Journey to the Mekong Delta

October 17, 2011



Heavy bags by my side and sweat on my brow, I sat in the already scorching morning heat and waited for my bus to arrive. I had spent all of my time in Vietnam on the well-worn tourist trail and I was eager to see a different side of the country. So, I'd impulsively decided to make a bound for somewhere that sees few tourists. The only information that I possessed related to the town of Mekong Delta town of Ben Tre was a couple of skimpy pages in my guidebook, along with the phone number of a local guide who had been recommended by another travel blogger. It felt like I was taking a giant leap into the unknown. By pure serendipity, however, I discovered that I would not be taking this leap alone.


Haruka and Dina







Haruka, from Japan, and Dina, from Germany, became friends while studying English in Australia. The photogenic pair were just starting their travels in Southeast Asia, and just so happened to be taking the same bus as me to Ben Tre. When I asked if they would be interested in joining up with my guide and doing a tour together that afternoon, they contentedly agreed as it was exactly the same idea they had. The happy coincidences were to be a sign of great things to come.

After firming up plans with the guide, checking into a hotel, and grabbing lunch, the afternoon's adventure began in earnest. Three motorbike drivers zipped us across town to the port where our motorboat awaited.


Thai, our friendly guide

Thai, our amicable guide, introduced himself and we took off down the river. Soon, we were navigating narrow canals that carved through dense jungle and wildlife. Lush palm fronds hung overhead and provided a canopy from the sun above. Occasionally we crossed another puttering motorboat, but for the most part, our isolation felt complete. The scene was so surreal that I felt as if I was in a movie.



We came upon a small island where there were no cars to be seen or heard. Here, we hopped on bicycles and cycled on dirt paths through beautiful nature as Thai gave us a tour. He pointed out native plant species, charmed the ladies by making them flower jewelry and palm-leaf headdresses, and showed off his coconut tree climbing skills.




Then we were back on the river again, where we switched to a rowboat for a trip down an eerily quiet and atmospheric canal. "There are many ghosts here", Thai told us. The backwaters of Ben Tre had been the scene of some of the worst bloodshed during the Vietnam War. I painfully envisioned the absolute terror that American soldiers would have felt when dropped here, never knowing if an enemy was hiding in the thick foliage or waiting to ambush around the next bend.



I breathed a sigh of relief when we exited the haunted canal and got back on to our motorboat. The sun was descending, but we still had time to make a quick trip to the bizarre temple of a deceased cult figure who attracted a large following in his day. After the sky had darkened we would stop and stare in amazement at trees that were covered with hundreds of twinkling fireflies. But what I will remember most from that evening was peacefully floating down the river, watching the fading sun set the sky ablaze in a dazzling show of color.



Four months ago in Laos, I swore that I would never do another homestay. But our day had been so memorable, and our guide so wonderful, that my new friends were talking about doing just that. The positive energy that we were all feeling persuaded me to overturn my past convictions and jump on board. We negotiated a deal with Thai to tour with him for another day and a half, as well as spend the next night as a guest in his home. It would turn out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made.

***

Over the next thirty-six hours Thai would reveal some of his remarkable life story. As a child, his family tasked him with the responsibility of climbing the tree in front of their home and monitoring the distance for American troops. If he spotted them, he blew a reed whistle that would signal for everyone to go into hiding.Thai's own father was killed by Americans while fighting in the Cu Chi tunnels. In the late 1970's Thai was drafted into the Vietnamese army and joined the escalating war in Cambodia. He then caught a severe case of malaria. For four years his wife took care of him while he struggled to regain health. When recuperated, he began work as a fisherman, until he was inspired to start taking English classes and become a tour guide. His years farming the local seas had allowed him to learn the regional geography inside and out, and combined with his natural enthusiasm and hospitality, would make him perfectly suited to his new profession.

***

The next morning we woke up early, had a quick breakfast, and brought our luggage out to be received by our motorbike convoy. We then raced across town en route to Thai's house, finally ending on narrow dirt paths that tracked through the jungle to our destination. Thai's simple home is grounded in the middle of lush forest. He lives here with his wife, daughter, and young son. After introducing us to his family and moving our bags into our rooms, he pilfered his own coconut trees and offered us fresh coconut drink.

Drinking a Coconut in Front of Thai's Home
Thai proudly walked us around his property and showed us the various fruits and produce that he cultivates. He also exhibited the Bonsai trees that he grows and sells for traditional New Year celebrations. Most remarkable, though, was what happened when he showed us his bee box. With angry bees buzzing all around, his son reached inside, one hand bare and the other clutching a knife, and delicately removed a section of honeycomb. How he did not get stung is beyond me, but I was thankful that he took the risk. The fresh honey was the sweetest delicacy that I have ever laid upon my tongue. It tasted like perfectly ripe apricot.

We would return to Thai's house in the evening, but it was time to get the day's touring started. And this is where the real adventure begins. You see, I had some limited experience driving a scooter, but nothing that quite prepared me for the challenges that drivers must cope with in Vietnam. On streets jam-packed with motorbikes, riders constantly come within millimeters of colliding with each other, but somehow manage to avoid the worst. Intense focus, a gymnast's sense of balance, and a good dose of adrenaline are essential tools if you want to navigate the roads in this country. In addition, anyone who can confidently motorbike here must prove to themselves that they can pass several real-life tests. I took a deep breath, steadied myself and took on Motorbiking in Vietnam, Test #1: Drive with another passenger seated behind you. In Vietnam, most scooters will be transporting anywhere from two to six people. (That is not a joke, by the way. Who needs a car when your entire family fits on a motorbike?) Dina jumped on the back of Thai's motorbike, Haruka on the rear of mine (which Thai had lent me), and the house soon faded away in our side-view mirrors.

Cruising through the countryside was exhilarating. Touring on two wheels gives an amazing sense of freedom. I had wanted to get off the beaten path, and we were certainly doing that. The whole day we would not see a single other tourist. We spent most of the time on side roads, where stunning scenery and village life whizzed by. People smiled at the uncommon sight of foreigners on the road. White-uniformed students bicycling to school stared at us in astonishment. But the overriding impression was that of green; green plants, green trees, and lush green fields. We crossed the widest stretch of the Mekong River on a ferry, and continued again on the other side of the water to the town of Tra Vinh.

As we rolled through Tra Vinh, I noted the eclectic mix of Buddhist Temples, Catholic Cathedrals, and Cao Dai Churches that dotted the town. Thai had taken us here to see some of the colorful Khmer pagodas that the region is known for. People of Khmer ethnicity primarily live in Cambodia, but there are also thousands of Khmers who populate this region of Vietnam. We spent the afternoon visiting several temples and learning about the unique culture surrounding Buddhism as practiced by the Khmer people. In one memorable instance, we saw Buddhist monks acting as spirit doctors. A patient who emerged from their clinic had caused a scene by loudly ranting and raving like a madwoman. She was subsequently doused with water in order to mollify her, but instead this seemed to enrage her even more. Another temple we visited is famous for its expert wood-carving monks. We marveled at their exquisite creations, which would surely sell for many thousands of dollars in art galleries anywhere in the world.



Parked in the beautiful grounds of the Hang Pagoda, famous for its woodcarving monks
The afternoon grew late and we started the two hour drive back to Thai's house. The journey would be unforgettable. Whereas on the way to Tra Vinh we primarily navigated paved roads, on the way back we took a more rural route, cruising down dirt paths and flying past picturesque village life that seemed frozen in time. We crossed narrow bridges that passed over streams and we were completely enveloped by the cover of jungle. We drove our motorbikes onto a series of tiny boats that ferried us across the numerous small rivers of the Mekong Delta.




Easy on the throttle, Adam...
We had passed through the back roads and were back on the main highway to Ben Tre. Now it was time for me to face Motorbiking in Vietnam, Test #2: Navigate a busy traffic circle during rush hour. My heart skipped a beat when I saw the chaos that lay ahead. Swarms of motorbikes were plunging in and out of a crowded traffic circle, with nary a traffic signal or road sign to guide them. I had one good chance to make it through, because stopping and waiting was definitely not an option, given that a loss of momentum would make an accident much more likely to occur. I looked up and exchanged visual cues with the drivers ahead, delicately twisted the throttle, and cautiously shifted my way into the dense flow of rounding vehicles. As motorbikes swerved in every possible trajectory around me, I judged for the right moment and made a bolt for my exit road. Success!!! Behind me, Dina patted my shoulder in congratulations and I let out a relieved cry of "Woohoo!"

Home-cooked Vietnamese Dinner at Thai's
Dinner was waiting for us when we arrived back at the house. Thai's family had gone out of their way to prepare a delicious local meal. To start with, we had the meatiest, largest shrimp that I've ever sunk my teeth into. Then there was fresh fish, straight from the Mekong. We even had a few shots of homemade banana rice wine, which tasted a bit like Japanese sak√©. I think Dina, Haruka, and I would have been content to go to sleep right afterwards, but we couldn't refuse Thai's animated devotion to being a good host. Soon after eating, we were back on the motorbikes, making our way through the dark to Thai's brother-in-law's house, where some members of the household were going out to hunt for snakes. (We couldn't believe it either.) They returned unsuccessful, but we did get to try some more exotic local produce, including a tasty cocoa plant. That night in Thai's house, we sang some typically bad karaoke. I wound down by playing some guitar before taking a refreshing bath of cold bucket water, and finally, hitting the hay.  

Thai drew this sketch of me as I played guitar

***

Rise and shine! The crowing of the roosters outside was all the alarm necessary to wake up. Once again, Thai's family had prepared a delicious meal for us. Eggs, fruit, french bread, and hot tea made for a great start to the day. That morning we would visit a floating market, where the tour would end and we'd catch a bus to the Cambodian border. We said goodbye to Thai's wife, daughter, and son. They had shown us amazing hospitality and we hoped that they could see our appreciation. We loaded all of our bags onto the motorbikes, and I braced myself for Motorbiking in Vietnam, Test #3: Drive through busy traffic while carrying a passenger AND several heavy objects. In Vietnam, there is no item too large or unwieldy to be transported on a motorbike. Preferably, there should be someone else on board to help steady the cargo. So, two backpacks, a guitar, and a petite Japanese young lady should be no problem, right?

We had a ninety minute drive ahead of us to get to the floating market, but we'd make a very memorable stop along the way. Thai abruptly pulled over and turned off his motorbike, and I followed suit. Before us were several cages housing different types of birds and rodents. He pointed across the road and said the word "dog", and Haruka, Dina, and I gasped at the sight of a freshly butchered canine for sale (Click the link to see the picture, but not if you are a dog lover or have a weak stomach...link). Thai then walked over to cages holding dozens of live, slithering serpents, and picked out one. We would be having snake for lunch.


A steady rain was falling by the time we arrived at the floating market of Cai Be. Normally, hundreds of small boats ply the water here, each one specializing in one type of produce. Due to the rain the boat traffic was much reduced, but it was still interesting to float around and observe the remaining craft that chose to brave the elements. Thai informed us that some people here actually lived on their vessels year round. I was excited to see boats ferrying that most distinctive and mouthwatering of tropical fruits, the rambutan.


Typical boat seen in the Cai Be Floating Market
Our tour was almost over, but not before having a unique lunch. Thai handed the still live snake to the chef, and thirty minutes later, it was chopped, boiled, and in our soup. So what's it like to eat snake Well, I learned that there is not a lot of meat to be had, and it takes some effort to separate the flesh from the small ribs. And, not surprisingly, it kind of tastes like chicken. Vietnamese swear by its health-giving properties, and believe it is good for the male libido. I don't know if any of that is true, but the overall culinary experience won't persuade me to go snake-hunting anytime soon.

Snake and Lemongrass Soup, anyone?

***

The three days I'd spent in the Mekong Delta were the highlight of my time in Vietnam. My impulsive decision to take a jump into the unknown and go to little visited Ben Tre had resulted in one of the most amazing experiences in all of my travels. And it definitely wouldn't have been the same if I hadn't had the good fortune to sit on the same bus as Dina and Haruka.

After spending so much time on the move, constantly meeting and parting from new friends, "goodbyes" had become a matter of routine for me. But this one would truly be heartfelt. Thai had given Haruka, Dina, and I far more than we had paid for or expected. He and his family had welcomed us into their home with open arms, and Thai had taken every opportunity to show us something unexpected and ensure that we had a memorable experience. For all he knew, the life of his own Father could have been taken by mine in the war. But I never detected even the slightest grudge directed towards me. Clearly, he had decided long ago to let go of the past and focus instead on creating a positive future for himself and his family. I left Vietnam inspired by Thai's example and determined to share his story. For me, Vietnam is no longer just a chapter in a history book, but a place with some of the warmest and most hospitable people to be found anywhere.


*****

-The travel blog which tipped me off on Ben Tre and lead me to Thai is http://www.nilikutashani.com/

-If you are visiting Vietnam and wish to do a tour with Thai, he can be reached at: 0914557386

3 comments :

  1. You know what I said about not being bothered about going to Vietnam? You just changed my mind. Amazing.

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  2. I like reading your stories. Makes me remember that there is still so much to see out there :-)

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  3. Well told, once again, Mr. Smith! The photos really make the story come alive.

    ReplyDelete