Inside the Giant Beehive Kilns of the Mekong Delta

By Dave Fox
Binh My, Vietnam

Massive kilns blotch the landscape around the Mekong Delta. They rise up in clusters of other-worldly, beehive-shaped structures that churn out millions of bricks each year. A brick factory might not sound like a wildly cool place to visit on a Southeast Asian holiday – which is why few tourists do. But if you’re in the area, be bold and wander in for a peek. They offer a fascinating glimpse at a local industry.

I’ve checked out three such factories on various trips to Vietnam – most recently, earlier this week in the village of Binh My near the Cambodian border. On this visit, I got lucky. I happened to hit it on an afternoon when workers were loading bricks into a kiln. The Binh My factory, I discovered, is unusual in that the kilns are still loaded manually, rather than by conveyor belt.

Women and men lugged 40 one-kilogram bricks at a time on their backs up a precarious set of wooden ramps. (If you are metrically challenged, that’s 88 pounds of bricks per batch.) It was an assembly line process with about 20 workers bearing load after load. They moved fast, depositing a stack at the top of the pile, then shimmying past the people behind them and scooting down a ladder for their next round.

The kilns take a day to fill and hold around 150,000 bricks, the factory boss told me. The furnaces are stoked with rice husks that heat the kilns to 1,000 degrees Celsius and billow fragrant smoke that drifts over the nearby farmland. After five to seven days, the bricks are hardened and must then be left to cool for three more days before they can be removed and prepped for delivery.

The Binh My factory, the smallest I’ve visited, cranks out two batches of bricks each month. They sell their bricks around the region in southwestern Vietnam and across the border in Cambodia. Larger factories ship their bricks worldwide.

If you show up at a less bustling time than I did, when new bricks are drying and the kilns aren’t in use, you can step inside the giant structures and imagine the intense heat.

Mekong River boat rides and floating market visits are fun, but the brick factories offer a less touristy activity and an authentic look at local commerce.

Getting There

These are working factories, not tourist attractions, so many will let you take a look for free and they won’t herd you through a gift shop afterward. Watch your step and give factory workers a wide berth; safety standards might not be what you’re used to.

I’ve visited these factories with my friend, Phúc, who comes from the Mekong Delta. If you’re traveling on your own, ask at travel agencies about hiring a local guide to take you there. Or If you have your own transportation in the Delta – car, motorbike, or bicycle – just pick a random factory and peek inside. You might not find anyone who speaks English, but if you enter with a smile and gesture that you’d like to have a look around, chances are they’ll let you in.

The brick factory at Binh My is located on Highway 91, roughly 20 to 30 minutes east of Chau Doc (a popular spot for catching speed boats to Phnom Penh, Cambodia). If you’re in Vietnam but not traveling toward Cambodia, there are plenty of other factories in the Mekong Delta around Vinh Long and the Cai Be floating markets. You will likely not see Binh My’s “human conveyor belt” process at larger factories, but they are fascinating nonetheless and offer great photographic opportunities.

Check out the “human conveyor belt” for yourself! This one-minute YouTube video shows workers navigating the ramps into the brick kiln.

[youtube id=”OMxDJeT38xo”]

Sometimes, random places that don’t see tourists can be the most memorable things we visit. Have you ever wandered into a place not intended for tourists and found something fascinating? Share your stories in the “Comments” area below.

Published on Saturday, July 14, 2012

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