The heavy lifting that makes an uplifting experience possible

By Quynh Tran   March 8, 2019 | 05:00 pm GMT+7

Porters carry heavy loads to southern Vietnam’s tallest peak visited by millions of devout Buddhists every year.

The heavy lifting that makes an uplifting experience possible

The Ba Den (Madame Black) Mountain, 986m high, is the highest one in southern Vietnam. The major deity on the mountain is Linh Son Thanh Mau, and millions seek her blessings every year.

Serving the pilgrims, mostly unthanked and unnoticed, are a group of porters who carry heavy things, including big ice blocks and other goods to the shops on top of the mountain. Displaying incredible strength, they do this every day to make a living.

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The commodities carried up are mainly soft drinks, cooking oil, spices, ice cubes, rice, and other food items which are packed in boxes at the foot of the mountain first.

In order to place the boxes weighing nearly 50 kilograms on his shoulders, Tan, 45, from Tay Ninh Province, southeastern Vietnam, must place them on the stone stairs, sit at a lower height and bend his body to get the load on his back.

"I've been doing this job for more than a decade now, carrying heavy stuff everyday up the mountain. January is a month of almost non-stop work because this is the time to earn the most," Tan said.

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Nguyen Van Luan from Quang Binh Province, central Vietnam, places a small cushion on his neck on which other delivery men load the things he has to carry. Luan said that he carries 40-60kg each time, and is paid VND50,000 ($2.16) per trip by the shop owner.

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The road from the foot of the mountain to Ba Den temple is over 1,000 meters long, and has 1,580 steps. Many paths are steep and dangerous to walk, and carrying heavy weights makes it even more so, but the strong men risk their long-term health to earn a living, walking carefully and slowly, one step at a time.

"In the morning, when it is still not very sunny, it takes an hour to arrive at the top, but by noon, the pilgrims start coming, so each trip takes much longer. I have to take a couple of breaks, to regain my strength," said 54-year-old Bay.

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The porters say they difficult thing is carrying ice blocks, one of the most needed items for mountain vendors, who chop the blocks into smaller pieces to serve cold drinks. The blocks can be as heavy as 50kg each and are wrapped in rubber sheets to avoid rapid melting. The porters place a cushion on their necks when carrying the ice blocks as protection against the cold.

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In the midday sun, Nguyen Thanh Long, 47, is drenched in sweat on his third trip of the day, carrying ice blocks to a restaurant.

"I have been doing this job for 20 years now. When I was younger, a dozen trips would be normal, but now I get tired quickly," Long said.

This job requires great care. The heavy lifters must go slowly, step by step, and be very careful when the terrain gets tricky with jagged rocks.

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The lifter earns VND100,000 ($4.3) for each ice block delivery, which is significantly higher than other items. As soon as he gets to the temple, Vo Van Tinh, 26, cuts the ice for the restaurant owner. The Tay Ninh native man has being doing this for five years on Ba Den mountain.

"I'm still strong, so I try my best to work hard whenever the demand is high. If I work hard, I can earn up to a million dong every day ($43). But this job takes a physical toll. If you can’t handle it after a few days, you quit," said Tinh.

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At lunch break, the mountain delivery men take a short rest on hammocks before beginning the heavy lifting once again.

"Everyone has a personal relationship with the shop owners on the mountain, so they have to keep it up. If the shop runs out of items and stops selling, we lose our jobs. What I worry most is being unable to do my job when I’m sick, and fear of suffering from arthritis in my old age," said Tran Van Tri, one of the porters.

There are many legends about the deity worshipped on this mountain, but one of the most popular ones is that of a young woman named Ly Thi Thien Huong, daughter of a government official in the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). She was promised by her parents to a young academia who was also a martial arts master in the same village.

When he was away with the army fighting the enemy, Thien Huong was chased by men who wanted to rape her. From a cliff on the mountain, she jumped off to maintain her dignity. Her spirit appeared in black in the dream of a monk on the mountain.

The monk managed to find her body for conducting funeral rites and named her Ba Den. This woman is worshipped in the Dien Ba temple about halfway up the mountain. While pilgrims visit the mountain every day, the peak season is Tet, the Lunar New Year festival.

 
 
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