Visitors are sure to be amazed when they enter the old housing complex called the Long Son Big House in the coastal city of Vung Tau in southern Ba Ria Vung Tau province. The rows of old sea view, tile-roofed wooden buildings leaning against a mountain give visitors a sense of walking around an old town or village. It can also be quite surprising to see people dressed in traditional Vietnamese costumes from olden times. The men wear long hair in a bun and don black blouses as they walk around barefoot, politely welcoming visitors and explaining the history of the old houses. It all looks something like the set of a film studio rather than part of a busy city like Vung Tau.
A century standing
The Long Son Big House relic, also known as Mr Tran’s Shrine, sits on an area of about 2 hectares in Long Son commune in Vung Tau, about 100 kilometres from HCMC. The relic was built in the early 20th century by Mr Tran, whose real name was Le Van Muu. He was born in Ha Tien town in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang but wartime dangers forced him to leave his homeland by boat with others and settle down in Long Son, which he turned it into a prosperous area. He became known as Mr Tran, with ‘Tran’ meaning ‘topless’, because he never wore a shirt. He also had his hair tied in a bun, always walked around barefoot, and worked hard all day.
Construction of the house began in 1910 and was completed in 1929, in the style of a housing complex popular in the old days. The different parts of the well-organised complex include a worship house, a school, a market, a boat house (one old boat remains), and five rows of houses for the poor to come and stay for free. They left when they could afford to buy their own house and then others took their places.
The most impressive structure is perhaps the worship house, because not only are there pictures and lacquered boards with meaningful expressions but also many pieces of wooden furniture with carvings, such as altars, sofas, tables and chairs, some of which are around 300 years old. Mr Tran spent his whole life collecting these significant pieces of furniture.
There are also pictures on wooden walls and doors with stories written in Chinese Vietnamese. One is the story Luc Van Tien by Do Chieu, a famous author in the Mekong Delta in the 19th century.
The housing complex is big but all pieces are clean as people spend time every day keeping it in good order. They work out of love and respect for the man who had the place established.
Mr Tran religion
Visitors will miss something important if they don’t get to know the interesting religion here, called Mr Tran religion. Only local people follow his words, and more than half of the residents of Long Son commune are followers.
When asked what Mr Tran religion is, they explain that it is simply a set of proper behaviour. He advised people to be respectful and grateful to their parents and support and help one another in the community. Although his teachings are not in written documents, his words have been passed down from generation to generation. The youngest generation here is the fifth.
On the anniversary of his death, on the 20th day of lunar February, and on ‘trung cuu’, or the ‘double nine’ day of the 9th of lunar September, local people organise a grand celebration that attracts thousands of visitors from around the country, especially from the Mekong Delta and the southeast. Local people are proud to commemorate his death anniversary and are pleased to welcome all visitors with free accommodation.
A rather strange custom can be found. All residents that follow Mr Tran’s teachings use the same coffin. According to his teachings, people live in the same place and sleep in the same beds, so they should be placed into the same coffin when they die. There is only one coffin at the housing complex. When a person dies, he or she is put into the coffin, which is then carried to the graveyard. The corpse is then taken out of the coffin and wrapped in a reed mat and placed in a grave. The coffin is then taken back to its place in the housing complex to be used for the next person.
After walking around for around an hour and hearing different stories about Mr Tran’s life and teachings, I could see that his words are still strictly followed and there remains much admiration and respect for the man.
Entry to the relic is free. Visitors can also enjoy cups of tea, jam and fruit offered by local residents. If they would like a vegetarian meal they can tell the reception desk and the meal will be served for free. The food and fruit are provided by different people from different places, presented as offerings to Mr Tran. If visitors would like to take a rest, they can sit or lie down on one of a dozen wooden beds with pillows that are always kept available.