An intricate network of canals meander around tiny islands buried under coconut groves, water palms and various fruit trees. The water is brownish, a light café au lait or watery chocolate milk. You go from island to island on a flat boat with a punter and a rower: two women in conical hats. They lend me one. Surprisingly light and cool. I’m tempted to buy one for less than a dollar but, knowing myself, I won’t be able to abandon it here and will have to drag it all the way home.
Just got my home for tonight: a few thatched roofs in the farmyard of a property between two Mekong “arroyos”(canals). A local home has been converted into a few guest rooms. Chickens, and frantically scratching cats, are mounting guard at the entrance to my room. Oh yes, I was forgetting the cobras in a cage not too far from my balcony. I thought they were rabbits and was in for a bad surprise. I backed off quickly.
On racks, right in front of the porch, flat cakes are drying on bamboo trays. They vaguely look like warty fish skins. I’m told it’s banana pulp to be barbecued and turned into banana wine. I had a taste: something like burnt toast wine. Supposed to be good for rheumatism. I’ll pass. There must be a taboo here about drinking alcohol just for pleasure. Practically every alcoholic potion is supposed to have medicinal virtues.
After lunch, they set up a hammock for me, from which I’m writing this. Lunch was a delightful deep-fried carp, spectacularly presented upright, all golden and crackling, standing between wooden supports. The boy put a bit of it in a rice pancake with noodles and greens, rolled it up and gave it to me to eat dipped in nuoc-mam. And then, there were nems (spring rolls) and rice cakes and veggies and shrimps and a mystery soup with dark green, slimy herbs and dried shrimp that was also quite delicious.
I’m going to bike a little later this afternoon. Don’t know how many K’s. Certainly nothing too demanding, it’s a flat country but hot, as if a wet blanket had been thrown over you. But there is something comforting about it; it makes you feel all the more organic and part of that animal and plant proliferation. You are practically dissolving into it.
It’s none too quiet in this hammock. The Vietnamese might not like music but they like to talk and loud, which might explain why music becomes redundant. So, they’re doing a bloody racket behind, in the kitchen I believe, while a group of Taiwanese is making its own racket on the other side. They are being served the same standing gold fish, only larger. Somewhere beyond, someone is banging while the Chinese are snorting, sniffling, clearing their throats and spitting noisily.
Very strange setting. like an encampment in the middle of nowhere and yet being totally surrounded at the same time. Even cell phones contribute to the ruckus with the very same little ring as ours.
I went on that bike ride. Very tired bike: wobbly front wheel, loose handlebars. Nothing to show off my ability to perform. It was actually harder on the arms and shoulders to keep that front wheel under control than to pedal. But the narrow paths and oblique sunlight were delightful: banana leaves and palm fronds brushing against your face and little donkey-back bridges everywhere over the arroyos. Hard to believe that those were the zones where agent orange did its damage.
I managed to take a nose-dive into the roadside. Just looked like a fool but the padding of greenery amortized the fall. Better than falling into the brown water on the other side.
As much in the back country as you might be, the motorbikes are still terrorizing you along the narrow lanes.
Not quite sure where I am, somewhere in the district of Ben Tre (pronounces Beun Tway). The guide, this time, is a four-toothed war veteran who speaks a brand of French I can barely understand. Needless to say he doesn’t understand me any better. He’s a bit bizarre and wherever we stop, he likes to pinch little girl’s bottoms who flee away giggling. Not too professional.
The tour in the Mekong Delta ends up feeling a bit longish. That guide, Kinh, is no great help. Whenever you ask a question, he says he’ll tell you tomorrow. Yes, but I want to know now. Where are we? Where are we going? Show me on the map. He says he doesn’t have his glasses. His idea of fun is to take you all day long in a junk along the canals. It was great to start with but it’s getting a bit old after a while. Great sense of decrepitude: the ancient junks, the huts on stilts, each and everyone practically falling apart. It could be picturesque if it weren’t so miserable. All that humanity busying itself to survive makes you feel guilty for being the onlooker.
Once in a while, an immaculate colonial villa appears. That’s in one of those that we stopped for lunch. A giggly girl is serving, trying to teach me a few words of Vietnamese. I’m not too gifted apparently but she is worse I think, or perhaps only more timid than I am.
Had I known I would have stayed in that villa and slept on one of the four platform style beds at the foot of the ancestor’s altar. Parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents keeping an eye on me. Had I known…
I’ve weakened and bought a conical hat. I may look ridiculous but she tells me I’m beautiful and I’m vain enough to believe her. And yes, it followed me all the way back to Guatemala.
We’re headed for an island: Bin Hoa Phuoc. It’s after 2 in the afternoon and the canals we’re sailing along are getting busier and busier and therefore smellier and smellier. I’ve traded my conical hat for my old tried and true jean hat. At least, it stays in place in the wind.
It’s getting somewhat boring. No point in asking the guide when we’ll get there, he’ll tell me tomorrow. He’s suggesting another bike ride. so let’s go for the bike ride.
I’m afraid I had to pull my ugly American number. So far, I’m underwhelmed by the Mekong. Even more underwhelmed was I when we got to that “inn” where we were supposed to stay the night. I’ll pass over the fact that it’s a boa constrictor or some sort of huge python that’s keeping vigil over the room this time. If I avert my eyes, I can possibly get to the latrines on the other side without seeing it.
The room, if you can call that a room, is opened to all winds and all bugs, close with…a curtain. The… backhouse is several meters down the path.
I decided it was time to put up a fuss and, after long negotiations with Mr. Tan in Saigon, demanded to be brought back to Saigon.