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Vietnam Part 6

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Vietnam Part 6 – the Mekong Delta

It was now November 24th. We had been 5 ½ weeks on the road and we were back in HCMC. This would be our 3rd time in the city and it was beginning to feel like home. We headed straight from the airport to the Cap Town hotel. I had booked it online well in advance while we were still in Hanoi, in order to get a good rate. We had two nights there before heading to the Mekong Delta and then would have four nights upon our return. The Cap Town room was better than the cheapest room we stayed in at the Blue Diamond in that it had a window, but the staff was not nearly as friendly. Then there was a positive deluge the first night. Aside from the normal storm noise, there was the sound emanating from the bathroom drain, which made it seem that soon the room would be awash.

Other than needing to retrieve our luggage from the Blue Diamond, where we had stored our luggage for the past 10 days, we were really just biding our time. We visited our favorite coffee and beer spots, and tried out two more Indian restaurants: Saigon – 73 Mac Thi Buoi St, and nearby Alibaba at #43 on the same street. Both were quite good, with excellent service, but being the tough customers that we are, we weren’t overwhelmed by either.

And there were a flurry of emails with our prospective host in the Delta. His accommodations were not near any route, and we were told there was no road to his place. He had arranged tickets for us to get to the nearest large town by bus, but no instructions on how to secure the actual tickets. After much back and forth with Thuy, our hostess in Hanoi who had recommended the place, we decided to trust that all would be well.

In the morning, we checked out, secured unnecessary luggage with the staff and got a taxi to the bus location. As we had an address, but no idea in what part of the city and how far away it was, we set out with plenty of time to spare. We had been driving for about 15 minutes when I realized I didn’t have my passport. In all the repacking, I must have put it in the stored luggage. With all the traffic and the one-way roads, it took all our spare time to return to the hotel before finally arriving at the bus station. I use this term very loosely as it turned out to be just a large garage, and really only identified by the congregating passengers. I went inside to confirm our reservations. It took a phone call to Vinh to straighten everything out. However, I have no idea whether it was the bus he booked, or a different one.

Once on our way, we were treated to a new view of both HCMC and its out-skirts. The changing character of the districts eventually became the changing landscape of the countryside. We had thought we would be on a direct bus to Ben Tre where Vinh would pick us up. Ben Tre is one of the areas of the country completely decimated by the Americans in the war. We saw no evidence of older buildings at all. Despite this history, we experienced almost no bias during our stay in the area.

It turned out that we had boarded the Vietnam version of a “local” commuter bus, which stopped at fixed points, but also anywhere a passenger requested. We were thrilled with the exposure to rural and small town life, surmising it would have cost us hundreds of dollars to have such a tour by car, all for the princely sum of $4 US. The long, circuitous route did begin to worry us, especially as the bus became emptier and emptier.. Perhaps we would not reach our destination. Eventually, we were transferred to a smaller bus, and the few remaining passengers seemed to be concerned for us as well. The final departing passenger gave us a sad smile as she left.

I had been following the road signs fairly carefully, and it seemed to me we had done a full circle and were now headed back the way we came. However, no sooner had I said this to Mike, than the bus stopped again. Two fellows with small motorcycles were waiting – Vinh and his brother. They loaded us and our two small bags onto the bikes and off we went. I was having a high old time, not knowing of Mike’s predicament. He had previously sworn off motos due to safety concerns, but I didn’t think there would be any other issues. By the time we reached the Jardin, he was in agony with hip pain.

Once we arrived at the guesthouse, we were given cold drinks and then left to ourselves. Vinh eventually returned, and walked us around the compound and showed us to our cottage. He said we would meet again in a little bit for a bike ride, and then be given a cooking course around 5, but there was no offer of other food or drink. In retrospect, we are sure this behavior came not out of neglect, but just the result of his natural shyness.

However, at the time it all seemed very strange and not what we expected. Here we were in the middle of nowhere, with a young man who didn’t seem to have any understanding of how a guesthouse host should behave. We were quite relieved to find that the room itself was very pleasant. It came with a private porch with a hammock as well as a rattan loveseat. We made some tea and sat there as we discussed our chosen fate. Had we made a mistake? What would we do for four days? Mike gave his standard response: “Just give it time. It will all work out.” And indeed it did!

When we reconvened with Vinh for the bike tour, Mike had decided he would walk not ride. I was enthusiastic about the prospect of biking, but turned out to be utterly incompetent. I managed just a few yards before I crashed my old, rusty bicycle. The bike was beyond worrying about, but my leg had a fair gash from the chain. It was bleeding profusely, so with that cleansing and the presumed antiseptic something-or-other provided by Vinh, I had no concern about infection. After covering the wound with some colorful children’s band-aids that I somehow had in my bag, we set off again - this time by foot. We had a very pleasant walk and became acquainted with the neighborhood. After we got back, I had a shower, changed the dressing on my leg and had a rest while Mike took another walk. He came back with beer from a neighborhood shop. We got some ice from Vinh and had a lovely “cold one” on our porch. I am not sure what Vinh thought of our bringing in drinks. We certainly didn’t mean to offend. It was only later that we saw that there was beer on the menu and was available for the asking. Oh dear – faux pas everywhere.

Cooking class was next. The kitchen is at the back of the main house. It is quite large and well equipped with every kind of pot, pan and cutting and mixing tools needed. Vinh’s mother led the instruction, with Vinh translating. The first task was to grind the rice to make flour. This is done with a traditional stone hand mill. As we were going to make pancakes, Vinh added coconut milk to the rice as Mike and I took turns at the grindstone. The result was a thin liquid batter. The next step was to make the pancakes. he ingredients were ready to go with Vinh as the sous-chef. While there are waist high cooking surfaces, Vinh’s mother was working over a traditional wood fire at ground level. She pointed to the tiny stool – I knew I could get down, but could I get up again? First we sautéed the other ingredients for the pancakes: onions, garlic, spice and thinly sliced pork and tiny shrimp. Then the batter is poured over and cooked until it is set. The final step is to sprinkle a few bean sprouts on top. I was ready for more dishes, but was shooed out of the kitchen so that real work could be done. The entire menu that evening consisted of the pancakes, followed by papaya salad with fried bananas for dessert. It was absolutely delicious, and though the family dog and kitten had appeared and waited patiently, there were no leftovers that night.

We slept very well in the quiet of the countryside. The air was fresh and clean. What a change from our time in the cities. After breakfast, Vinh took us on a boat ride through the backwaters. It was wonderful to be out on the water, and drifting along with no other tourists in sight. After awhile, we docked the boat in order to visit a Christian community. We stopped at a rather posh traditional private home, with an altar of sorts dedicated to Father Francois Xavier Truong Buu Diep. I didn’t understand from Vinh at the time, but research based on the name attached to a photograph led me to a few Christian journalism links about this man. According to these writers, he was a Franciscan priest who refused to relocate to safety when the war broke out. He and 70 parishioners were captured and killed. While the articles state that government authorities do not identify the killers, the Christian press fingers the Communists. However, it would be well to know that the Catholic Church had sympathized with the French during their colonial period and that both local and regional history is a delicate and complicated matter. One needs to consider also that this Christian community is a just a drop in the social bucket of this region. But I think it speaks volumes that Vinh, who is not Christian, felt that it was an important place for us to visit. Regardless of who caused this man’s death, it seems he remains revered as a virtual saint with some Christians, and non-believers as well.

As we walked around the town, I asked Vinh about one of the many very formal signposts we kept seeing on the smaller paths. He explained that the small lanes by which people could access their homes were all paid for privately. The signs were dedications to those who had contributed to the construction costs. One of the other sites we visited was a rather large and fairly opulent Catholic Church, which also had two outdoor areas with benches for services, as well as an adjoining cemetery. The church has regular services and also seemed to be open for casual visits at any time. In wandering through, I was surprised to see a glassed closet holding multi-colored vestments. They didn’t appear to be ornate, but the mass of delicate hues was amazing and stands in such contrast to the dark vestment colors we use in North America. We also took a walk through the town market. I managed to buy some more disinfectant for my wounded leg, while Mike watched in fascination as a woman bartered a fistful of small eggplants for a fish. Vinh treated us to iced coffee before we boarded the boat for the trip back.

We took the same route back, but the narrowest of passageways were now blocked. The currents had meshed the overgrowth into a solid mat. The boatman, first cut the plants with a machete and then attempted to force his way through it. This only led to us getting far enough into the mass, to have the rear propeller become completely clogged. Clearly the painted “boat eyes” had let us down. Vinh spent some time whacking away before we were on the move again. We were worried that his boat was irreparably damaged, but a good clean after we returned eventually restored it to health.

In the afternoon, we wandered our neighborhood again. It sits in a hamlet with a fair warren of paths with quite a number of private shops. The paths and the shops seemed to have a vascular quality – as you moved away from the major street, the lanes and the shops shrunk in size. Some of lanes were wide enough for a car, but most only large enough for motorbikes or pedestrians. We stopped at several shops and bought snacks and instant coffee for the room. We had used these pre-mixed packs of coffee, sugar and creamer in the hotels, and while not like freshly made VN coffee, they are still good in the absence of the real thing. It was with great puzzlement that the vendor handed over his entire stock. We felt just a little guilty at leaving other customers bereft.

Back at the guesthouse, we had yet another delectable multi-course dinner. This time the menu was pork chops, followed by green bean with cucumbers and carrots, then sautéed bitter gourd stalks with pineapple, and frozen mango slices for dessert. Not only were the dishes new and scrumptious, the presentation was absolutely professional.

It was now our final full day. Each evening before, my ritual had been to wash the day’s laundry in the shower, then wash me in the shower, then dry and re-bandage my leg, and then hang laundry on the porch to dry. This morning when I went to collect the laundry, a bra was missing. I had hung it on a chair back, hooked over the back support to safe guard it from the breeze. How could it possibly be missing? Did the wind take it after all? Aside from losing one of 2 precious items, I was worried that Vinh would find it in the garden and be embarrassed. We were sitting on the porch, drinking coffee, and discussing the matter, when far across the garden I saw something out of place. With so much tidy greenery, this missing garment turned out to be easy to spot. However, it was quite shredded. The wind theory had been an unlikely culprit from the beginning. The evidence now pointed to the pet dog Nana. She had become a frequent companion on the porch. While Nana is a very sweet and generally well-behaved dog, who entertained us regularly while playing with her buddy the kitten, she was also intelligent enough to have committed the crime. But even though I was upset about the state of the bra, I imagined the fun she had tugging to get it in the first place, and then casting it aside out of boredom.

After breakfast, Vinh took us for another tour of the neighborhood. We were headed to his brother’s place, but we also wanted him to show us some of the local plants and fruit trees. I am sure Vinh felt there was a path, but for us, it seemed fairly random route across open areas, and streams. Mind you, we were also distracted by the wealth of flora that he pointed out as we made our way. We found his brother’s place to be quite large. He has a durian orchard, but fortunately for me who hates even the smell of the unpeeled fruit, none was ripe. His brother also raises fighting cocks for sale in the city. This is a popular and hugely profitable venture in rural areas. It also explained why on our twice-daily walks we had seen so many people engaged making the bamboo cages for the birds.

In the afternoon, we headed out again on our own. As we were getting ready to leave, I realized I something else was missing too. I didn’t have my prescription glasses. They have transition lenses that I use for driving and walking in the sun. I couldn’t imagine where I had left them and why I hadn’t noticed earlier. After scouring the cottage again, I asked Vinh if he would call his brother to see if I had left them at his house, when we sat down for tea. They were not there. Well, we were headed back out - I would ask at the coffee shop we had stopped at the day earlier.

We had just begun the walk when a young girl approached us. She had no English, but clearly wanted to walk with us. Unlike most of the children, she was untidily dressed and hadn’t washed. It wasn’t clear whether she was poor whether she was like my children had been at times – who wants to wash? Who wants to change? We held hands for a time and then suddenly she dropped my hand. She examined hers– something had bothered her. Did she regret taking the hand of a stranger? Did my hands feel too strange to her? As we headed towards the first bridge, we said goodbye. We didn’t want to send up a panic by taking her away without permission. She seemed content, but she was still there – or back again - to greet us on our return.

We thoroughly enjoyed these walks. The neighbors would usually smile and wave. There was virtually no sign of displeasure with these two strange westerners, other than the occasional sneer from a cyclist – remains of anti-Americanism? Or just not happy with tourists? We loved seeing all different houses and the new flowers and other plants along the way. One home had two large kilns. I wondered if they were for pots or bricks, or something else. Others had plant nurseries. Many homes had cactus hedges lining the path. At a point near the delta, we found some workmen repairing a boat with crude tools. There was also a new bridge under construction, and we stopped each time we passed to follow its progress. It was quite a surprise when one of the workers shouted a greeting to me in French rather than Vietnamese. Do I look French? Ooh la la…

Previously we had gone as far as the large road where Vinh had met us initially. This is where we had stopped for coffee the previous day. We had really enjoyed ourselves; the waitress had made a great effort to teach us some Vietnamese. This shop was across from a government office building. We saw three men in business suits who barely spoke to her but treated her more as if she didn’t exist. And certainly no “please” or “thank you. This shop was like others we had seen in the countryside. At lunchtime men would park their motorbikes and either have a meal or load themselves into the hammocks lining the edge of the restaurant. Break time VN style!

However, after finding that no glasses had been found, we determined the loss was the proverbial water under the bridge and it wasn’t going to ruin the day. We had learned from Vinh that if we were to go another mile or so further, we would reach a town with a market. Today we would press on to Cho Loc, whose sole purpose for existence is its markets. We had a wonderful time making our way through all the open stalls, as well as a couple of the indoor markets. Laden down with kitchen implements and homemade candy, we headed back. As we had stopped for iced-coffee on the way out, on the return we decided to stop for beer at a place we had noticed tucked away off the road. I am not sure if it was a regular restaurant or a worker’s canteen, but they took our orders. We tried some snacks, which unfortunately turned out to be completely unappealing. The beer however was quite delicious and ice cold. I surreptitiously bundled up the rather vile remains of the snacks and took them home to Nana. She finished them off in one gulp.

After getting back, Vinh asked if I had found my glasses. When I said no, he suggested that we go by motorbike back to the other village. We had stopped there for coffee too. I would have had to take my glasses off to read the label when I bought the disinfectant. Perhaps they were somewhere in that town. However, again we had no luck. All that effort and precious gasoline wasted. We were sitting on the porch later, when Vinh approached us. His nephew had found the glasses. He had told him of the route (remember that circuitous, random one?) we took to his brother’s place. That is where the glasses were found. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

After dark, we sat down for our final dinner of our stay: pork meatballs with papaya in broth; baked fish with rice; a kind of spring roll called “nem”, but wrapped in leaves rather than rice pancake; and dragon fruit for dessert. Nana and the kitten stayed to entertain us. It was a rather melancholic evening, as we raised our glasses again and again, we relived the past few days. With the soft music from Vinh’s French cd’s filling the dining porch, I really didn’t want it to end. After our uneven start to the journey, it had ended up being, and remains today, our fondest memory of Vietnam.

We had yet another wonderful beginning to our final day – I haven’t mentioned this have I? I still miss his mother’s wonderful breakfasts: banana crepes, fresh sliced pineapple, baguettes and butter, and of course tea and coffee. Then it was time to pack up and settle the bill. We didn’t realize that we would need to pay in cash. Initially, I was rather upset. It would cost us to take cash out of an ATM, and if we had paid online, we could have done it on credit. However, the rate was lower than the online rate, Vinh had been wonderful, and he had refused a reward for finding the glasses. So, off Vinh and I went to town on the motorbike again. It was a little frustrating, as the bank staff wouldn’t process the withdrawal at a teller as a single transaction; this meant multiple ATM withdrawals to get enough to cover the bill.

After we returned and the packing was finished, I spent a lazy time in the hammock on the porch, while Mike had a short nap. His hips had finally recovered, and he wasn’t about to hop on a motorbike again. He would walk pulling one of the bags to the bus stop, while Vinh and I took the other one by bike. There were lots of hugs and picture snapping when we left. And we ended up giving Vinh a large “tip” in thanks for his graciousness and generosity of time. All in all, it is impossible to recommend too highly a stay at the Jardin du Mekong. We spent a wonderful few days, in the middle of nowhere, in a very comfortable room, with gourmet food and didn’t see another tourist the entire time. How long this isolation will last is questionable, so if you want a place off the beaten track, it’s probably wise not to delay.

A couple of notes about his website: it currently proudly advertises private outdoor bathrooms – the accommodations are ensuite. It also states that will pick you up with a car, however this is a car from HCMC. I don’t know if you can avoid the motorbike trip to the guesthouse.

Just as well that we had had our rest- we had quite a trip ahead of us on our return to HCMC. Vinh had decided to join us on the bus ride. Another brother lived in the city, and he would take him some things and do some shopping himself. There was great confusion before we even boarded the bus. It had missed the stop. Vinh’s tried calling the bus, but his brother ended up chasing down the bus on his motorcyle. Once we boarded, it was non-stop entertainment. Unlike the trip out, the return trip was far more of an adventure. Everyone seemed to be packing loads of goods. There were multiple pleas to the driver to accept all kinds of shipments, most of which he accepted. For the general traveling public, there was no escaping this cargo. While no one attempted to infringe on our space, other passengers quite willingly accepted such things as crates of durian unceremoniously inserted under their feet, or scores of bags wedged into any space open next to them. There was only one occasion the driver refused the impassioned request to take a load of chickens, despite the fact that he already had two crates sitting beside him. And we noticed one man getting off the bus with the type of perforated woven bags we had seen for sale in the Cho Loc market – this one was inhabited by at least one chicken! Then there was the child who became hysterical at the sight of Mike, and only agreed to board after he his face behind his hat. And this time when we stopped for snacks, our caretaker Vinh knew what to buy. While we resisted the pork balls, we couldn’t pass up the yummy peanut brittle. Despite the nasty durian odor, my memory of this ride is what an adventure it was – you absolutely can’t plan this type of journey.

We had a fair bit of concern when Vinh left the bus far before our stop in HCMC. However, he assured us that we would be taken care of: the driver would arrange for a taxi at the end. A taxi was waiting when we arrived. However, we hadn’t gone even a mile, when I realized the meter was rigged. Instead of steadily rising by small increments, it had already jumped to the equivalent of a few dollars. Mike told the driver to stop. We said the meter was bad and that we wanted to get out. The driver became equally animated demanding we continue or at least pay him for the trip thus far. He ran into the small hotel next to where we had stopped. The woman from the hotel listened and then simply asked why were we complaining about such a small amount of dollars, which we could easily afford. She dismissed our point that the driver was using an illegal meter. In the end, Mike actually paid the guy, as I stomped away pulling my bag. I wouldn’t have given him a single dong. We grabbed another taxi and finally made it back to the Cap Town Hotel. Not one of the happiest memories, but there are still many more to come during our last few days in HCMC.

Link to photos – I advise you to just scroll over the pictures to see the description, as Flickr has now inserted ads into the slideshow.