Day 59 ~ Saturday, 3rd March 2012 ~ sunrise: 6.05am ~ sunset: 6.02pm ~ wind: 2, light breeze ~ weather: sunny ~ temperature: 33°C ~ distance travelled since Nha Trang: 207 NM ~ in total: 21,765 NM
Aurora docks in Phu My at eight o’clock in the morning. The air temperature is already twenty-nine degrees Celsius, and it is sure to get even hotter. Today’s excursion is the ‘Mekong River Experience’ – an exclusive tour for two groups of six passengers only. It is a three-hour drive and some hundred and eighty kilometres each way. First we head through Ho Chi Minh (He Who Brings Enlightenment) City with its adventurous traffic, and then out into the vast plain of the Mekong Delta.
In the countryside we pass rice fields dotted with farmsteads and family tombs, where dogs play and little boys run with kites. The buildings of both town and countryside are thrown together in a variety of styles, often in a cheerful ramshackly way that narrowly avoids squalor.
By the time we arrive in My Tho, our limbs are numb. We take a brisk walk around the harbour building to stretch our legs before boarding a motorboat that takes us across the opaque waters of the Mekong River. We pass another Japanese suspension bridge (they seem to be everywhere) as well as a floating fish farm, and soon we arrive at Thoi Son, the Unicorn Island, for a leisurely walking tour along shaded footpaths.
Our first stop is at a honey farm, where we are shown frames of honeycomb with bees swarming all over. Invited by the landlady to sit in the shade of a pillared roof, we are given a tasty honey drink to sample. It is prepared in small glass tumblers at our table, and now our guide demonstrates how to toast in Vietnamese: “Mo (one), hai (two), ba (three) – yo!” … and down it goes! We practise our first words of Vietnamese eagerly. A tasting of propolis, honey and delicious peanut brittle follows, and then we have the opportunity to buy these delicacies in support of the local economy.
Following a path into the gardenlike grounds, we reach a place where benches and tables welcome us in the shade. A selection of locally grown fruit is served here: pineapple, pomelo and mini-bananas, as well as the more exotic jackfruit, sapodillas and milk apples. All of this makes the heat bearable and we enjoy each treat in turn. Musicians with traditional instruments arrive and accompany four young women who sing folk songs for us, mostly sad ones about the lover leaving to go to war.
Our motorboat is waiting to take us further down the river, to a place where we change into small, Sampan-style boats. These are rowed along a narrow canal by two women in conical hats, and this waterway is part of a maze of similar channels, extending along the side of the riverbank. The upright leaves of water coconut provide shade, but sunlight drips through their tall fronds in patches and dapples the mud-brown water with gold.
It is wonderful to glide silently along these greenish tunnels, hidden from sight, and I find myself imagining childhood adventures in this setting. How marvellous it would be to have one’s own little boat to explore these waterways from dawn to dusk! ‘Huckleberry Finn’ comes to mind, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ … Much too soon for my liking our destination is reached and we must disembark. The eyes of an idle man by the jetty light up expectantly as I get out a couple of dollar bills for the boatwomen.
Now we follow another footpath and see pineapples growing on their stalks, a farmhouse built from carved coconut wood, and a bicycle leaning in the yard. Scrawny black hens are scratching the ground around it. At a small family workshop, a mother-and-daughter team produces delicious coconut candy. The young son handles a python fearlessly and poses for photographs, while the man of the house just hangs about and watches over his family’s enterprise.
Set in flowery grounds, a beautiful restaurant awaits us at the end of our walk. It is intensely hot now, humid and well into the thirties, but a cool, welcome breeze moves through the open hall where we are served an exceptional meal.
A gorgeous elephant ear fish from the river, encrusted in herbs and almond flakes, is plucked apart at our table by expert fingers and rolled in rice paper with thin slices of cucumber and pineapple. An enormous balloon of crisply fried rice paste is cut into segments and heaped on a plate. Its unfamiliar taste is divine. An array of spring rolls is pinned, hedgehog-like, to the skin of a sliced pineapple. Generous helpings of steamed rice and seafood follow, and a plump king prawn is shelled for each of us by our waitress. Everything is so delicious that we all eat a good deal more than we normally would. What a treat!
After the ample meal we find our motorboat waiting at the end of the adjacent pier and clamber aboard to be taken back across the river. The Mekong looks as sluggish as we feel, its waters seemingly immobile. Because the tide is high and pushing upstream, the wavelets hover undecidedly and it is impossible to tell which way the river flows.
On the long drive back to Phu My, most members of our group lie down on the benches of the minivan for a nap. Although feeling drowsy myself, I prefer to watch as the scenery of this fascinating country rolls by. A little girl in pink, transported on a motorbike in the protective enclosure of her father’s arms, gives me a big smile and a wave.
It is absorbing to watch the Vietnamese as they move about on their motorbikes. Here is a young couple with cute twin toddlers, one strapped behind each parent, with a red heart handpainted on each cheek of their tiny facemasks. (We learnt that most women and girls wear facemasks and gloves, even in this heat, to prevent their skin from tanning.)
Then there are the lovers, her head resting on his back, arms clasped about his chest, and a proud look on his face. But acquaintances and business partners, sharing a bike, manage to leave plenty of space between their bodies in formal uprightness.
Unwashed young men in torn trousers and flip-flops zip along at a brisker pace than the dolled-up teenage girls in high heels; their long hair streaming out beneath cute, fashionable helmets as they laugh at a joke.
And then there is the older woman, with supplies for her village store strapped to every possible part of body and bike, and all those boxes and bags increasing the bulk of her vehicle considerably.
All these lives are travelling in brief impressions past my wondering eyes …
Visiting so many different countries in close succession allows me to experience a well-known fact in the light of immediate observation, namely that the basic themes of human existence play themselves out all over the globe in hugely colourful variety. Only the human spirit could invent a myriad ways of living Life. Man, woman and child between birth and death, eating and sleeping, learning, working and playing, loving, celebrating, praying and grieving – these are the common denominators of all the cultures in the world.
And yet there is an almost infinite wealth of variation in the way all of this is done. Each ethnic group evolved their own, special style in every aspect of the common themes of life, and they express it in their languages and dialects, their cults, beliefs and legends, their customs and traditions, through crafts and science, cooking and music, dance, literature, art and architecture – and it is this variety we come to see, to appreciate and to learn about as travellers.
Of course this is stating the obvious. But it is one thing to know it in theory, and an altogether different matter to experience that reality in the course of a few weeks with such powerful immediacy: What a glorious place our world is!
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