mekongdelta

A Web of Water

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“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
― Gustave Flaubert

From An Bihn Island I moved even farther south to the largest city in the Mekong, Can Tho. Can Tho is not a beautiful city (read lots of concrete block buildings) there are few sites to see, but it is a growing city, home to the largest university south of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), and a redeveloped riverfront. It is a stopping point between HCMC and the unreachable areas of the delta. I came here to get a glimpse at those unreachable place.

While we use cars, trucks and highways to move goods, in the Mekong, everything moves by water - from logs, to food and even household goods. The major rivers are navigable, but the small channels are accessible only by canoe-like boats called Xuong. Without roads, this is the only means of transportation in and out. Even the ever-present motorbike isn’t feasible.

Today I hired a Xuong (almost always driven by women) and an English speaking guide to visit several floating markets - the center for trade on the delta - and to go deeper into the delta’s channels. My guide was amazing. Her English was mostly self taught, but she was curious about the US and about improving her English. She was also very generous in sharing information about her life, her family and living on the river. She had spent her early childhood on a boat, although her family were now farmers.

Most of the floating markets set up before sunrise and trade is over by 10am, so we had to be on the river by 5:30am to reach the first market. Some markets are wholesale markets, like Cai Rang, where larger boats bring produce from many farmers and sell to individuals who then take these goods to the markets on land. Each area of the market is devoted to a single product…yams, pineapples, watermelon and each boat is identified with a large pole on the bow indicating the items they have for sale. The small boats weave in and out of the larger boats, bargaining, trading, and stocking up. There is a small grocery store boat, a boat selling coffee and even a boat selling noodle soup to the wholesalers. The larger boats, and the boats’ owners, remain on the river for several days until the goods are sold.

After Cai Rang, we visited a smaller market for farmers selling directly to other farmers…trading papaya for ginger, or purchasing sweet potatoes. Then set off down a narrow channel into the delta. It became clear that many of these people never travel from home. They are fully self-sustaining. The river and the land provide everything, from peppercorns, and herbs, to rice, fish and vegetables. What was more amazing, as my guide and I spoke, she could look at a plant and tell me what they used it for. There was almost nothing that couldn’t be eaten, used medicinally, or didn’t bear some sort of fruit (over 100 varieties of bananas). All of this knowledge handed from one family member to the next.

As we motored back to Can Tho around noon, I though about trying to fight a war in this place, about how unprepared and unknowing we must have been. It has taken generations to know what they they know. I also felt humbled. There is whole way of life - a hard life - that exists completely and utterly different than my own. Hundreds of thousands of people, working, trading, living, getting married, feeding their families all on this network of waterways.

Delta Time

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I left Hoi An and traveled south through Saigon to the Mekong Delta. (plane, taxi, bus, a smaller bus, ferry and motorbike was all it took). I arrived on An Bihn island, a short ride away from the town of Vinh Long, a small provincial capital. I had booked two nights at a home stay with a Vietnamese family. Mr. Phu’s home stay is a little larger than some. You do not share the family home, but stay next to the home, in a thatched building with several rooms and shared baths.

To say it was culture shock, would probably be an understatement. Compared to the international, tourist-friendly town of Hoi An, An Bihn is nothing but jungle, slow moving canals of water, stilt houses, no signs in English or French and the heat is stifling, a rare breeze moving the jungle around me. Since I arrived late in the day, I opted to spend the evening with a book and dinner made by Mr. Phu’s wife.

In the morning, I borrowed a bike and set out to explore the island. The roads are mostly dirt trails, cement paths wide enough for a bike or motor bike, maybe two if you’re a good driver, and one single lane asphalt road. There was no available map, so Mr. Phu drew a circular route for me that was to take about two and half hours. At his suggestion, I started out early to be done before the heat of the day.

During my ride, I did not see one other tourist. Occasionally a Vietnamese kid would yell hello, but as I stopped at a roadside stand to buy a bottle of water, I felt a little like a curiosity. I’m not sure they see many Americans on a bike riding around the island. Because of the heat, nothing seems to move very fast and work seems to happen early in the day and late afternoon. As a I neared my home stay, I saw lots of people laying in hammocks (a really good idea at this point), or asleep on their motorcycles in the shade. I did round a corner on the cement path and see a lean two with a pool table and several guys shooting pool. I had to wonder how they even got the pool table there…boat, motorbike?

I got back to Mr. Phu’s grabbed my book and headed for a hammock. I think this is the first time on this trip that I have not been doing something in the middle of day. I wasn’t quite sure I could really relax, except that moving induced sweating, so staying still seemed like the best option. I laid about for few hours, Mr. Phu and his wife even joined me by laying in the hammocks in front of the house for a while. I finally decided I could move again, and with another map from Mr. Phu I headed across a bridge to the adjacent island and then took my bike by ferry to the market on the mainland, another short ride and a ferry back to An Binh.

Life seems to move differently here, and while it is not necessarily beautiful (maybe interesting and different), there is a beauty in the rhythm of the place.