The Mekong Delta is stunning in its own way, with tranquil landscapes of big rivers and fruit gardens. But this land is also famous for its kind and down-to-earth local people. And one of the best is Di Tu Ha, the famous coconut lady in Ben Tre.
I spent some time with Onetrip on The Mekong Delta Tour, which gave me the chance to meet a memorable local lady who lives in a town that is just as special as she is. This is Ben Tre, a province in the Mekong Delta. This province has a famous nickname, “Kingdom of the Coconut”. With more than 67,000 hectares, Ben Tre is the biggest coconut plantation in Vietnam, and the coconut in this land is considered to be the most delicious in the country. Ben Tre is not only famous for its coconuts, but the local people are known for their hospitable nature in this province. They also mimic the land in which they inhabit; the locals are traditionally plain, straightforward, and humorous. Let’s find out more about the specialty of the local people through Di Tu Ha.
After sailing along the river, our boat landed in a coconut processing area. From a distance, it looked like a small house located on the river bank, surrounded by coconut trees. When I climbed ashore, Di Tu Ha welcomed me with a big smile. She instantly emanated a friendliness and happiness, open to share with me many things about her life. But first I would like to interpret her name before digging into what I learned. Di is the Vietnamese way to call a lady who is older than you (20 years older or more), Tu means fourth in Vietnamese (her birth order in the family), and Ha is her name. This is the traditional way to call somebody in Vietnam. By understanding the simple information expressed in a name, you can learn a lot about somebody. It makes it easier to skip the small talk.
Di Tu Ha started her story by recalling her past. “I started making coconut products six years ago. I was the first one in this area to work with coconut in this way. After that, the surrounding area rose in making coconut products. At that time, my factory was really large. But as time went by, this job does not bring me much profit like before, so I’ve downsized it since three years ago. Now, selling coconut products is just my part-time job.” And she’s right. The coconut business has slowed down since she first began. As a girl who grew up in this town, with a coconut garden too, I truly understand where she’s coming from.
“Why do you keep selling coconut products even though it may not be profitable like before?” I asked. And she answered as many people do in the Mekong Delta: “Mostly because I’ve found joy in it. And although it’s not profitable as before, it can help in one way or another,” she responded. Continuing the conversation, she revealed why she choose coconut products as her business, “Because I love coconuts. There are a lot of coconuts in, out, and nearby my house, so I just took advantage of it.”
Her main products are coconut oil, coconut caramel sauce, coconut candies, and coconut grilled paper. Her son and daughter-in-law sell coconut shells to manufacturers to produce activated carbon. It’s amazing how many products are only made from coconut.
When I asked Di Tu Ha about her favorite coconut product, I was a little surprised. “Mine is coconut oil. Whenever I cook it, the fragrant smell expands into the air,” she answered happily. Not many people use coconut oil to cook in Vietnam despite the abundance of coconut in the area. It is often used as lotion for the face, because of its delicate scent. As I looked around Di Tu Ha’s kitchen, it was not difficult to imagine the room filled with her special oil complementing traditional Vietnamese food.
She revealed her secret to me. “To make qualified coconut oil, you need to shave the meat of 15 coconuts, add hot and cold water, then squeeze the meat to extract the coconut cream. After that, you dry it under the sunshine for three hours. Pure coconut oil must be made from high-quality coconuts and when it’s done, it should be yellow with a pleasant smell. Moreover, when you break the coconuts to shave the meat, you have to do it instantly. If you leave the coconut until the next day, the meat will be sour and not retain its freshness.” After 25 years of living in Ben Tre, I finally know how to make coconut oil thanks to Di Tu Ha.
When I asked whether she got tired of making coconut products, I received a very consistent “no”. Sometimes, the love for our current job stems from the small things that surrounded us when we were children. Her hometown is surrounded by coconuts, she loves the strange round and hard fruit, and when she grew up, making coconut products became her occupation. These kinds of stories make me hopeful for the future. Nowadays, the young people are too confused by their cluttered lifestyle and find it hard to find their true job. Maybe they just need to return to their most simple memories of childhood, and they can find the job they were meant to do, like Di Tu Ha.
Nevertheless, every job has its own difficulties. Di Tu Ha said “If you are just a little bit careless when shaving or breaking the coconut, the sharp knife-edge can hurt you easily. One of my workers was hurt by the edge and had to get seven stitches. After that, we blunted all the equipment used by guests.” She showed us how to shave and break the coconut. Her skill is truly amazing, take it from a local. The coconut shells were cut quickly into a nice shape in a matter of minutes. Her hands moved swiftly but every move was extremely accurate. Only those who have many years of experience can do that.
After displaying her nimbleness and precise movements, Di Tu Ha retrieved a teapot, many kinds of jams and candies, and invited me to enjoy. We sipped a cup of tea and our story continued with her daily routine, “I wake up at four in the morning to work out for about 30 minutes. After that, I prepare sticky rice for making alcohol. Then I head to this coconut spot where we are sitting now to prepare for my Onetrip guests.” Her days start very early with no shortage of work. Local people in rural areas usually follow this lifestyle. It’s both healthy and effective for productivity.
Di Tu Ha also added, “This is the low season. In high season, there are a lot of guests here. During Tet holidays, I also make winter melon jam. The guests really like it.” I had to admit that the jams and candies were really tasty. Coconut jam, pumpkin jam, ginger jam, banana candy, and coconut candy were laid out on the table. The sweetness of her products combined with the bitterness of the tea created a great taste. Sipping a cup of tea, eating a piece of jam, feeling the cool wind, and observing the beautiful scenery of the river made me feel comfortable and peaceful.
At the end of the story, she let me know that she prefers Ben Tre over Saigon. “It’s more fun and comfortable in Ben Tre,” she said. And she wants to live happily with her grandchildren when she gets old. Her thoughts reflect the mindset of the local people in the Mekong Delta. A peaceful life and a happy family are enough.
Our meeting didn’t last long but I still remember her hospitality and plainness. She loves her job and finds her happiness when showing foreign friends the authentic Vietnamese lifestyle and culture. Di Tu Ha and other local people in the Mekong Delta actually makes every traveler setting foot on this land find the meaning in the daily life.
Di Tu Ha is a part of our Onetrip The Mekong Delta Tour. Book with us for a chance to meet her and other cool locals of this beautiful country.
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