The Mekong Delta

Saigon, Vietnam

June 21, 2009

I have been trying to see if I could wing it on my own to the much-talked-of Mekong delta and chances are I could possibly make it there but transport back is dicey.  In Vietnam, if you are a tourist, you are firmly put in a box labeled “Tourist”, deemed entirely separate from locals and are required to do what tourists do. No deviation from the norm is acceptable or accepted. After three intense days of attempts, I have given up.

The young man at the agency had, I remember taken a huge breath when I asked about a tour. And then rattled off the itinerary – SaigonMythoBentreCanthoSaigon making it seem like one of those Welsh villages with extra-long names. He continued his monologue with a list of activities – visit-bee-farm-see-noodle-factory-coconut-candy-factory-see-people-working-on-farms-famous-floating-market-rice-paper-making and on and on. I watched attentively to see when he would stop for breath, but he simply kept going. At the end of the monologue, I asked if he ever dived.  He said no and asked if I wanted to join the tour.

I depart tomorrow for a two day group tour to the Mekong delta. I remember visiting the headwaters of the Mekong some years ago, in the highlands of Tibet and there seems to be a justness to visiting the delta of this, one of the most important rivers of Asia. What fun it would be to trace the entire length of this and some other, equally famed rivers. Images dance in my head and I dream dreams of the day when I will have all the time in the world to do just that.

Can Tho, Vietnam

June 22, 2009

The flashy brochure from the travel agency shouted in bold caps that we would be taken in air-conditioned comfort, accompanied by a guide who spoke perfect English. I imagined non-stop chatter of the kind that would make me ache for ear plugs. I gave myself a mental pat on the back for remembering to pack ear plugs that were easily accessible. The bus that arrived was a far cry from the sleek one pictured in the brochure and my mood perked up. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, I thought. The air-conditioner tried its best and failed miserably in the attempt. The loud whining with occasional clanking drowned out most of the chatter from the guide. Apparently the microphone was not working. Yes! I thought; this isn’t bad at all. The packed tour bus disgorged its load soon and we were herded into a large motorized boat for the tour to the four islands.

The first stop is the large island of My Tho, full of coconut trees and mostly only coconut trees. Did collectivization in Vietnam include islands that were planted with exclusively one kind of crop? My knowledge of Vietnam is spotty and I hadn’t the answer. Nor did the guide. The “factory” consisted of a group of families that harvested, cooked and made candy out of the coconut juices. The grinds were packed in flat bags – the stacks of flat green parcels on the floor meant they were destined for somewhere for something but I could get no answer. Our guide shrugged it off; he had a script to follow and was not going to deviate from it.

Transfer to a smaller boat, still powered by motor, took us to the lunch spot. The huts dotting the spot may resemble native structures but are clearly built for tourists, with each guide or agency patronizing a particular family-run place. A good idea, I thought, unless you run afoul of the few families that reign. Our table had fallen short of good service since we had failed to order the much-vaunted elephant-ear fish. We had instead, bowls of rice topped by a few strands of steamed spinach and some broth with floating garlic bits. And were treated to dour looks from the local hosts as well as the guides. The food on the table had not the remotest resemblance to the opulent pictures in the brochure.

A short ride on a canal came next. This time the long narrow boats were rowed by local women using skinny paddles. We trouped into yet another bus to head to some orchards – clearly taste- delicious-heavenly-sweet-local-fruits was next on the agenda. We sampled some fruits and  stood around in an awkward circle to listen to local music. One of the instruments were so like the horse-head fiddle of Mongolia, that it took me by surprise. But as before, questions were shrugged off and we were herded onto yet another bus for the ride to the next village of Can Tho. We sleep in this village tonight and are to go to the floating markets tomorrow before heading back to Saigon.

June 23, 2009

The inn was unremarkable and the night uneventful. Walking down to the river, we got on a large boat early in the morning and chugged down the Mekong to the floating market. The banks ran the gamut from decrepit broken-down tin shacks to slick cement hotels and villas. The skyline was peppered by silhouettes of cranes and heavy machinery. Soon multiple bridges will span the Mekong, so says the grapevine. Gone will be the boat traffic and with it, the floating market.

A huddle of boats signaled the market – big ones, small ones, powered ones and ones with the crossed oars, they were all in the melee. Some had goods piled so high that the boat was barely above water. Others moved in and out, amazingly not crashing into each other. All boats selling goods had a tall pole with the goods for sale, tied to the pole. Fruits and vegetables are the order of the day. Smaller boats jockeyed for space in between – these are the buyers’ boats, we were told. They bought wholesale and took the goods to the market for re-sale. I had expected the activity to be more frenetic but it was strangely calm. Photo ops over, we were hustled out of the boat, herded into a van and sped our way back to Saigon before the day was half over.

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