Je descends du car. Je vais au bastingage. Je regarde le fleuve. Ma mère me dit quelquefois que jamais, de ma vie entière, je ne reverrai des fleuves aussi beaux que ceux-là, aussi grands, aussi sauvages, le Mékong et ses bras qui descendent vers les océans, ces territoires d’eau qui vont aller disparaître dans les cavités des océans. Dans la platitude à perte de vue, ces fleuves, ils vont vite, ils versent comme si la terre penchait.
I get out of the bus. I go to the railing. I look at the river. My mother tells me sometimes that never again in my life will I ever see rivers as beautiful as these, as big, as wild, the Mekong and its tributaries that go down to the ocean, these territories of water that soon disappear in the caves of the ocean. In the flatness that stretches as far as the eye can see, these rivers, they go fast, they pour past as though the earth were tilted.
A few days before Bê’s wedding, we decided to take an overnight trip down to the Mekong Delta, which spreads across the area called the Western Provinces. The river itself (apparently this Thai-Lao name is a combination of mae [mother] and khong [derived from the Sanskrit ganga, "the Ganges"]) flows from China, through Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, and across southwest Vietnam into the South China Sea. The Vietnamese call it Cửu Long: “Nine Dragons” moving out to their ancient home, the ocean.
Our bus left from Saigon’s Whiteyville for Bến Tre at about 8 am. The highways in Vietnam are still slow, since the speed limit is only 60 KPH. Poorly maintained, they connect only a few cities, and once you get anywhere near a large town you have to take the local roads, which are, as we’ve shown, choked with motorcycles. So it took a few hours to reach our destination, despite its being only 90 km away.
As we traveled southwest, the landscape was immediately dominated by slow rivers and rice paddies. Our bus was constantly crossing a waterway, usually a large one. Just across from the Bến Tre market (above right), we caught a medium-size tour boat, which chugged upriver for a good twenty minutes or more. Eventually we were let off and led to a bee farm to have some green tea with honey.
As we drank our tea and ate some local fruit, two women sang traditional songs, accompanied by an old man on a đàn bầu (monochord) and a boy with a guitar. Misou was very moved by the last song they played—a lullaby air usually sung to children, but with lyrics about a son’s love for his mother. I was moved as well, but not because I understood the lyrics. Before they’d begun their performance, the guide had removed the boy’s sunglasses to reveal that he’d been born without eyes. Although there was something crass about the general touristy nature of the trip and how our guide had paraded this boy in front of us, Misou was touched by the song and I was sadly reminded of the long-lasting effects of America’s use of Agent Orange. (Misou’s note: I made it a point to not take any picture of him out of respect.)
Next, we took a bus to a small shack where several women were making coconut candy. Our guide showed us how they husk the coconuts and press the meat to squeeze the milk out. After tasting some of the still-warm treats, we were invited to try (and, of course, purchase) some coconut wine and banana wine.
In Vietnam, all forms of alcohol except beer are referred to as “wine”—regardless of whether it’s actual wine or liquor … or paint thinner that will strike you blind with a single sip. Most of our group declined to taste the “wine”—all except for me, the other Americans, and a couple of hungover-looking Frenchmen who agreed it tasted very much like la goutte (Calvados or another eau-de-vie).
After I’d bought a bottle of the stuff and half a dozen packs of candy, we hopped onto the back of a motorbike equipped with a precarious truckbed attachment. There were six of us in the back: Misou and I, a couple of Belgian girls, and two Poles. As we bounced along an asphalt path through the jungle, the American in the vehicle in front of us captured the journey on his iPhone.
As if it were an Indiana Jones film, we were next transferred from motorcycle to sampan. A wiry old woman rowed us gently up a narrow canal to a small restaurant where we had lunch: fried fish, canh chua (tamarind-flavored “sour soup,” a Mekong specialty), caramelized chicken in a clay pot … Here we met Queenie, a sweet lady from Sri Lanka who currently lives in Australia, and we talked more with Scott and Melanie (the aforementioned Americans), as well as the Belgian girls (one of whom had the misfortune of being a vegetarian in Vietnam).
The final leg of that day’s journey was a bus to Cần Thơ, the so-called “capital” of the Western Provinces. It’s a pretty town that hugs the southern bank of the Hậu (one of the larger Mekong tributaries), and Misou immediately compared it to Saigon fifteen years ago: a bit cleaner, calmer, less congested, the river far less polluted … Here our tour guide set us up in a dingy little hotel and left us to our own devices.
Being left to our own devices, though, led to a bit of trouble. Feel free to ask us next time you see us about Nhật Hà 5 … Long story short, the massage place advertised on the back of our hotel room door turned out to offer a few more services than we’d expected. After escaping a potentially sticky situation, we went to the pier to get some grilled squid. But after our young waiter kept ignoring us, we ditched him for a walk along the quay, where we were hit on by women and small children selling lotto tickets and trinket souvenirs. We passed through a street market, strolled past the obligatory HCM statue, and ultimately ended up at a foot massage/convention center/karaoke joint that we assume doubled as a prostitute hangout … (More about bia ôm in a later post.) After singing for a full hour without being solicited, we gave up and went back to the hotel.
The following morning, we got up early to catch another medium-size boat and ride out to a floating market. I’ll let Misou’s pictures narrate this part …
We left the market behind and took a long, meandering tour of the small waterways threading through the jungle. For an hour or so we chugged past fishermen asleep in their boats, women swinging in green hammocks, barefoot children running down a packed-dirt path, and the simple open-front homes of local families. We were struck as much by the abject poverty of the area as we were by the fact that sometimes one of these shirtless fishermen in ratty shorts would sit up to answer his BlackBerry—or that one of the thatch-roofed houses we were passing might have a television satellite dish attached …
During the long ride back downriver, I finally had a chance to reread some of Marguerite Duras’s L’Amant, which is set in Sadec (properly spelled Sa Đéc), not far from where we were in the Mekong Delta. Reading Duras’s descriptions of the Mekong (from which I’ve excerpted the opening lines for this post), I was surprised to discover that, smart phones and satellite dishes aside, not much has changed in this part of the world since the 1940s, or perhaps much, much longer.
Disembarking, for close to an hour we walked on a series of boards running down a muddy trail that wound its way through a sprawling orchard. Here we remarked the rich gray mud they pack around the trunks of the dragon fruit trees. Silty, slick mud—the kind that gets into everything. It looks lifeless, and yet it’s terribly fecund. There is no end of things to eat in the Mekong Delta: bananas, pineapple, jackfruit, papaya, mận (a dark pink stretched-out apple), khế (starfruit), vú sữa (milk teat fruit) …
At the end of the muddy trail was a rest area with fans and hammocks where we ate fruit and relaxed. We were the given another 45 minutes to tour the neighborhood straddling a narrow waterway. Just as we were about to cross a monkey bridge, a baby girl came running out of the gallery front of her house calling “Hello, hello!” The others spoke to her and snapped pictures, and we thought how typical it was of us Westerners to be walking in these people’s backyards, as if their homes were a tourist attraction. We quickly returned to the rest area.
Our bus drove back over the large bridge that rises high above Cần Thơ. Below us, this riot of green, the jungle growth of coconut trees and papaya and jackfruit pressing up against the banks and spilling over. And even on the water itself there is a meters-thick green skirt of accumulated lục bình (a free-floating river plant). Things just can’t stop growing here, and in unrelenting waves of green that stand out shockingly against the gray overcast sky, even through the haze that hangs in the air following an afternoon shower.
In the Mekong Delta, endless rice paddies and an eternal summer yield three crops a year. The water buffalo are forever clopping through the sloppy mud; overloaded, half-sunk barges are forever hauling husks downriver or coconuts up to Saigon; the fishtraps are always set; and old women are singing sad songs across the water in their sampans … As we took the bus back to Saigon, again passing over bridge after bridge after bridge, the banana leaves burning along the horizon we’d put behind us, we were more than a little sad to leave this land of savage beauty in our wake.