While wandering to explore new lands in the country, if you find yourself stopping by a lake of still, calm water, in the southwest, and are suddenly caught by pure eyes, hidden under a discreet veil,praying in a wooden doorway carved with finely Islamic rustic pattern… then you might be lost in Bung Binh Thien, where the Muslim Cham people have lived for hundreds of years. Their distinctions, unique cultural beliefs, daily life and traditions have been preserved to this day.
On my spring journey, floating a long way over hundreds of bridges, I came to bung Binh Thien on a cool afternoon. According to the local language, “bung” means “village”, Binh Thien spreads over a vast freshwater lake, with water from Binh Di River, a tributary of the Hau River located in three communes: An Khanh, Khanh Binh, Nhon Hoi of An Phu district, An Giang province. Because of the similarities with well-known tourist sites in Myanmar, we affectionately call it Inle lake of Vietnam.
One strange thing is that this dark red silt river can give an all-year-round clear blue lake and in the flooding season, no matter how high the external water is, the water level in the village remains stable. As of now, this is still a big question that scientists cannot answer. Binh Thien has become more and more and mystical with an interesting story. In the 18th century, when the Tay Son marched through this barren land, the soldiers were thirsty and exhausted. Then their new leader turned his face to the sky to pray and threw his sword into to the ground, where suddenly,a circuit of water sprouted into a stream, which spread around forming a vast blue lake. Today this is the largest natural freshwater lake in the southwest. What makes the soul of bung Binh Thien are the Muslims who chose to live here hundreds of years ago.
Walking on the small streets, looking at the roofs close together is a pleasant experience. Large Cathedral Mas Jid Khoy Ri Yah by the sacred pond is the place nurturing the spiritual life of the Cham community here. Before the ceremony, all the men come to the holy water, wash their faces and hands, adjust costumes then go into the church, face the west and celebrate the ceremony. The praying sound makes the silent space becomes more solemn and mysterious.
Outside, the bustling city life is swept away with the flow of Binh Di river; replaced by a peaceful space; on the village road,Muslim Cham girls walk gently, slightly bowing under the black veils, suddenly looking up, their curved lashes with black deep eyes on the innocent faces… bewildering the traveler as if he were lost in the holy land where an earthly man is not allowed.
The “Season of happiness” of the people here is the Feast of Ramadan – the most sacred and important ceremony of the Muslims in general and the Muslims in Binh Thien in particular. This is an opportunity for believers to repent together, to pray, to cultivate the spirit, the mood. During the fasting month, from dawn until sunset on the lake, all believers do not eat anything. This dogma reminds the believers to restrain the desire for material wealth, to sympathize with those who live in poverty, and to open their minds and hearts. Also during this fasting month, after the soly noon ceremony, the male worshipers gathers at the main mosque, cooking porridge together for the first TaLeh OK of the day, the idea of this is to show solidarity and unite the community together. At the heart of Ramadan is Roya ceremony Fit Ri, also known as the rice giving ceremony which takes place on the 30th day of the fasting month. All people, from the children to the elders all take part and gather at the mosque to pray together.
Through a month of fasting, everyone will understand, share and love each other more. Friends, parents, children, siblings shakes hands, hug and greet each other, asking for forgiveness for their mistakes. Ramadan is actually a traditional festival with profound humanistic qualities, making life of the community better.
It would be a major omission not to mention the cuisine of this strange land. Bung Binh Thien is also the first place to welcome the seasonal products. When the water rises,the yellow cork forests suddenly appear, thousands of lilies rise from the water, fish and shrimp also flock together. The products, in the skilled hands of the Muslim Cham girls will fascinate travelers. Fish sauce, fried fish cooked with tamarind, hot pot of fish with pork flower. The dusk falls on the old house, the owner and guests gathers together in a meal with “products given from the sky”: light sour of ngo sung with young shrimp, sweet pancakes of fish and prok flower, salty fish sauce…
Quietly rowing, walking along the lake in the dusk, hidden in the shimmering golden water, is a young Muslim Cham woman dancing the dance of “Thousand and One Nights”. By the sacred pond comes a voice singing, tormenting yet light as an intimate feeling full of memory. Bung on a sunny afternoon is like a world of illusion, so mystical that the traveler cannot help but to miss this land which is so far, yet so close to the heart.