The river is huge. Huge! I think it must be wider than the Mississippi (it’s hard to tell, because it has so many town-sized islands in it that you can’t see the whole thing at once). The wide parts of the river aren’t terribly attractive, since the water is brown and there’s not much to see except rundown buildings far away at the shore. But the narrow parts are magical. We took a small boat (our guide called it a canoe but it was more like a punt or a gondola, since it is pushed with a long pole) down what our guide called a creek (it was probably 15 feet wide). Here’s video. The foliage is so thick and so tall that it creates a sort of wall around you, and with just the sound of the water lapping at the boat it is very peaceful. (I had the somewhat surreal experience of being in a boat with a Spanish couple and their Vietnamese guide—I got so confused when this Vietnamese guy started speaking to me in Spanish! But I decided to take advantage of his expertise. I asked him if it’s true that there were crocodiles in the river (our guide had warned us just before we got into the boats, and while I took him seriously in the moment, later I began to wonder if he were pulling my leg). He said he didn’t think there were so many anymore. I asked if it were possible to swim in the river. He said something like, “Look at the water! It is so brown. And the mud is very deep.”(At least I think that’s what he said–my Spanish vocabulary does not extend to analyzing mud.)) The “canoeing” was definitely the highlight of the boating, since riding in a big boat with 40 people in a river a mile wide does not feel nearly as special.
In addition to boating down the river, over the course of the two days we visited a cocoanut candy workshop, a rice noodle workshop, a fruit farm, a Buddhist pagoda, and a village where they performed traditional music for us. I assume that our guide got paid by all these businesses (save the pagoda) for bringing us there, since we were all encouraged to buy candy, food, fruit, and crafts wherever we went. Most of these stops were pretty dull, but I quite liked the fruit farm. I had never seen pineapple plants before. They are surprisingly inefficient—a very large plant for a single piece of fruit. The farm was crisscrossed with man-made canals for irrigation. Our guide said that the water goes in and out with the tides; just before the tide goes out, they put a net at the end of the canal to catch all the fish that were pushed in with the water. One of the highlights of the farm was a bridge the owner had built in the traditional Mekong style over a small pond. It consisted of a series of extremely narrow logs (about as wide as my foot) which allowed you to walk as though on an extremely arched balance beam. They only inauthentic part was the railings, which they had put up for us tourists. I certainly could not have done it without them. (There were some extremely hungry-looking carp in that pond…)
I became fast friends with a French girl named Stephanie who was also traveling alone. She has just quit her job and sold all her furniture to start a new life in Scotland—where she has never been! I was very impressed by her bravery.
Our guide, Thanh, was at first very funny and entertaining. He told us Thanh is a very popular name in Vietnam—for girls. (He was the 11th son in a row and his father was so desperate for a daughter that he named him before he was born.) He had lots of interesting anecdotes about the history and culture of Vietnam. He said that originally only the north was Vietnam. But the king had a beautiful daughter, whom he married off to the king of the neighboring kingdom (what is now central Vietnam). As soon as the wedding was over the king of Vietnam sent his army into his son-in-law’s territory. Thanh said that his father used this story to warn him to stay away from beautiful women. (Thanh’s father also warned him to stay away from women from the Mekong Delta, because it’s such a prosperous area thanks to the rich soil that people from the area are not good at saving money and they are a bit lazy compared to the rest of the country.) Thanh also explained how the Mekong Delta came to be part of Vietnam (it was part of Cambodia and virtually empty, but then word of its excellent farming conditions spread and it was settled by so many Vietnamese that it became part of the country).
I say Thanh was funny and entertaining at first because halfway through the first day there was a dramatic switch in his personality. I first noticed after Stephanie told me that she was scheduled for a home stay that night. I asked Thanh if I could switch to one as well, since that sounded much more interesting than spending the night in a hotel, and he said I could but it would be $8 more. I asked if the $5 I had had to pay as a single supplement fee could be applied towards the $8. He became very huffy and said no. I asked why not and at first he wouldn’t even answer me, but after I pressed he said that he had to pay for the hotel room whether I stayed there or not because it was too late to cancel. Which seemed very reasonable to me, and I said so, but he was still in a terrible mood from my question and said, “Clearly, you don’t want to pay more. You should just stay at the hotel.” The people around us looked at me in puzzlement, like “what’s wrong with him?!” I said no, I was perfectly willing to pay more; I had simply wanted to understand why. When he went away I remarked to Stephanie that I couldn’t understand why he was so defensive—he had seemed so nice and funny earlier. She said that when she had first arrived he had taken her ticket and she had asked if he would be giving her a receipt and he had said, “Don’t you trust the Vietnamese?!”
Later, when we were driving on the bus, Thanh asked if we wanted to hear about what we were doing later that evening now or after the rest stop. (He often gave us choices like that.) Somebody said they’d like to hear now, which was apparently the wrong answer, because Thanh looked deeply affronted and then launched into a rambling speech (using a microphone!) about how he had never had a complaint or a problem with a group before, but clearly we didn’t trust him. He went on in a martyred tone for several minutes. The Australian teenager across the aisle from me and I spent the pity party making “WTF?!” faces at each other. I can’t imagine an American service industry professional freaking out like that over anything short of rioting. It’s a shame because I really liked him at the beginning, when he was telling funny stories and encouraging us to correct his English, but after that I was tempted to offer to teach him the English word “tantrum.” (Later, at the pagoda, he was talking to us about Buddhism, and he started talking about the day when everyone goes and prays for their parents. He started talking about the importance of family in Vietnam, which evolved into the importance of not neglecting your parents, which somehow evolved into an angry rant about how those of us who have parents—his are dead—don’t appreciate them.)
Anyway, I don’t want to make it sound like our guide’s crazy mood swings ruined the trip. Not at all—if anything, it gave all of us something to bond over.
At the end of the first day, after four hours of driving in a bus broken up by many boat trips, we arrived in the city of Can Tho (pronounced, to my ears at least, like Gun Ter). It looked very much like Ho Chi Minh City (which Thanh, incidentally, told us to call Saigon, because “Ho Chi Minh City is just too long”), only much, much smaller, of course, and without the same energy. Most of the people staying in the city were staying at an establishment Thanh repeatedly informed us was a “seven-star hotel.” Stephanie and I giggled to each other about how disappointed we were to be missing our big opportunity to stay at the world’s best hotel. (A quick glance at the spare lobby had us concluding at the rooms must be gold-plated.)
Those of us doing a homestay were sent in a minivan out of the city. Before we left Thanh, in a moment of good humor, told us to take a walk after dinner and try to catch a firefly so we could make a wish as we released it.
Outside the city center, in a no-man’s-land of big box stores, we drove around a rotary with a construction site in the middle. Sitting beside the central island, in the lane itself, was a man playing an acoustic guitar and singing. In the dark, surrounded by cars and motorbikes. I couldn’t figure out if he were playing for the construction workers or the motorbike riders.
We left the main road and drove down a dark one-lane street with small, square white houses (picture garages in southern California) on either side, close to the street. Most of them had wide doors that were open to let in the cool night air. All of them—every single one—had a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in the living room. (Later I asked a Vietnamese girl I became friendly with if that were compulsory; she said no, she doesn’t have one.) None of us knew what to expect—would all six of us be staying with the same family? Anya and Jan, a German couple going with us, told us that when they were in Halong Bay they did a homestay where the family gave them their beds and slept on the floor! I fervently hoped that wouldn’t happen for us.
I needn’t have worried; when the cab finally stopped, it was to pull up next to a large, professionally-produced sign: “Welcome to Hung ‘Homestay.’” At the end of the driveway were a number of round tables where westerners sat, eating dinner. Stephanie and I looked at each other. “W’re at a guest house!”
Naturally, we were disappointed (especially when it became clear that the Vietnamese family that ran the place couldn’t really speak English so our interactions with them were by necessity very limited), but once we got over that, it was a really lovely place. Our rooms were behind the house, and felt like they were practically in the jungle due to all the plants and loud animal noises. They were little cabins made out of some sort of woven leaves. They faced a small canal (about six feet wide) which you had to cross via a bridge that was one-foot wide. (The first time, I wasn’t brave enough to try it and went farther along to a bigger bridge; after that, I got over it.) Stephanie and I were put in the same one; it had two queen-sized beds under mosquito netting and a very primitive bathroom.
After we dropped off our things we joined two couples from our tour in the dining area (which felt like a carport.) Soon a woman from the family appeared with a bowl full of brown spring roll filling and some rice wrappers. She demonstrated how we should roll them, and then left us to prepare a bowl full. Once they were ready, she led us into the kitchen to fry them on the stove. (It looked more or less like a western kitchen, with some very nice wooden cabinets.) We took turns lifting the rolls into the wok with chopsticks. When they were all ready we returned to our table to find it piled high with food, including the ingredients for fresh spring rolls (vermicelli, lettuce, mint, etc.) We were shown how to put them together and left to our own devices.
After dinner we decided to take the walk Thanh had suggested. We took a right turn out of the driveway and headed in the opposite direction from the city. It was a warm night and it was fun to stroll down the street, peering into houses. Most people were sitting right inside the open door, looking right back at us. We got a lot of hellos. One entire family came out to the street to talk to us (they pushed their shy little girl to say hello, which she refused to do until I said it first), but unfortunately they didn’t know any other words. (We tried French and Spanish as well to no avail.) Through some cute pantomime they were able to convey that the flowers on the tree beside us were asleep for the night. Eventually we just smiled a lot at each other. It was a little frustrating, but it was also one of my favorite moments of the trip. How can you not be touched by people crossing the street just to smile at you? Here’s some video of our walk.
Eventually we spotted our first firefly. It was on the same side of the street as the river, and when Anya headed down a path in pursuit I had a horrible vision of her being eaten by one of the (alleged) crocodiles. Fortunately, we soon spotted some on the other side of the street. To my amazement, I was the first to catch one. I held it in my cupped hands for a second before releasing it, and my wish, into the side yard of a Vietnamese family who probably would have been astonished had they looked out their window.
Even when we were walking where there were no human noises—no televisions, no music, no voices—it was far from silent. The insects alone made quite an impressive racket. Then there was the wind in the trees, and the water. Stephanie and I stood and listened for a moment and thought about what it must have been like to be a soldier listening to the same noises, wondering if one of them was trying to kill him.
When we got back to our cabin we were very glad to have the mosquito net. We had quite a menagerie of bugs in there (including, at one point, fireflies) as well as the lizards that are ubiquitous in this part of the world. All night I could hear what sounded like burrowing beneath me—I just prayed that if whatever it was emerged from under the bed, I would be asleep when it happened.
We got up at 5:30 to see the sun rise over the river (at least, that was the theory—it was already up by the time we headed with the man of the house to his small boat at 5:50. He took us down a small branch of the river to the spot where we would be meeting up with Thanh and the rest of our group. Here’s some video. As we headed down the river he somehow managed to serve us breakfast (rolls with jam), complete with tea! When we arrived at the meeting place a middle-aged woman pulled up beside us in a small wooden boat filled with bottles of soda and beer and made him an iced coffee right in the boat. She served it to him in a small plastic bag with a straw sticking out of the top.
Thanh and the others appeared in a large boat and we climbed aboard. Then we sailed down the river to see the floating market. It consists of dozens of boats ranging from the very small (like the four-seater canoes we took the day before) to the medium-sized selling everything from pineapples to cabbages to the boats themselves. They advertise their wares by hanging a sample from a tall bamboo pole. That way, from a distance you can see who has watermelons and who has mangos. Many of the boats pulled up beside ours to sell coffee and fruit to us tourists.
Most of the women were wearing the iconic conical hats. (Thanh explained that there are many purposes for these hats. First, to keep out the sun. Second, they can be used as measuring devices since they each contain sixteen rings. So if you use the hat to borrow rice from a neighbor, you can remember that you owe them four rings worth, for example. Third, if you have to use the bathroom out in a field and someone surprises you, you can use the hat to cover—your face.)
All in all, it was a very pleasant experience that I will always remember fondly. While I neglect my parents and distrust the Vietnamese, of course