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Nostalgia for horse-drawn carriages
Wednesday,  2/6/2019, 08:32 

Nostalgia for horse-drawn carriages

By Song Anh

Horse-drawn carriages in my birthplace are no history, but memories of this means of transportation are still vivid in my mind

After more than 40 years, I have recently heard again the sound of horse hooves clip-clopping, of rattles worn by the horses echoing along the road on Thoi Son Island in Tien Giang Province in the Mekong Delta. Spick-and-span horse-drawn carriages take tourists on a leisure trip on which they feel peaceful and relaxed to temporarily forget all the hardships of life.

Childhood memories rush back like the footage of an old movie. Back then, in my hometown Giong Luong—now in Thanh Phu District, Ben Tre Province—I could catch sight of horse-drawn carriages everywhere. They took people to the market. They carried goods, rice paddy and straw. They were also used in funerals, weddings and other ceremonies.

Like others, my family had a carriage “handled” by my grandfather. He told me horse-drawn carriages had long existed in China. This means of transportation was pulled by one or two horses. Each of its wheels had 10-12 spokes made of valuable wood. Its body was usually made of rosewood, redwood or pyinkado, which became shinier the longer they were in use. Its curved hood that helped block sunlight and rainfall looked like an earthen grave, hence the name “tho mo” (literally, “earthen grave carriage”) in some localities. Later, the hood was removed from horse-drawn carriages in my birthplace so that they could carry more load.

I really miss the scene of horses eating grass or drinking water mixed with bran, when we young kids often plucked some hair from their tails and made a tool to fish mudskipper. Several decades have passed, but I still cannot explain two points. Why is ponytail hair so helpful in mudskipper fishing? And why do horses not sleep lying down like other animals? My grandfather told me when horses lie down, it means they are sick. Their memory is curiously excellent. They remember every path they once take, thus we Vietnamese have the saying ngua quen duong cu, literally “the horse is familiar with the beaten track,” meaning “to lapse back into one’s old ways.”

I terribly miss the Lunar New Year holidays of the past, when I often rode in my grandfather’s carriage, on our way to picking up passengers and taking them to the market from about two o’clock in the morning till the afternoon of the day after. The job was hard but hard work paid off. Lots of things were loaded into my grandfather’s carriage, like pots of marigold, sunflower and bougainvillea, pork, alcohol, and various kinds of cakes and fruits. Once, when we traveled down the road, it suddenly started pouring, soaking everything and everyone since the carriage had no hood. Another time, the leaf spring was suddenly broken, tossing all items out on the village road. My grandfather had to compensate for that accident, and as a result, my family had a less joyful Tet holiday that year.

When waiting for passengers and cargo, my grandfather often parked his carriage under a huge banyan in front of the village communal house. He covered the floorboard with a mat and told me to take a nap while he whispered many tales of the ancient times, charming, easy to remember, and hard to forget.

After each trip, I often “took care” of the horses by leading them around the yard before feeding them reed, candy-leaf and water mixed with bran. My grandfather and I constantly worked as chauffeurs until the Lunar New Year’s Eve every year. Our service resumed on the fourth, but only my grandfather undertook the job then since my siblings and I were still absorbed in the atmosphere of Tet holiday.

Today, horse-drawn carriages have practically vanished from my hometown due to the presence of a plenitude of passenger cars, trucks, taxicabs and cart bikes, which are both fast and convenient. This is inevitable. That said, each time I return to my hometown during Tet, I can’t help sorely missing the horse-drawn carriages of the old days, the sound of chauffeurs chanting when rushing the horses, the rattles cheerfully clanking and the horse hooves clip-clopping along the village road.

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