“No matter the border, the Mekong has been an indiscriminate giver and taker of life in Southeast Asia for thousands of years…for without its waters life is a daily struggle for survival; yet with its waters life is a daily bet that natural disasters and diseases will visit someone else’s village…”
We arrived at Tan Sun Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City unsure how we would be received, given the Vietnam War history with America. However, we found the people welcoming and the former Saigon captivating.
On that positive note, we decided to venture to the Mekong (or Nine Dragon) Delta, a vast low-lying coastal area where the Mekong River and a network of its tributaries flow into the sea. This ecological treasure trove is also a place that evokes memories of fierce fighting and wartime atrocities. Tim O’Brien, in his Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried wrote, ”And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do.” We wanted to see if the wounds of war were still evident there a few decades later.
The “gateway” to the Delta is the town of My Tho. In his book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, Neil Sheehan wrote, “Vann turned the jeep’s engine loose and sped south down the two-lane tarmac road that was the main route into the Mekong Delta…He was on his way to the 7th Infantry Division headquarters at My Tho…the cockpit of the war.” That was 1962.
The next morning, we were heading down what was likely the same road Vann had taken but we were on a bus filled with tourists from many countries. Located about 40 miles southwest of Ho Chi Minh City over poorly maintained roads, it was suggested that the easiest way to visit the Delta was with a guided tour. It was a real departure from our usual independent exploring but we opted to do it for two reasons: traffic in Ho Chi Minh City was so heavy and chaotic that pedestrians had to play chicken to cross the road and the directional signs were written in Vietnamese, a language we could not read.
The two hour ride was over some very bumpy terrain but our Vietnamese tour guide made light of it, laughing and yelling “Rock ‘n Roll!” in English. Much of the countryside reminded us of parts of Italy with lots of small businesses set in garages with metal roll-down doors. There were shops that made things like furniture and doors and many repair shops for bicycles and motorcycles. Tire tube repair seemed to be a thriving business.
At My Tho, we boarded a launch to take us across the Mekong River. The waterfront was busy with eight ferries going back and forth and construction workers hustling to build new bridges. They had some heavy equipment to do the work but a lot of it was hand labor. Looking back at the town, we saw that the riverbank was crowded with tin-roofed cement buildings extending out over the water on wooden pilings and some had signs painted in Vietnamese on their facades. Balconies had laundry hanging and plants growing in pots. It did not, in the least remind me of the sight Tobias Wolff describes in his book, In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War. Recounting his yearlong hitch in My Tho as a lieutenant in the Special Forces serving as adviser to a South Vietnamese Army, he wrote, “I’d never been to Europe, but in my My Tho I could almost imagine myself there. And that was the whole point. The French had made the town like this so they could imagine themselves in France.”
We crossed to Con Thoi Son (Unicorn Island) where we switched to small sampans that held 6 people each and we paddled into one of the small canals overhung with tropical foliage all the way up to a small village. There we walked a tropical pathway and over a “monkey bridge” spanning a canal to a thatched roof open-air building. We sampled local honey wine, honey tea, and specialty candies like lotus blossom. The island has many fruit orchards and small cottage industries that make sweets.
After paddling back out, we re-boarded the launch. On another part of the island, we sampled local fruits—jackfruit, sapodilla, pineapple, papaya and small bananas. A small dish of chili pepper/salt mixture was provided to dip the fruits in, giving them a pleasant piquant flavor.
Next stop was Ben Tre Island where half the houses were leveled during combat in 1968. Today it is a peaceful place that is home to, among other things, a coconut candy operation and several hotels, including one run by an American veteran and his Vietnamese wife. At an open-air restaurant on the island we stopped for lunch. We ordered elephant ear fish steamed in coconut juice, a delicious local specialty. It was served whole and presented upright in a wooden stand. We quenched our thirst with Tiger beer and then took a walk into one of the quiet villages on the island.
When we met the group back at the riverside, we were divided into different launches, depending on itinerary. Back in My Tho, our group boarded a bus with some new people, all of whom were heading to Can Tho for an overnight. That ride took several hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic because it was the beginning of the weekend. It seems that the Mekong Delta islands have become a tourist destination.
At the ferry, the line of vehicles was crazy—like the Vineyard ferry in August. So...we all got off the bus and boarded the ferry on foot. On the other side, we found a place with outdoor tables and ordered drinks while we waited for the bus to pick us up again and take us to our hotel.
Wake-up call was around 6am. After breakfast, we walked down to the river and boarded a launch to take us upstream to a floating market where big boats sell fruits and vegetables. Each vendor has a specialty and they pile up their produce so that it is decorative. Some also hang samples from a pole on the boat. Smaller boats carrying buyers weave their way through the market. We pulled into a spot next to a pineapple seller. The woman was an artist with a sharp knife. She would take a small pineapple (still attached to its stem), remove the rind and cut it into what looked like a flower on a stick—all within a few minutes. We bought one for 10,000 Dong (about 50 cents) and enjoyed its sweetness. After that, we switched to a smaller boat to get closer to other vendors
Back in the launch, we headed to a rice paper making operation and then to a rice factory. The Mekong Delta is known as the 'rice bowl' of Vietnam and we passed many spring-green rice fields on our travels. Finally the launch took us back to Can Tho for a lunch of pho ga, chicken soup with rice noodles and fresh herbs. An after-lunch walk helped us to stretch before the long trip home—mini-vans to the ferry, boarding the ferry as pedestrians again and then hiking to the waiting bus. That turned out to be quite a hike since the traffic was heavy again and the bus took a while to reach us. After about an hour on the bus, we parted with some of the group who were heading further upstream and into Cambodia and part of yet another group joined us for the long ride back to Ho Chi Minh City.
In his book, The Quiet American, Graham Greene said, “I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam…everything is so intense. The colors, the taste, even the rain… The river is beautiful.”
The Mekong Delta is lush with agriculture and aquaculture and Vietnam is seductive. I too was falling in love.
Have you ever fallen in love with a place?