the business anymore and he left me just when I was pregnant, and took with him everything (including the horse and the cart for sale),” she told Tuoi Tre.

She borrowed money to start anew.

Although their business is labeled an international service, the locals said it doesn’t pay quite well.

They were paid VND20,000 (around one US dollar) for a horse ride, and in 2009 asked the travel agents to raise it.

The payment is now VND25,000 a ride.

That doesn’t leave them much at the end of the day, as a horse eats VND50,000 worth of rice and grass a day.

“On a lucky day when I get four rides, I’d have VND50,000 left,” Hong said.

But he also said it at least guarantees income and saves them from the panicking about daily meals.

“If I run out of rice today, I just need to ride tomorrow to have some money. That’s why we don’t take a break even on the first day of Tet.”

Chan said payment for the job has changed little compared to the increasing rate of prices and wages in other jobs.

“When a horse ride cost VND20,000, a kilo of rice was nearly VND4,000. Now a kilo of rice is more than VND7,000 and a ride has been just VND25,000 for years.”

Chan said the horse ride price has remained the same from when a construction worker was paid VND50,000 a day. Now they get VND140,000, but a proportionate increase in the wages of horsecart riders does not seem to be on the cards.

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