HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Delta Chronicles Part 3/4 - Do it for the Kids

So far I've covered the food of the Delta and the experience of getting there, now I'd like to talk about the amazing people of the region. I briefly mentioned the guys who gave us moto and boat rides, as well as the women on the islands off of My Tho that provided us with so many delicious samples. All of these people were wonderful, but the most joyous interactions came in Vinh Long.

On Saturday, Andee and I borrowed mountain bikes from the homestay and went on what we thought would be a relaxing ride along the canals of the Delta. We ended up coming back drenched in sweat, since the bikes were fixed gear, had nearly bald tires, and a large portion of the path looked like this:

Welcome to the developing world, I suppose. Anyway, on our ride we passed dozens of locals, both children and adults, who called out a friendly "Hello!," and seemed genuinely happy when we responded in kind. By the time we got back my arm was getting tired from waving at so many people.

Another wonderful scene came when we ate lunch at the pho restaurant/home I mentioned in the previous post. After serving us, the grandma pulled up two chairs and sat in one while placing her 2-year old grandson on the other. He kept making a hilarious noise and then cracking up, so obviously neither me or Andee could resist laughing along with him. I have no idea what he was trying to say, but it made for a very enjoyable lunch. His older brother also helped set and clear the table, and seeing the two boys show their affection for each other was great.

The best experience by far, however, came when we went on a random walk Saturday afternoon. We mistakenly thought a place near the homestay sold fresh fruit juice (I haven't mentioned this but the juice here is just incredible...it may deserve a whole post at some point, in fact), so we wandered off to look for a drink. No one actually had any juice, so we decided to explore one of the dirt paths that lined the canals around Vinh Long. For the next half hour we were immersed in an unforgettable cultural experience.
The path meandered through a stunning mosaic of life in rural Vietnam. We passed women preparing meals, men constructing houses, and children playing. Things got really interesting as we were crossing a foot bridge over one of the canals. Two little girls spotted us and yelled "Hello!" before running over to greet us. Their little brother soon appeared, and the three of them seemed giddy at the fact that Westerners had found their little corner of the Delta. Andee snapped a couple of pictures with them and we followed them to their "home" - really just a concrete shack with an open front. They pointed us out to their mom, and I became worried that they were going to offer us food, given how much hospitality we had recieved in the previous 36 hours. The family obviously had a lot of mouths to feed - there was a little baby in the house as well, along with several dogs. Luckily, everyone just smiled and said hello a few more times, before we said Tan Biet! (Goodbye!) and moved on.
We passed more basic homes and scenes of domesticity before coming to a moment that I'm still trying to wrap my head around. An old, old woman happened to be walking out of her gate as we walked by. She said hello and then reached for Andee's arm, holding on to it for a good minute or two. She seemed to be truly awed by our presence - I felt a combination of humility, akwardness, and curiosity that is hard to articulate. I also began to wonder how long it had been since Westerners had walked down that path, something that made me feel proud, knowing that we had done this trip the right way and had encountered the real Vietnam. I realized how truly culturally isolated we had been on the ride back to Saigon on Sunday morning - between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning we saw four other Westerners. Four, in a nearly 50-hour stretch. I was happy about that.

We continued on, now with children yelling "Hello!" and "What your name?!" from the other side of the canal. So we crossed over to the other side and within moments five more super-excited children raced up to us, giggling hysterically while chorusing Hello! We kept responding with hello! and xin chao! (hello in Vietnamese) before coming across another fascinating scene - outside of a house two freshly slaughtered pigs were splayed out on a table, ready to be butchered. It doesn't get more organic than that. The children followed us for a few more minutes, with huge smiles plastered on their faces. We finally bid them farewell, and returned to the homestay a few minutes later.

I didn't have my camera on me for that walk, and at first I was upset that I had left it in the room, but by the time we got back I was glad. That walk was a once in a lifetime experience that would be impossible to document in pictures, or words for that matter - this post has largely failed to express my thoughts. This sounds selfish, but I'm glad I don't have more pictures to share. If others want to see the joy on the faces of children in Vinh Long, they should go to Vinh Long. It really is worth it. The only dissapointment I felt was thanks to the fact that I don't speak Vietnamese. I wanted nothing more than to talk to the people we encountered, but basically all I can do is say hello, ask their name, and say goodbye. Hopefully I can go back once I've learned more of the language.

In conclusion, then, I'm still stunned by how happy the kids here are. I mentioned this in posts while in Cambodia, but many of these children have almost nothing, and are still the most ecstatic kids I've ever seen. It's such a change from the U.S., where there are certainly happy kids, but so many are glued to the TV all day or loaded on "ADHD" medicine that they seem like zombies. It has me wondering if it is really necessary for 5th graders to have their own cell phones and laptops nowadays. Now I'm sounding negative so I'll stop here, but let me finish up by reiterating how special this trip was - I can't recommend it enough. Also, too make for a more cheerful ending...PUPPIES!!!

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