(No.7, Vol.4,Aug-Sep 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
Lighthouse on Ke Ga Island in the distance.
Photo: Hoang Trung Long
Ke ga Island.
Photo: Hoang Phuong
Ke Ga island is only seven ha big and just 500 metres from shore, but is quite famous, not only because it has a lighthouse that many think is the oldest in South-East Asia, but also because it has inspired many tour organizers to come up with attractive features such as raft rowing, rope skidding, and round asphalt-coated bamboo basket rowing.
Recently, for the first time, a Saigon tour company has successfully designed a tour, in which a team of tourists make a sail raft by themselves and sail to the island. I decided to have a small adventure.
From the spot nearest to Ke Ga, which is in Thuan Qui Commune, Ham Thuan Nam District, Binh Thuan Province, all 20 of us could see clearly the island with the lighthouse in the middle, which looks like a giant chimney that thrusts into the deep blue sky. We also saw along the coconut shaded beach some restaurants and hotels with boat rental service. Nevertheless, we chose a more thrilling means of getting to the island.
We divided into two teams to make a â€˜sail boatâ€™ out of tubes, bamboo splints, ropes and canvas that could carry 10 persons. With the guidance of the adventure tourism specialists, it took us only 15 minutes to get ready to sail.
The wind was high. The sail looked like the belly of a walking beer barrel. We, the oarsmen, lacked skill, and the raft kept turning its head. Little by little, my team managed to control the unruly sail. Halfway there, we hit a strong current and big waves, which made the raft bob like crazy. A tall wave sprang onto the raft and almost knocked us down. I was feeling the adventure now! Without the life guard boat in sight, it would be like wrestling with death.
After 20 minutes struggling with the waves, we set foot on the island, which is stunted but lively, due to the multitude of rocks of all shapes and sizes under a cloud of swallows.
The island today is scarcely covered by rare dry bushes, but historical records say that Ke Ga had a small creek running through a dense forest, rich with pheasants. So people called it the Khe Ga (Pheasant Creek) island, and then mispronounced it as Ke Ga.
To explore the island with a myriad of rocks carved by sea waves through thousands of years and an over a hundred-year-old lighthouse that stands proudly under high winds and a scorching sun, each of us had to pay a VND20,000 fee.
We were surprised to see two rows of old plumeria plants lining the path to the light house. The tree trunks were big and rough. â€˜There are 10 trees each row, planted by the French over 100 years ago, roughened by the sun and the salty winds, and age. â€˜They blossom all spring, and that is a sight to seeâ€™, light house chief Nguyen Van Sau said.
The tower base is an octagon; each side wall is 3m long and 1.6m thick, built with thousands of large granite rocks, laboriously cut. I felt as if I was standing next to an Egyptian pyramid.
According to Southern Maritime Safety Company, which takes care of Ke Ga light house, its height is 41m from the base. But some newspapers say that it is 35m tall.
Pointing to a little shrine blurred by incense, the almost 60-year-old â€˜island lordâ€™, as we teasingly called him, said, â€˜About 90 people died while building this lighthouse.â€™
Old records say that about 40 years after having colonized Vietnam, seeing that many ships and junks sank in the area around Ke Ga, the French decided to build this lighthouse. Designed by architect Chnavat, the light house construction began in February, 1897 and finished late in 1898.
Inside the tower, 184 spiralling stairs, lit by numerous windows on the side walls, lead to the top of the tower. Halfway up, sweating, my heart pounding in my ears, I thought those with heart diseases had to be careful when going up these stairs.
I leaned on the bannister. The fishing village Ke Ga gleamed behind, its shore full of fishing boats on one side. Beneath me, far down there, wave after wave lathered the rocks around the island. On the other side, infinitely far away, the sea and the sky mixed in a single blue misty mass. I felt so tiny.
The â€˜lord of the islandâ€™ lives in a two storey house with metre-thick walls, built by the French. 35 years living with the lighthouse, he had so much to tell about loneliness of life on islands, about the times when the â€˜eye of the seaâ€™ was shut in pitch dark nights, under raging storms.
On the way back, we put down the sail and rowed against the wind. The sensation was no less exciting than before.
Before all the adventures, we had enjoyed some nice cultural activities, courtesy of the guide.
After six hour drive from Saigon, we checked in to four-star Mom Da Chim Resort, on the beach of Tan Tien Commune, La Gi City, Binh Thuan Province. The next morning, we had some Yoga practice on the beach while the red sun slowly turned bright yellow on the dark blue sea.
After breakfast, we went to a very sacred place which attracts pilgrims from everywhere, a national â€˜heritage site of artistic architectureâ€™ just two kilometres from the resort. The temple is called the Palace of His and Her Magicality, built in 1879 in a desolate grove. There are stories full of myth and folklore elements related to a married couple of compassionate Taoists who possessed magical power. The 220 square metres building contained many external and internal delicate carvings. The temple keeper told us that the most special thing about the Palace is the set of four central pillars. They represent the utmost perfection of the ancient woodwork.
Not far from the temple, we stopped at a large pitahaya plantation. Thousands of red dragon fruits stood out on the lush green of the garden. The owner described to us the whole process from germinating, growing saplings and day-to-day care, to harvesting. He let us pluck and enjoy the best of his fruits right there in the garden.
After leaving the plantation, each with a big bag of dragon fruits, we were taken to an open-air food shop on the beach, looking toward Ke Ga Island. The wind was cool, the seafood was fresh, the cooking was great, and we had a generous refill of energy, ready for the rough ride to the island.