Friday, May 26, 2017

Mekong Delta Blues

Travellers, come and drop in and see me,
The Mekong Delta, land of fruit of variety
What you’ve lost will be made up for.
Come and you’ll be welcomed heartily.”
-- Brochure from Vietnamese tour company

Your head,” he says, “is a heavy head, and you have a hard time relaxing.”

He means there are many things in your head, there is a lot going on inside it,” Tam explains. “It is all filled up inside, maybe with thoughts.” Maybe. One can hope.

And you have tension in your back,” he continues. “When you get up in the morning your heels might hurt.” For the last 10 minutes we’ve sat casually chatting as he’s taken the pulses – three of them – in my left wrist: stomach, heart, kidneys. “You might get up to the bathroom too much at night,” he continues, “but your heart is strong.”

Tam and I are talking with the local pharmacist whom we happened to meet here, sitting on a low platform, inside Quan Thanh De Pagoda in the Mekong Delta city of Long Xuyen, Vietnam. It’s a disconcerting conversation because he seems to know the most intimate details of my life yet I’ve never laid eyes on the man.

I usually get up only once at night,” I say defensively. “Sometimes not at all.” He shrugs, purses his lips, raises his black eyebrows.

When we entered the temple, the pharmacist was dispensing herbal remedies out of a paper sack to a very old woman. I walked over to see what he was doing. Tam joined us after a short prayer at the altar, incense held over her head as she bowed, and so did a small curious girl dressed in purple pants and shirt. The old woman asked if I had any illness, and the pharmacist took my wrist, positioning his three middle fingers on it as if he were finding a note on a flute. The little girl in purple stared at me and raised her hand to my chin.

I have a shop in town,” the pharmacist says. “But this old woman has bad arthritis in her back and hands, so it is easier for her if I meet her here.” The old woman smiles with betel nut teeth the color of pomegranate, touches my hand and squeezes my forearm several times as if testing a melon. The girl strokes my beard, giggles and says something to Tam. “She thinks you would make a good photograph,” Tam explains. I look at the girl, make a goofy face and she laughs again.

I’ve gotten used to all the touching, even fond of it. Everywhere we go in the Mekong Delta people greet me, laugh when they hear me speak, ask how tall I am, touch my hands, my arms, my hair. It’s all friendly, playful, actually rather pleasant. “They think you’re from Mars,” Tam says. This far from home, constantly being touched and given reassuring pats on the back, having my hand shaken, being smiled at, and waved to is a soothing remedy for the sporadic pulse of vagabond loneliness.

But I’m not really alone. Tam, my guide and translator, and Jim, our driver, accompany me most everywhere. A couple of days ago they picked me up when I arrived by ship from Singapore in Ho Chi Minh City, the less melodic, though no less evocative, new name for Saigon – new since what Tam refers to as “The Liberation.” Both natives and foreign visitors use the names interchangeably.

That first day Vietnam overtakes me. As soon as I step ashore it conquers me. The place is rich, vivid, happening now, not later; the life is loud, lush and unpartitioned, the culture multi-layered, multi-coded. Wherever you go, you’re surrounded. Always. A marriage to the left, a funeral to the right (crimson and red coffins sail past on the river), a vendor of five-snake wine straight ahead, nearby firecrackers crackle to launch a new boat, its prow freshly painted with black and white cross-eyes, five men on one groaning Honda approach quickly from the rear, the killing of a pig here, children having a water fight there. And then it rains, the clouds break, and the sun explodes over a pond, shines on a blue water buffalo on the other shore with a woman reclining on its back, asleep. I can’t take it in fast enough, can’t make adequate notes; photographs can’t possibly do it justice, because they freeze movement; everything’s moving here. To really get it, you’d have to have some kind of real-time, total-immersion motion picture camera that produced spherical movies you could climb inside of. But even that wouldn’t do it. You’d have to be able to reproduce the climate, the smells. Finally, you must give in, surrender, relax, “go with it,” as they say, which, as luck would have it, is what I’m worst at.

For hours (indeed, days), on either side of the highway, we pass glowing green rice paddies; an endless plain of chartreuse neon plush with rangy, swaying hedges of coco palms, and with raised white tombs scattered over the fields. “The ancestors,” Tam explains, “are buried on the property to watch over and protect it.” Rice is harvested twice a year; when the stalks turn yellow it’s ready. “It’s been a very good harvest, very big,” Tam says, pointing out the yellow hulled grain laid out along the highway to dry in the sun.

The roadsides are paved with carpets of rice. Men and women rake it, sweep it; children walk arm in arm through it, scuffling the wet grains, turning them to the sun with their small bare feet. The sky is the color of cement. Though it’s 85 degrees, it’s the rainy season, and when the clouds burst everyone rushes to cover the drying rice with big blue plastic tarps. We pass three men lifting a huge shrieking pig tied to a pole out of a small motorbike-pickup. “The rice is like money,” Tam tells me. “If the person needs a pig or a boat or whatever, they pay with bags of rice.” After driving past it and over it for miles and miles, I’m craving rice. I want big mouthfuls of it.

In My Tho we hire a boat to take us across the great river, the Mekong, also known as Cuulong (Nine Dragons) by the Vietnamese. The Mekong, like the Mississippi or the Amazon, or the Rio de la Plata, which meets the Atlantic Ocean at Buenos Aires, is great in its massive, swift, gently undulating flatness. Sometimes, around dusk or dawn, it seems without current. With the possible exception of an Arctic ice plain, or an especially windless day in the doldrums, there is no other flatness on earth quite like it. The Mekong River Delta, recipient of centuries worth of rich alluvial soil, is one of the earth’s most productive rice-growing areas. But our first stop, Tan Long Island, is covered with longan orchards. Tam calls it Unicorn Island.

There are four islands around here. They are named after the four miraculous animals,” she says, “dragon, turtle, phoenix, unicorn.”

All but one of the beasts are mythological.”

Why do you say that?” Tam asks me.

Along Tan Long’s banks we pass men up to their necks in the caramel water, repairing the submerged split bamboo fences of shrimp traps. Boats go by loaded with coconut hulls, bananas. Two boys in a small canoe hold one side of a fishnet while their mother, walking chest deep in the river, holds the other side. Water hyacinths bounce on our wake. “They keep the hyacinths in the canals,” Tam tells me, “so the shrimp can’t get out.” We dock at a small wooden pier, clamber ashore, and find a narrow, stone walkway that takes us through Tan Long’s garden interior of orchards, hibiscus, bougainvillea, dragon fruit, succulents.

Every now and then we pass a house, each porch outfitted with a noisy, short-haired dog with a head like a fox, and a low-slung hammock holding a sleeping baby. When the sprinkling rain turns to downpour we simply walk through the open door of a nearby home. The young children stare and smile and their mother brings us tea and a bowl of fruit – longan, mangosteen, rambutan. The dog stops barking, distracted by a flea running toward his tail. We sit down around the table, mostly silent, watching the rain. At this point I’ve been on Vietnamese soil for less than four hours and the difference between the tempo of my life and that of the people I’m sitting with is awkwardly apparent.

I gulp my tea, get up, walk around the room, look at the photo portraits of the family ancestors that hang above a small altar. I sit down, pick up a longan, wonder what we’re going to do next. And what, by the way, are we doing now? “Sometimes,” Tam says in answer to my unasked question, “we like to sit for awhile.” And so we sit for awhile, because it is, after all, one of the most peaceful, pleasant, beautiful and dry spots anyone could hope for.

The fruit of the longan tree is slightly smaller than a ping-pong ball, with a tough skin and a large seed in the middle surrounded by refreshing, translucent pulp that tastes something like honeydew melon only not as sweet. I’m not sure what to do with my first longan, not certain how to open it, so I hold it just below table level and squeeze it between my thumb and forefinger. We’re a serene, unself-conscious bunch (except me), the children playing around our feet, the dog on the porch, the rain spattering the mud. Occasionally someone says something in the music of the Vietnamese language; more tea is poured; the dog barks at a falling leaf.

And then, KERSPLAT! I squeeze the longan so hard it explodes all over the front of my shirt turning me into something Jackson Pollock might have produced if he’d done his work in tropical fruit on cotton T-shirts. The laughter and the rain subside at about the same time. We thank our hostess and head back to our boat. As we walk I try unsuccessfully to wipe my shirt clean. The way to get at the meat of the longan, I’m later instructed, is to gently bite through the skin and then suck out the pulp.

On the way into town we pass a parade of colorfully dressed people holding red and white umbrellas. Leading the group is a bride wearing a lime green ao dai. “The astrologer picks the best days for the wedding,” Tam explains. “So maybe we see many weddings.” And we do. Over five days we see at least a dozen. The traditional ao dai, such as the bride sometimes wears, is an amazing article of clothing. Its high-necked, long-sleeved frock, split at the hips, creates an apron in front and a train behind that is constantly teased and tugged and twirled by the breeze; it follows after its owner like a pet wing. The pants worn underneath go to the ankle. A woman in an ao dai levitates.

October and November on the lunar calendar are favorite months to marry,” Tam tells me. “The people like to get married then so they can have more money to celebrate Tet, also because it’s cold at night.”

Because it’s cold at night?”

Yes, because then they have to sleep closer together to stay warm.”

As we drive, Tam occasionally pulls out a notebook and writes poetry. “In Saigon,” she explains, “it’s hard to find time to think of the beautiful verse. But I promise myself I will find time somehow.” Other times she sings. “When I was a little girl,” she says, “they told me that if I sang around the house so much I would marry an old man. But it’s not true because my husband is not old.” Tam’s husband also works in the burgeoning Vietnamese travel business, she later tells me. They have two young daughters.

In My Tho, during lunch, Tam and I are in an open-air restaurant watching a bride and groom posing for a photographer in the garden. The bride changes gowns several times. She’s brought along a selection from a gown rental shop packed in red plastic cases. Tam thinks the groom looks too old for the bride and I agree. Nearby, from a cage under a banana tree, a gibbon with flaxen hair is also watching. He agrees too. A Coca-Cola sign hangs near his cage. Coke’s new marketing slogan for Vietnam is “Happy to meet you again!” An odd choice, some would say, given that it almost begs for the prospective consumer to recall the circumstances of the previous meeting.

We share a whole elephant ear fish for lunch, picking at it with our chopsticks and filling tortilla-size rounds of rice paper with the soft white meat. The food is exquisite, as it always is in Vietnam. If you can find ice in the Yukon, collect sand in the Sahara, you’ll have no problem discovering extraordinary cuisine in the Mekong Delta, from cobra stew and caramelized fish to the million varieties of pho, the addictive national soup, and of course the world’s most satisfying rice.

That night in My Tho the motorbikes are massing, their white and red firefly-like running lights swarming through the dust haze, past the cafes and the groups of people gathered around televisions. I stop in a cafe and order roast shrimp, rice and tea. After bringing the food, the young waitress sits down with me. She watches me for awhile, and then pitches in, helping to take the shrimp out of their shells and ladling sauce onto my rice.

No,” she whispers shyly. She hasn’t heard of San Francisco, or of California. “I want to go with you to Can Tho,” she says. “I need to learn more English.” It’s not a come-on, she’s little more than a schoolgirl, a country girl. I sit and talk with her, tell her about my family, where I live, where I’m going.

Why are you traveling alone?” she wonders.

This is my job,” I answer. “I travel to write about it.” She smiles and then laughs as if she’s just caught me in a big lie. “Really,” I say sincerely. She laughs again.

I walk back to the Song Tien hotel and up to my turquoise room with its turquoise lace curtains, black vinyl furniture, and a single original oil painting of a mother nursing a baby next to an open window. It’s a terrible painting but I like it. Late into the night I’m by turns lulled to sleep and awakened by the endless mechanical lullaby of My Tho, the putt-putt of the motorbikes in combination with the sputter of boat engines.

One night in Can Tho I hire a woman to take me out on the river for an hour just after sunset. She asks for 5,000 dong. I give her a 10,000 dong note (equivalent to about $1). She looks it over carefully, shows it to a friend, smiles and pulls the boat against the dock. I step in.

Most of the boats on the river are handled by women. If they’re well off, their boat has a motor, but usually they row, standing up, staring at the horizon, pushing with their whole body. Each cycle of the oars takes one forceful, graceful, slow motion. It starts at the feet and like a wave flows up the legs, across the trunk, grips the shoulders, then breaks over the forearms, causing the hands to tighten as the oars push through the silty water. Sometimes she will stop and shake an oar that has collected a hyacinth. As she rows, we do our best to have a conversation. I speak almost no Vietnamese, she speaks little English.

Aren’t you the one that took me rowing last night?” I ask.

No,” she answers. “That was my sister.”

Where are you coming from now?” she asks me.

San Francisco, California,” I reply. She looks perplexed. “USA,” I add.

Ahhh,” she says. “Number one!” And then points at a small something flying just above the surface of the water.


No, sparrow,” she answers.

Which, if it is, makes it one of just three wild birds I see in the Mekong Delta. The reasons for this are both natural and unnatural. The unnatural ones have been exhaustively reported on elsewhere. The natural ones, I’m told, may include the popularity of small birds as food, a habit shared with the French.

The Delta was once part of the Khmer kingdom and is still home to a large Cambodian population. Near Soc Trang we stop at a Khmer temple outside of town. The head student monk, a young man named Lam Tu Linh, dressed in a saffron robe, invites us in for tea. We sit, sometimes talking, sometimes not. He tells us of the annual canoe race the temple sponsors and takes us out to see the temple’s old, elaborately painted Kampuchean war canoe, one of the boats used in the annual competition. “This one is more than 200 years old,” Lam Tu Linh says. “The winner of the race gets a television or farm equipment.”

As we walk around the temple grounds, Lam Tu Linh points out hundreds of large fruit bats hanging upside down in the surrounding trees.

Who are they?” I ask him.

The young monk giggles. “Those are the bats who live here too. But they go away from here to eat. They don’t eat the fruit from our trees, they leave it for the monks.”

On our last day in Chau Doc, near the Cambodian border, we go out on the river in the afternoon. Chau Doc is home to a thriving fish farm industry. What appear to be your standard Vietnamese floating ranch houses are supported not only by water but by thousands of fish living beneath them in submerged cages the size of basements. Chau Doc’s fish farmers feed their finned herds through large trapdoors in the floors of the houseboats.

We stop at one owned and operated by a lovely woman and her seven young children. It’s feeding time. The children sit on the floor at the edge of two 3-by-3-foot portals, dangling their feet in the fish-filled water. All around them are large balls of fish food made of rice hulls and other vegetable matter. For two hours every day they break off pieces of the wet brown stuff and toss it to the fish. They also fall in the water, push in their siblings, splash one another, throw clumps of the muck at each other, and generally fool around as much as possible. However, they get the job done. The entire operation, the woman tells us, including two houses and a third devoted to manufacturing the fish meal, is worth about $200,000, a monolithic fortune in Vietnam.

Rowing back to Chau Doc the boatman takes us along the opposite riverbank lined with thatched-roof houses on stilts. The sun is descending into the pink Delta haze, men are bathing in the Mekong, women prepare food on the high porches. Everyone waves, they think it’s very funny when I take a snapshot. Children and parents make binoculars with their hands and yell to me, “Take my picture!” “How long have you been here?” “What’s your name?” “Hello, hello, goodbye.”

I’m sitting cross-legged on the bow. A few feet behind me Tam lies on her stomach, resting her head on the side of the boat. The breeze makes her black hair a veil. She’s dragging a water hyacinth in the river, softly singing a bluesy Vietnamese ballad. The light turns everything orange. I suppose I could ask about the song, make notes of her remarks in my pocket-size Mead Memo Book, and end this thing with a couple of lyrical lines – us drifting across the Mekong into the apricot Indochine dusk. Or I could ask her what we’re going to do next, where to from here? How can we make the most effective use of our remaining waking hours? But that would require moving, speaking, linear thinking. And sometimes we just like to sit for awhile.

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