Star Date: April 2007
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
(Hello- Dzao or Dai Ban tribe )
undervalue the passion...a person brings
Mark McCormack (1930 - )
The River of Nine Dragons, or Mekong, is one of the world's mighty rivers. Unaware, we have followed this mighty river from it's origin high in the Tibetan Plateau eight months ago, down into China, across Laos, and now the full length of Vietnam. The sandalwood bracelet given to me by a monk in the Tibetan Himalayas is almost worn through, just as we feel some days, but the anticipation of what lies around the next corner spurs us on. We remind ourselves that it is this passion in life that makes the difference. And so we eagerly continue. Twenty six hundred miles from its origin we followed the river down to the southernmost tip of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta. This rich fertile delta is fed from soil washed from the high plateaus and all points in between. Fifty thousand people depend on this river for their livelihood in Vietnam alone and with multiple dams being built in China, the environmental impact will surely be felt downstream.
For the same price as a 'moto' ride and public bus, we caught one of the incredibly cheap Mekong Delta day tours out of Saigon. Joining 13 others we went by bus to My Tho where we piled onto a boat to discover life on the river. Stopping at a coconut factory was actually interesting to us, considering that we have fresh coconuts everyday. They processed everything from coconut milk and shredded pulp, to fibers for mattresses, bowls, and 6 different kinds of candy. We tasted the warm candy fresh from the pan and due to our usual lack of sugar, we could have walked back on the water with our ensuing sugar rush. Washed down with a shot of banana seed wine for virility and arthritis, we were all set. Transferring over to canoes we explored up into the far reaches of the canals and waterways that weave the fabric of life in the Mekong Delta. Extremely poor country folk survive down here in stark contrast to the growing affluence of the big cities. Subsistence living based on fishing, kitchen gardens, and crop or orchard production makes for a meager but peaceful life. When the rainy season turns this area into a mud bath we can see the appeal of the concrete of the cities but during the current dry season life here seems serene and laid back.
A visit to a honey bee farm for tea held a startling surprise as one of the workers brought out his pet python to show off. All the brave souls had a go with her. When she started wrapping her tail around my leg I happily handed our new acquaintance over to Joseph, who was much more relaxed and at ease with this beautiful creature. Our canoes ended up at the garden of a fruit orchard, where we sampled 8 different tropical fruits, while listening to the family play and sing traditional songs. Most of the tourists ate very little fruit and we felt it was our job to savor the delicacies before us - and before everyone else. Heh, we never take tours but if they include all this food we might change our ways and just catch one tour after another. Just kidding, the life of independent travel is in our blood.
Dhanya, an ancient Indian word for rice, translates as the sustainer of the human race. A Vietnamese fable tells of olden days when rice didn't need to be grown. It could be summoned, in the form of a large ball, simply by prayer. One day a man ordered his wife to sweep the floor in preparation for the daily arrival of the rice. She was still sweeping as the white ball appeared and struck it, shattering it to pieces. Since then, the Vietnamese have had to work hard to produce rice by hand. And they do work hard, as seen in mile after mile of rice fields covering the Delta. Women in conical hats, 'non bai tho', irrigate the shimmering green fields by hand, as nearby farmers plant new starts or plow with water buffalos. Not much has changed for centuries, except that with a push from the government, exportation of the world famous rice has risen to 3.5 million tons annually. Along with that has come heavy chemical spraying, of course, adding toxic runoff into the waterways. Our very nationalistic young guide from Saigon proudly proclaimed that within 10 years they expect the city limits of Saigon to include the whole of the Mekong Delta. Already a surprising population density in the Delta, where exactly will they grow the rice once all these people and buildings arrive?
We jumped ship as we returned to our bus bound for Saigon and found out that in fact 'you can't get there from here'. With the 'help' of a couple of less than honest characters along the highway we caught an expensive bus to the isolated town of Tra Vinh. One of the only things we won't miss in Vietnam is the fact that most public busses try to charge you double the fare and it gets tiring. Having said that, the chore of having to stay one step ahead of these touts is still a better fate, in our opinion, than taking the 'Open Bus' arranged for tourists only.
Arriving after dark Joseph had to search high and low for a room. We ended up at a hotel that was at its prime in 1925. The chubby wife of the owner was a wonderful rough cut gem who continually squeezed my hand and kissed my arm in excitement; thrilled beyond words to have foreigners in her establishment. She even offered us toilet paper twice daily, just to buy entrance into our room. Pantomiming, along with a few Vietnamese words, I asked if I could cook in her kitchen. She was eager to help and loudly smacked her lips in approval as she sampled our meal. Unfortunately it was apparent that she herself rarely cooked anymore, instead eating take away or sweets from the surrounding vendors. Her health was starting to suffer, but luckily not her sense of humor. We had many chuckles together and it was her good nature, plus an excellent buddha food stall in the market that prompted us to stay an extra day.
Tra Vinh is noted for an attention-grabbing collection of pagodas, with over 300,000 ethnic Khmers living in Tra Vinh province. The province boasts 140 Khmer pagodas compared to 50 Vietnamese temples and 5 Chinese. Without even trying we stumbled on the exquisitely painted Chinese Ong Pagoda, with the red faced, deified general Quan Cong, a historical figure doing his best to protect the region from war. He must have been on holiday during the American War in the 1960's and 70's as the Delta was the scene of many fierce battles. Now that the Vietnamese have their country back, for the first time in over 200 years, let's hope that they can live in peace, with Quan Cong's help. We happened onto a Cao Dai Temple and were warmly welcomed for tea and proudly taken on a personal tour of their recently built building. A new religion, created in the early part of the 20th century, it combines the teachings of all the great prophets from the east and west. Instead of a Jesus or Buddha in the center of the alter there is the ancient symbol of the all seeing eye in a pyramid, staring down on the chanting believers; dressed in white robes and black hats. The brilliant colors of this new temple were spectacular, in a Disney sort of way. You couldn't help but cheer up in such a radiant environment. This housed a happy God, not a fear provoking deity threatening hell.
When walking back from the Ong Met Khmer Pagoda, where we were served tea and sweet oranges right off the alter, we heard a distant, "Hello, Hello!" as a woman chased us down and invited us into her humble home. Her 70 year old husband served us fresh coconuts from the tree in their yard as she spun her tale of life. The husband, having been a worker with the previous government, was interred for four years of 'reprogramming' after the war. Sixty year old Wa, having worked with the Americans during the war, was held for 3 years of 'retraining' and labor. They fell in love in jail and were married when they were released. Last year she saw an ad in the newspaper offering relocation to the USA for people who had worked with the Americans for 5 years or more. Now her whole energy is focused on the successful outcome of that application and the starting of a new life where the grass is, in her eyes, much greener. After a pleasant visit we started carefully telling her that life in America was good but can be very fast paced and expensive. She couldn't grasp what we were saying, as she refused to let anything tarnish her glowing ideal of a shiny America. We, of course, didn't even broach the subject of politics. Then all of a sudden she said, "It's time to go." and away we went - wishing her the best of luck in her new life! During our hot and sometimes dusty walk I had secretly wished for some of the juicy oranges they sell at the market and for a refreshing coconut. They had materialized within the hour. You have to watch what you wish for.
A similar story was told by a former professor at the University of Saigon as he and his buddy, both retired, shared a bowl of vegetarian 'pho' (noodle soup) with us. Unlike Wa wanting to leave memories behind, he after 14 years of labor and 'retraining' responded when asked why he wanted to remain in Vietnam, "Because I love my country!"
Can Tho is noted for life on the river and the morning floating markets. We caught a boat at pier #2 for $2 an hour with a jovial middle aged woman 'captain' and as the sun rose we watched the life on the river unfold. The first market was Cai Rang, which was a conglomeration of small vendors bumping up against larger boats buying their precious harvest of fruits and vegetables, by the ton. An hour upriver found us in the middle of the Phong Dien Floating Market. A smaller version of the first market, we should have taken the shorter 4 hour ride instead of 6, skipping Phong Dien. Just make sure your boat includes a good look into the maze of backwaters. That's where the action is. Amid regular phantom but enthusiastic "Heelos!" we would quickly reply, "Hello, wherever you are!" Drifting along, in the constant parade of floating hyacinths, there was always something happening. Once we noted an unimaginable chain of events: everyone doing their morning bathroom visits (in cloth covered direct-drop outhouses) next to a woman cleaning a freshly plucked chicken, directly upstream from someone washing dishes, while locals bathed or brushed their teeth in the river water just downstream from all this. The amazing thing is that their systems can handle all the germs, as they have for centuries, but the increase of modern chemical run-off will make them susceptible to a myriad of serious illnesses and birth defects.
Buddhists traditionally eat 'com chay' or Buddha food on the full moon and the 15th day of the lunar calendar. Following a crowd we happened on two of the best vegetarian places in Vietnam. Literally rubbing elbows with local ravenous connoisseurs at the crowded tables, we had a tough decision choosing which place to go to each day. We had our own full moon party in Can Tho. High above the city we celebrated Joseph's birthday on the terraced rooftop of the Hien Guesthouse. A tasty birthday desert concocted of mochi-type rice cake, tapioca, coconut cream and mangoes was topped with a candle. The enormous golden harvest moon shone down on a very full, but contented birthday boy.
Chau Doc, on the Cambodian border is a hodgepodge of markets, boats and shacks lining the Bassac River. We jumped at the chance to stay in a funky room right on the shore. From our windows above we watched the beehive of activity and listened to the variety of motors powering boats along the river. We even put up with the occasional speed boats, making so much noise that we had to pause our conversation. The novelty of life on the river wore off when we were hit with the 'attack of the bugs'. We looked outside and even though it was early evening, all of a sudden every light in the shanties along the river went out. We had our windows closed so we didn't pay much attention to the few little flying bugs around the light. As we watched our movie a swarm of billions of these tiny creatures appeared through the walls and literally filled up our bathroom. Unknowingly I went in to use the toilet and was covered by them and went squealing out. They were everywhere! We got the young man up from the desk downstairs and he just laughed at the hordes! Too tired to move rooms we just slept under our mosquito net and used the bathroom down the hall, awakening to piles of little black bodies; wasted from their party the previous night. When we were at the market the following evening we noticed swarms of them at every light and figured it was just a hatch, or we hoped for their sake, it was a temporary thing. In our newly changed room not a single bug came for a visit and we didn't feel the least bit slighted or lonely. Sometimes it is a relief to hide away in our little world that we create with music, books and a semblance of order; leaving the noise, the dirt and the bugs outside.
On a trip down the river we stopped at a rural Islamic Cham village. Two young women were weaving silk on looms, so exquisite and soft that it melted in your hands. We encouraged their artistic ability by purchasing several bright, luxurious scarves, and after tasting snacks from the nearby little waifs we were back on the river. Fifteen percent of Vietnam's seafood production is done on floating fish farms where they raise mainly asiatic catfish. Each floating house contains a large pen underneath. As we rode down the river the smell of cooking fish food paste, in large vats, wafted through the air. Once again the poorest fish farmers produce the best quality fish because all the expensive commercial fish food contains hormones and antibiotics, which are of course transferred to the humans who consume them. As a reward to these poor hard working fellows the Japanese will now pay top dollar for the purer chemical free fish to be flown to them. A hilarious sight were the fishermen, in small dugout canoes next to the back of the floating fish tanks, catching the unwary buddies coming to visit the enclosed fish. One young entrepreneur had14 rods, like the spines of a sea urchin, sticking out of his tiny wooden canoe. Persistence is the key to success!!
And so it goes ........................................................... Au voir, Goodbye Vietnam. It has been a lively, rich and rewarding 6 months. Next the Kingdom of Cambodia. We hope that you are in good health and looking forward to spring. As the temperature warms, recapture the passion that is alive and well in each of our hearts. Until next month Keep Smiling and Keep in Touch. Take care.
Love, xoxoox Nancy & Joseph
$1.00US = 16,000 VND
Perseverance and ingenuity are the keys!