"Where are you from"? My heart kind of sinks when I hear this question. So often it's just an opening gambit from someone who wants something from us. This time we were confronted by a man in a striped T-shirt, rummaging about in a small carrier bag. He fished out a little notebook and before I knew it, I was engaged in conversation. about homestays, boattrips, and bicycling tours. But I had a good feeling about Mr Lanh. His notebook contained several glowing reviews - all in squiggly, somewhat hard to read handwriting - but it just felt right. Jim and I looked at each other - knew we were both thinking the same thing - and agreed to give it a go.
He was waiting for us the next morning at 09.00. We hefted our rucksacks onto the boat, climbed over the promenade wall and jumped awkwardly down onto the wooden boards. The boat rocked and rolled, Mr Lanh took our hands, saying, 'careful, is difficult for you', and we managed to stay upright long enough to settle ourselves into cane chairs. We chugged along ever smaller waterways; water palms overhanging olive-green waters, long spear-like fronds dipping down to
meet the muddy brown stream. 'Apocalypse Now' country; rather menacing, but beautiful all the same. It seemed as if we were divorced from the rest of the world, suspended in dreamtime, a shadowy land of muted colours, and dulled sounds. I wanted it to go on forever.
Eventually, Mr Lanh steered to the shade where we were presented with big conical palm hats and bicycles. We were told to follow his sister, and off we went, like ducks in a row. She couldn't speak any English, but constantly looked over her shoulder and flashed a reassuring smile. Slowly we followed winding concrete paths through coconut palms, papaya, cherry, pomelo and mango trees. It felt like we were in the Garden of Eden. We came to a clearing. A palm-thatched roof provided shade for a couple of hammocks and she motioned us to sit, and disappeared. We never saw her again. A battered man with missing teeth and a tattered straw hat appeared amongst the trees. He placed a homemade ladder against a palm and swiftly cut two coconuts. The juice was warm from the sun, thin and sweet. Dogs ran around in the dust and chickens pecked at the
ground. A bold rooster helped himself to my coconut when I put it down for a moment. We lay and squinted up through the leaves of palm trees, empty of thought, completely content. After a while the man reappeared - 'we go', he said and we followed him to a rowboat. Strange this surrender to a succession of strangers, this step into the unknown, but surprisingly easy.
Mr. Lanh's brother-in-law (he of the battered appearance and toothless grin) handed us back to Mr. Lanh, who was waiting for us in front of his house. A cosy blue house facing onto a waterway. We were shown to his seven-year-old son's room. The walls were full of crayon scribbles and colourful drawings of palm trees, a game or two peaked out from a shelf and a couple of family photos graced a bureau which stood in the corner. There was a fan, a TV, and a matress on the ground. 'My wife cook lunch for you - ready in 30 minutes' Mr Lanh told us as he disappeared to talk with his brother-in-law. The food was fantastic, a real spread - tender beef in a rich spicy sauce, sweet and sour
Portrait On Wall.
An ecclectic array of images decorated the best room -Ho Chi Min, fat jolly Buddhas, and the tinsel outline of a Christmas tree.
vegetables, mini spring rolls, and deep-fried sweet potato - washed down with cold Saigon beer and bottled water. This was to be our best meal in the Delta.
After a lunch like that we needed to relax. Mr. Lanh went to town in search of new customers, and his wife read in the kitchen, sitting at the side of a portable hammock, rocking her sleeping son to and fro. The kitchen was small and bright, clean and colourful. There was no oven, just a two-ring gas burner. There was no sink, but an outside area for washing dishes and preparing food - a tap, a concrete floor, and an assortment of plastic bowls. A bathroom off to the left; the small washbasin surrounded by make-up, a mirror, combs, toothbrushes was crowded out into the kitchen.
The 'best' room was the room at the front of the house, facing onto the street. Beautiful, intricately carved heavy wooden furniture, inlaid with mother of pearl, displaying scenes of arching bridges, sweeping trees and graceful long-necked birds. The show-piece - a graceful but bulky wooden cupboard in the centre of the small room - commanded attention not only because of it's beauty,
but because it was the family altar. A faded, tinted photograph of Lanh's parents seated either side of an almost identical, but if anything even more elaborate cupboard perched between two huge candlesticks, an incense burner, a bottle of Black Label whiskey (still boxed) and a bunch of bananas. 'My parents number one', Lanh began, then corrected himself 'Buddha number one, then my parents. Every morning my wife and I pray here and offer our respect. This is pagoda'. He pointed to three small altars high on the wall above the cupboard. 'This Buddha, this altar for me, this altar for my wife'. Another altar on the ground at the side of the cupboard, was dedicated to the household gods. Blue and white porcelain tea cups, plastic flowers, cigarette butts pricked on the stubs of incense sticks, and a bunch of small green bananas fought for space with the deities - one with pot belly and the other two with long flowing white beards. 'Look', said Lanh, pointing to a black-and-white line drawing of a tiger hanging over the entrance 'because so many people died so horribly here, this is to keep their spirits away.' He told me that should
a bold bad spirit dare to cross the threshold, he would surely be turned back at the sight of the pagoda and would not enter the house. It was in this area that the war between the Vietcong and the South Vietnamese started, and later still it was bombed intensively by the Americans. Lanh lost four brothers and sisters one morning when his childhood home was destroyed (that 'idyllic' place where we'd lain in hammocks and sipped coconut juice). He was seven years old, and escaped the brunt of the blast because he was in the garden.
What a savage history this gentle countryside hides. In the evening we walked the lanes around the house to watch fireflies lighting up the trees - intense pinpricks of light, the spectacular fairy lights of nature. Like all good fairy stories, this one also alludes to the dark tragic side of human nature. Mr. Muoi Lanh
Tel: 0942 158 479/0126 253 8850
100 Ap An Thuan A,
Xa My Thanh An - TP. Ben Tre
Cost including boat, bicycle, lunch, dinner, breakfast, and 1 nights accomodation for 2 people $40.
Tot: 2.357s; Tpl: 0.047s; cc: 23; qc: 94; dbt: 0.0602s; 2; m:saturn w:www (184.108.40.206); sld: 3;
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