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Published: February 9th 2011
We saw a number of women sporting opera gloves in a variety of colors. I was never able to find out why
The red evening sun turned to burnished copper the woman rinsing her shampooed hair in the muddy brown water. A berg of brilliant-white soap bubbles drifted downstream with the current and broke into floes against the legs of the Water Buffalo standing beside her. An old woman presided over them on a rickety wooden pier cleaning fish for dinner. Welcome to the Mekong.
It is born of snow flakes falling in the Himalayas 4,900 Kilometers to the north. By the time the trickle reaches the Gulf of Thailand it has split into nine wide separate tributaries known to the Vietnamese as the ‘Cuu Long’ or the Nine Dragons. The Mekong drains over 300,000 square miles of land and passes through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong Delta produces over forty-percent of Vietnam’s food. Its depths are filled with fish and nutrients that sustain the fecund produce fields along the banks. It provides a highway by which food and construction materials are routed to their final destinations throughout southern Vietnam.
Karen and I accompanied our new friends, Dina and Zuby, on a three day tour of the Delta. Karen and I had done the same trip in
2008 and we were interested in seeing what had changed since our last visit through new eyes. We booked the trip through Delta Travel, one of the three tour companies that dominate the Mekong Delta tour business. The cost was $45 each and included all transport and hotels during the three day trip.
We traveled by bus to My Tho about 90-minute bus ride from Saigon. There we transferred to a boat which made a number of stops among the islands that lie just off the My Tho coast. Most of the stops are comprised of visits to candy factories and various fruit orchards. All in all it was as boring as it had been on our first visit. We got back to My Tho in the late afternoon and found ourselves packed into jump seats on a very crowded bus for the ride to Can Tho. There seemed to be a serious lack of coordination amongst the Delta tour guides as tourists shouted out various questions that were answered more often than not with shrugged shoulders and darting eyes.
We finally pulled into Can Tho at 7 PM. There was a bit of a muddle when the
Home and Boat
One of the many stilt homes in the Mekong River. The owners enclose the 'basement' of the structure with chicken wire and use the resulting space to raise fish. Most often; catfish, tilapia and bassa.
tour guides suddenly announced that the hotel management would require all guests to present a passport before any room keys would be given out. This fact was never disclosed when the tickets were sold and more than a few people, Zuby and Dina included, did not have a passport with them. Karen and I split off and secured two rooms, one of which we gave to our friends. The rooms were clean and had cable TV, fans and hot water bathrooms.
After a quick and much needed shower we regrouped and headed to Can Tho’s beautiful promenade which is lined with restaurants and presided over by a large silver statue of Uncle Ho. The street was crowded with Tet celebrating Vietnamese in an exuberant holiday mood. The trees were decorated with holiday lights and the food vendors were doing brisk business from their carts. We found a table in the Mekong Restaurant. A bright, airy eatery with an extensive menu of typical Delta fare. Besides beef, pork and chicken they also offered fish, goat, eel, rat, snake and field mice. How exactly does one prepare a field mouse I wondered. Not game enough for that particular game I settled
Chau Doc Happy
One of the many people supported by the tourist industry in the Mekong Delta. As a rule they are some of the most pleasant people you will ever meet.
on grilled goat. Karen ordered Tilapia, Zuby curried goat and Dina went for the Bassa which is a farm raised freshwater fish. Within minutes the table was groaning with platters of food, baguettes, rice and icy drinks. The total tab came to $22 US. I love this country!
In the morning we walked down to the pier and boarded a boat for the floating market. The Can Tho floating market is the largest in the Mekong. Junk barges sit at anchor riding low under their cargoes of fresh produce. Each barge seems to specialize in one particular fruit or vegetable. You can tell which by looking at the junk’s mast from which their offerings hang. We anchored here for an hour as a smaller boat came alongside and ferried those interested amongst the junks. I stayed aboard to enjoy the view. A small Sampan came alongside and sold me a cup of hot milk coffee (Café‘ Sua Nong). It was only the first in a convoy of vendors peddling everything from fresh cut fruit to noodle soup. Two reprobate teen-aged boys zigzagged around the junks in a small boat at high speed before braking alongside our craft to peddle
Cham Grave Yard
Located adjacent to the village Mosque.
fresh Pomellos (like a grapefruit but four times normal size). The boys wore heavy silver chains and Gucci T-shirts. Not able to find a buyer on our boat they sped away leaving screaming junk pilots in their wake. What’s the matter with kids today?
After pulling anchor our tour guide appeared to be at a loss for things to do as all of the regular attractions were closed for Tet. To kill time we found ourselves being marched around a local market and a Buddhist temple. The market was amazingly large and foul smelling and the vendors seemed to be inordinately surprised and happy to have us poking around their wares. Vietnamese in the Delta see very few Caucasians. The children used our presence as an opportunity to try out there English vocabulary which more often than not consisted of ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’ Their parents on the other hand spoke no English whatsoever and any sales they closed with us were only made possible by some very elaborate miming on our part. Asking for ice I pretended to shiver uncontrollably and received a drinking straw as reward for my performance. There is only so much I can
Houses in Cham
Typical homes along a canal bank. Note the television antennae.
The temple was small and operated by young Buddhist nuns. Their heads were close-shaven and their faces broad-featured. They looked decidedly Cambodian which is not far-fetched considering that the Mekong Delta was part of the Khmer empire until it was wrested from them by the more aggressive Vietnamese in the 1600’s. While they cooked their mid-day meal the tourist poked around the temple lighting incense sticks and banging what gongs were available. The day was hot so I went to a small drink shop outside the temple. A small boy sat on the shop floor watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon while his mother provided me with a warm 5,000 Dong (twenty-five cent) 7-Up. I drained it with a single pull.
When the dog and pony show was complete we boated back to Can Tho for lunch which means that the Delta tour guide abandoned us until 1:45 PM when the bus for Chau Doc was set to depart. We ate Pho (noodle soup) and spicy foods in a large, open, Vietnamese restaurant where we were greeted with Happy New Year salutations and low friendly murmurs from tables of beer drinking men.
Our bus left on
Cham Rice Paddy
Beautiful backdrop for Dina.
time and we were sure to be the first on it to preclude a repeat of the prior day’s jump seat torture. While the roads in Vietnam are paved they are also narrow and clogged with scooter traffic. Bus drivers lay on their horns incessantly, clearing a sonic pathway before them. Incredibly, you will get used to it but the first experience will cause splitting headaches. The bus horns and the scooter horns are an omnipresent backdrop to any ride in Vietnam. There are a myriad of canals bridged by short high-angled crossings that need to be navigated and each of these will send backseat passengers skyward with alarming regularity.
Halfway to Chau Doc we transferred to a large, comfortable Mekong Riverboat. Broad beamed and furnished with sofas, tables and comfortable armchairs. This was an unexpected surprise. Shortly after shoving off we were entranced by the passing scenery. Stilted houses in this part of the world are ramshackle affairs. Everything used in construction seems to have been salvaged from somewhere else. Brown thatched roofs cover corrugated sheet metal walls of uneven sizes painted with a bit of paint saved from the bottom of a can and mixed with another
Exiting A Cyclo
Zupy and Mike try to untangle themselves from one of the tiny bicycle cabs that serve as a primary form of transport in Chau Doc.
creating strange hues. Beneath the living spaces are open kitchens. Charcoal fires burned brightly as night descended on the Delta. Twisted hardwood poles are used to create ingenious levers with which home owners dip and raise large fish nets in their back yards. Above each home, a 40-foot mast supporting a television aerial. Periscopes on the outside world.
Crooked piers that jutted out from the river banks held children who waved to us wildly. Their ecstatic hellos were returned in kind. Their smiles beamed across the distance. Men gave their trusty buffaloes an evening bath while their women washed their long lustrous hair in the slow current. Long fields of beans were planted on bamboo A-frame supports tall enough to create cool meandering tunnels through which the pickers could walk, harvesting in the shade. Above us appeared a crescent moon with a bright star at its side. Junks passed us heading upriver. The pilots steered with large old-fashioned ships’ wheels in airy box-like bridges open to the breeze. Their wives resting in hammocks hanging behind their men. My gaze was torn from one beautiful scene to the next as the river carried us away. It was one of the
Chau Doc Market
Fish sellers squatting behind heaping cones of prepared fish dripping with oil and peppered with hot chillies.
most remarkable experiences that I have ever had on the road.
Docking in Chau Doc on the Cambodian border we found ourselves riding in Cyclos, two to a bike. Barely enough room for the smaller Vietnamese, it was for us, a huge hoot. We were abandoned by our guide at the hotel and foraged the streets for a meal. The people of Chau Doc are courteous, kind, gracious and devoid of any English speaking ability so bring a dictionary and a smile. The town rolls up the sidewalks at 9 PM so if you’re going to eat do it before then. We found a kindly gentleman who prepared some fine food for us. Zuby asked for his spicy. Within 5 minutes the owner had ridden his scooter to the market and returned with a small bowlful of hot chili peppers and a big smile. What’s not to like?
The next morning Karen and I hit the streets at 5. After a couple of invigorating milk coffees we followed our noses and checked out the local market. Huge platters of fish. Dried, oiled, fresh and pickled. Big and small and those in between. Proud stand operators placed each fish
Chau Doc Morning
The scene at 7 AM.
individually creating beautifully complex displays that attracted the eye without fail. Chau Doc could easily stand a two day visit. Unfortunately for us we had a mere 12 hours. After a short visit to a Muslim village called Cham we retraced our path to Saigon.
On the way we made a rest stop at a small town. The café’ had but a single toilet and everyone, I mean everyone wanted to avail themselves. I spied what looked to be another café’ across the street and walked in. There were 8 men drinking beer at a round table. When they saw me it was as if a group of scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had seen hard evidence of a carbon based life form on Mars. They were speechless. I had walked into a private home. It was a holiday party. I tried to back out gracefully but they all jumped up and started shaking my hand. I explained my mistake but they insisted that I use their facilities and wouldn‘t take no for an answer. In fact two of them walked me to the bathroom and waited outside the door chattering excitedly until I emerged. Smiling, they led
Waiting for their fares to finish photographing the fish farm.
me back to the table and asked me to drink with them. I explained that I was leaving on the bus and had to decline. It broke their hearts and truth be told; a bit of mine too. Stories of the Delta.
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