Friday, July 04, 2008

Downriver and Upbeat - The Mekong Delta of Vietnam - Part 1

As promised, here is a piece I wrote for a magazine many years ago about my trip down the Mekong Delta in Vietnam in 1995. Unfortunately the Magazine folded before they could publish this. It’s pretty long, so I will post this in parts. I wasn’t shooting digital back then, so I only have a few images from this trip scanned right now.

http://fotorocket.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/pf-mekong.jpg

It’s at least 90 degrees outside and the streets of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) are teeming and seething with all kinds of life, from prostitutes, war maimed beggars and rickshaw drivers who fought on the wrong side, to the reborn capitalists who cut joint venture deals with the legions of foreign businessmen. The pulse of this city has returned after so many years of isolation. Bright lights and bright futures, young men and women cruise the night on their new motorbikes imported from Japan. The seedy and the greedy walk the streets arm in arm towards a high-tech tomorrow of the New World Order. On this steamy night I have decided to make a trip to the decidedly less urban labyrinth of the Mekong River Delta. Known as the “breadbasket” of Vietnam, it is a rich agricultural region, crisscrossed by the mighty Mekong river and its tributaries and numerous canals. Originating high in the Tibetan plateau, the Mekong (known as the Song Cuu Long to the Vietnamese or “River of the Nine Dragons”) flows some 2800 miles to the South China Sea.

But I am still in Saigon deciding on the best way to explore the delta. I inquire to those in the know about catching a boat and working my way up the river, but I am told that this is not possible or practical given the week I have allotted. This forces me to reluctantly let go of my “Apocalypse Now” romanticism I have been holding on to for so long. Another option is the popular Minibus excursion into the delta offered by the budget hotels in town. But this is definitely out of the question for me; I have learned my lesson with group excursions on safari in Africa. Being a photographer, I cannot be constrained by group travel. Besides, being on my own gives me great opportunity to interact with the Vietnamese people. The only option left that I can afford is to get around like most everybody else in Vietnam, on motorbike. Not having much experience with motorbikes, let alone Vietnamese traffic “etiquette”, to put it nicely, madness to be more exact, this option is not without risk. But hey, I didn’t come half way around the world to see things from a mini van. So I make arrangements to rent a motorbike from a man at the shop next door to my hotel.

First thing in the morning, after haggling with the man on the price of the rental ($6/day) and who will keep my passport (I keep it, he gets my drivers license) I am ready to go. But wait, I forgot one more thing. I go back to the man and ask him for a helmet, gesturing towards my head. He laughs and says “no”. Silly me, they don’t use helmets around here, so the risk may be a little greater, well…ok, a lot greater.

http://fotorocket.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/many-motorbikes-pf.jpg

Helmetless if not brainless, I get on my little Honda 100cc Dream II and am off. The streets are a dense mass of bicycles, motorbikes, cyclo rickshaws, pedestrians and a few cars, trucks and buses. As best as I can I go with the flow heading southwest towards my first stop, the river town of Mytho on the northern edge of the delta. Senses numb, body tense, and more than a little nervous, I make my way out of Saigon. Traffic becomes less dense and soon it’s me and the open road, and… what’s that up ahead? A truck passing a bus in the other lane, coming right at me with no regard for the oncoming traffic, which in this case means me! It doesn’t take me long to learn that the rule of the road here is the bigger vehicle has the right of way. But in time I get used to this and stay as far right as I possibly can. Horns are another hazard in Vietnam. Horns can be so abused that one becomes immune to the noise. It’s very important not to flinch when a large truck or bus quickly comes up from behind and suddenly lets the horn blow to signal that he is passing. My outlook on life back home begins to change some as I realize traffic in New York City is actually quite civilized.

But it’s all worth it, if just for the freedom, if not the wild stares of the Vietnamese.

I arrive in Mytho in time for lunch. A quiet place on the northern most tributary of the Mekong, I stay long enough to have something to eat and to notice a weather beaten billboard that dominates the center of town depicting the workers of Vietnam uniting in Socialist bliss. Although Vietnam is experimenting with economic reform towards a looser, market driven economy, it is still a one-party state where the Communist party rules and no one asks questions.

Back on the bike it’s off to Vinh Long, where I plan to spend the night. Along the way the road has numerous small bridges that span small tributaries or canals. These intersections are often small centers of activity with boats and commerce on or near the water. They are also spots where the temptation to look along the water as I pass on the motorbike is strong. Safety usually loses out to curiosity.

Before arriving in Vinh Long one must cross the upper Mekong by ferry, at which point it is a short ride into town. Still in one piece, I park the bike and finally get on my feet to have a look around. Naturally I head for the river. Before I get there a woman approaches me asking, in reasonable English, if I want a boat ride to the islands across the river. Since this is exactly what I had in mind I say “I don’t know.” She tells me it’s a nice boat ride to An Binh Island. We negotiate a price, about $3 an hour, and I find myself in a small motorized boat crossing the mighty Mekong river. The river is wide here so the boat traffic is not too dense. I soon realize that, unlike the woman who approached me, the driver of the boat speaks almost no English, which is, of course, perfectly reasonable in Vietnam. So we communicate the fun way, with hand gestures and simple words.

The point of the boat trip is to meander through the small channels that crisscross the island. Along the way there are small bamboo and thatch houses on stilts next to the water interspersed with small agricultural plots growing a variety of tropical fruits and rice. Many “monkey bridges”, narrow foot bridges over the channels, connect people together. Some of these “bridges” are just bamboo logs set high over the water to allow boats to pass underneath while the Vietnamese walk over these bridges without pause.

These simple bridges are a testament to the industriousness of the Vietnamese people. All over the country there seems to be not only hope but an assumption that life will not just get better in the future, but that it will get quite good. Alongside with busy-bee industriousness I found the people in the Mekong Delta to be quite friendly and genuinely interested about me, especially being an American.

Back on dry land this friendliness played itself out one evening in Vinh Long. Finishing up a meal in a small outdoor restaurant I notice a group of young women looking at me curiously from the shop next door. I admit I may be a bit curious looking, but so curious as to draw a crowd? And a crowd that is willing to just stare at me as I eat. But there they are, just looking at me. I do my best not to let this upset me or go to my head. I have been getting used to being the object of people’s stares here in Vietnam. I look at them and give out a “sin chau” (hello and goodbye in Vietnamese). They giggle and reply, but mostly giggle. Finished with my meal I move over to them. I am asked “What your name?” I reply and then am told each one of their names. And then almost as if it had been rehearsed, came the questions: “Where you from?”, “How old are you?”, and “You Married?” This is how it always happened since arriving in Vietnam. Then I would tell them I was from “My” (pronounced me ee, Vietnamese for the USA), was 33 and was happily not married, thank you. Then I would get questioned “Why you not married?” “Uh…well…I don’t know,” I mutter. Too late! Usually the prettiest single girl of the bunch is presented. In this case it was Khanh, who turned out to be the owner of the tailor shop. “You like her?” “No” doesn’t seem to be an option, so foolishly I utter “yes”. Khanh puts up token resistance, but she knows the game. We are now a pair. Khanh’s friends try to push the point with innocent haste - “You like to marry her?” Being a man, I gracefully resist the commitment. We use a Vietnamese phrase book I am carrying to try and communicate beyond this standard set of questions. I find that repeating what they say in Vietnamese results in boisterous laughter from my new lady friends. I lament, If only it were this easy in the states. By the end of the night Khanh is singing me a sweet version of Que Sera, Sera in rehearsed English. In Vietnam, karioke is king . . . and at this point, it seems so am I.