HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Delta Chronicles Part 4/4 - This is the End

Now for my last post on the trip to the Mekong Delta. I'd like to conclude by discussing the sights and sounds of the region. Below is a quick video to give an idea of what I'm talking about - an extract from our boat ride at Ben Tre that shows how houses are built right on the water, boats are used to transport goods, and lets you hear how ragged the engines of these boats sound.

Now, I'll go back to Friday, when we explored the islands at My Tho. The lush greenery of these islands became a recurring theme throughout the trip. The Delta's fertility was evident in the abundance of a vast array of plants and trees, many kinds of which I had never seen before. The tiny canals coursing through the islands were also a wonderful treat, especially as we canoed down them. Banana and palm trees reached to the sky above us, while the oars slapping the dark-brown water reminded us that water rules this part of the world.

The moto ride from My Tho to Cat Be provided further visual stimulation. The road was flanked for miles by banana trees, the verdant green landscape broken up from time to time by a small village or cluster of houses. The ride reminded me of walking through the narrow residential alleys of Saigon - every few minutes we got a fleeting glance of life in the countryside - you would see a house approaching, then see a family eating, or motos being repaired, before you were already past it, moving deeper into the Delta at 30mph. We arrived at the ferry landing in Cat Be and were immediately presented with a panorama of life on the water. Houses rested on stilts, the water mere feet away from the front door. Boats of all sizes scurried up, down, and across the river, carrying all kinds of cargo - coal, timber, household goods, and massive amounts of fruits and vegetables. We crossed the river on the ferry before setting out in a small boat of our own - the one in the above video.
On the ride we passed boats delivering the days' fruit to markets and restaurants, women washing clothes in the river (not sure how clean that will make them...), and houseboats where familes hung their laundry out to dry right above the engine. It was fascinating to watch daily life that is totally dependent upon the water. Coming from a city that has had some issues with water recently, I also wondered what happens when the river reaches flood stage - I can't imagine that it's a pretty picture.

Cruising down the river and across the canals of the Delta reminded me a lot of movies about the Vietnam War that I've seen. I felt like Martin Sheen on Chief's boat, half expecting to see Robert Duvall come roaring out of the horizon with a bunch of choppers blaring Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries". Luckily, Lawrence Fishburn wasn't around to machine gun any innocent families, and we didn't come across Col. Kurtz's compound. There, I got all of my Apocalypse Now references out of the way in one fell swoop. But seriously, with sights like these, I felt like I had been transported back in time, and I apologize to anyone who hasn't seen that movie.

Vinh Long presented more great sights, and I continued to notice just how green the region is. When you looked out the window of our room at the homestay you were presented with a sea of green, with a little brown ribbon of water running through it. I also got a great picture at the place we ate lunch at on Saturday of what I think are three essential sights of Vietnam: a motorbike, a sleeping dog, and smiling children. You will see these three sights all over the place, and the country simply wouldn't be what it is without them.

I was content after a trip full of vivid visuals and colors and sights of all kinds, but the ride back to Saigon held one more intriguing scene in store. Shortly after leaving Vinh Long, we merged onto the first Western-style freeway I've seen since I left the U.S. I was amazed to see shoulders and a roadway that was elevated off the ground - it was also the first time I've been in a vehicle that went over 50 mph since I stepped off the plane in Phnom Penh. As we hurtled towards Saigon - quite literally, since the driver had a lead foot that would put many Americans to shame - the contradictions that are inherent in the developing world became apparent once again. This smooth, spanking new stretch of road cut a swath through the middle of Vietnam's rice country. We sped past rice paddies where workers in old-fashioned conical hats were hunched over, utilizing farming practices that have been around for centuries right next to a development project that is probably less than a year old. Peasant homes squatted next to gleaming concrete flyovers, etc. It felt strange blasting through the past at 60 mph, seeing so many people in the fields that will probably never even have the opportunity to use the shiny new road that has brought the 21st century to their backyard.
We were reminded of how far Vietnam still has to go when the 21st century abruptly ended just outside of Saigon. The highway literally just stopped, and we turned onto an atrocious road before winding our way back into the city. It was wierd seeing a highway still under construction, since highways in the U.S. seem to continue on forever, branching off into different directions, only ending when they reach a coastline. I had never really thought of what it must have been like when the Interstate Highway System was begun under Eisenhower, but now I think I have a little bit of an idea.

Well, after four lengthy posts I feel that I've done a pretty good job articulating my thoughts on the Delta. Getting there was a hell of an adventure, the food was some of the best I've ever eaten, the people, notably the children, were incredible, and the region presented a visual feast that is second to none. I really hope that some of you can do what Andee and I did someday. If you come and visit, I'll take you down there myself, it's obviously worth the trip. I still break out in a smile when I think about much of the trip, and I will be thinking about it for a while - just as I was in this picture. I just I wish I could go back to that spot. Oh well, for now I can enjoy the hustle and bustle of Saigon while I wait to start work.

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