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Meandering up the Mekong

River travel up the African Congo in the19th Century was spun by Joseph Conrad in his 1901 novella Heart of Darkness this way: “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world…”

I invoke Conrad here because my recent trip up the Mekong River in South Vietnam’s vast Mekong Delta region was similarly “like traveling back.”

I am already soaked as I board an air-conditioned coach in an early morning tropical downpour in the Phan Ngu Lau or “backpacker alley” neighborhood of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). This district bursts with budget hotels, restaurants, and tour operators–all of whom seem at risk on this grey morning of submersion.

A bustling, vibrant city of more than 6 million people, Ho Chi Minh City is the traditional starting point for excursions into the Mekong Delta. While the menu of tours options is huge, for time and convenience purposes, I settle on Delta Adventure Tours, an outfit pitched by my hotel. The $39 price tag for a two-day tour is on par with nearby competitors. The package includes bus transportation from Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta, one dinner, bike rental and both local and overnight boat transportation upriver to Chau Doc.  

The thick motorcycle traffic and frenetic pace of a waterlogged Ho Chi Minh City eventually wanes, revealing the stunning green rice fields of the Mekong Delta. Due to vast economic expansion in Vietnam in recent years, it does take several miles for this coveted delta prize to announce its arrival, yet its slow emergence doesn’t diminish its ability to soothe this Jersey boy’s soul as the first fields of green become visible outside the bus window. The inspiring canvas is broken by the bellowing voice of Pham, our twenty-something Vietnamese tour guide.

“Helloooo everybody!”

Pham is a competent guide—if at times painfully verbose. A Ho Chi Minh City native, he has a penchant for all things American. “Call me Stiffler,” he cackles through his microphone, evoking images of the movie “American Pie,” a comedy that seems awkwardly out of place amidst the bucolic serenity on display out the window. We motor on.

A few hours south of Ho Chi Minh City on the well-maintained national highway 1A, we arrive in the Mekong Delta town of Cai Be, our departure point for our boat trip up the Mekong River. With open sides and wooden chairs decorating the varnished interior, the simple wooden “day boat” inches away from the shore and begins its crawl up the brown, murky river towards the town of Vinh Long. Suddenly, the mighty reach of the Mekong is apparent to us all.

The river—the eleventh longest in the world—has its origin in the Tibetan plateau and snakes for more than 4,000 miles through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before emptying via the Mekong Delta into the South China Sea.

The more sobering story, however, is the role it played in the Vietnam War as American troops saturated the area and bombed many of the towns now on my itinerary, including Cai Be, Vinh Long and Chau Doc. As I journey up the Mekong, moving in the shadows of those who fought and died here, I struggle to reconcile that brutal stretch of history with the present edenic scene unfolding before me.

With Ho Chi Minh City’s Biblical drenching behind us, an oppressive mid-morning heat settles in as we approach the floating market of Cai Be. As we delicately navigate our way through the thick boat traffic, my eyes fall on a wooden long boat stacked high with sweet potatoes. Mere feet from its bow is another boat, boasting multiple heaps of rice. Piles of tomatoes meander by. Stacks of corn follow. Bananas are next. Then more rice. All of this produce is dutifully overseen by one or two merchants as their respective boats bob up and down in the brown water. It is a colorful, sumptuous, moving buffet. Not surprisingly, my thoughts are already turning towards lunch.

We soon dock on An Binh Island. The main draw here is a coconut candy outlet. The Mekong region prides itself on these tasty, locally-produced sweets. Our small group marvels as workers pour out the steaming coconut mixture from huge vats into neat rows. When cooled, the strips are cut into squares and packaged for shipment domestically and internationally–or for purchase at this local facility. After sampling a few delectable squares, I promptly dispense with 30,000 Dong (approx. $2.00 U.S.), and add a few packages to my rucksack.

We are then led to a large, open-aired restaurant where I feast on elephant ear fish and spring rolls. The fish, I was told, was taken that morning from one of the many fish farms that populate the Mekong. It is gutted, fried and then brought to the table propped up on wooden chopsticks. With its meaty frame in full splendor, it looks more deserving of a place in a fisherman’s trophy case than a candidate for consumption. Nonetheless, I devour it, creating in the process a rather macabre sight of a fish skeleton staring at me forlornly.

Along with my main course of elephant ear fish, I am served spring rolls. These side-dishes take a bit of work to assemble, but the minimal labor richly rewards the palate. I lay the half-dozen, razor thin sheets of rice paper on my plate and slowly fill each with lettuce, prawn meat, and noodles. After carefully rolling the rice paper and crimping its sides, I dip each one in a small dish of Vietnamese dipping sauce. It is a light, refreshing and healthy end to my lunch. The price for this fresh bonanza is 80,000 Dong (approx. $5.00 U.S.)

After lunch, I spend an hour on my bike exploring island life. The main artery through An Binh Island is a solitary, paved path lined with palm trees and simple wooden homes. Nature’s soundtrack is broken only occasionally by the gentle buzz of a passing motorbike, or a child joyfully exclaiming “hello!”

I steer around a few women selling fruit at a roadside stand. They don traditional Vietnamese straw conical hats. A rooster crows from the dirt yard of a nearby home. These are the images I was promised in the pages I perused prior to my arrival and it suddenly dawns on me that I am right in the thick of it. I am living Vietnam, smelling it, tasting it, and–perhaps most uncomfortably–profusely sweating it as my bike continues to roll along this rural lane in the thick humidity and intense Mekong sun.

The final leg of the journey is by overnight boat from Sa Dec to the border town of Chau Doc. Before boarding, we shower and relax for an hour at the former home of French writer and film director Marguerite Duras (1914-1996). Her house in Sa Dec is not only a French colonial relic, but its gated courtyard fronting the river also serves as an informal staging area for tourists whose plans include a boat trip to more distant parts of the Mekong River.

The modest home and attached school where Duras spent time as a child stands in contrast to the busy riverside commercial district just outside the front gates. It is also a not so subtle reminder of Vietnam’s colonial past as it wasn’t until 1954 that the country gained its independence from France after 70 years of occupation. This history is not lost on me as the signal is given that our boat to Chau Doc is ready for departure.

The overnight boat ferrying us to Chau Doc is a more formidable two-story wooden vessel with a lounge area up front and bunk room below deck. It’s not five-star accommodations, but, I wouldn’t trade the charm and intimacy of this wooden gem for anything. As the sun fades over the Mekong, I ascend to the roof where I witness a sherbert-orange palette decorating the western sky.

Standing at the railing, I gaze at the darkening banks of the Mekong River. My sole companion is the rhythmic chorus of “rat-tat-tat” spilling from the boat’s engine. Occasionally, a flickering light from shore dances across the ripples of the water. I have a morning rendezvous further upriver with the frontier town of Chau Doc and then a border crossing into Cambodia, where I will depart the delta and finish my vacation with three days in the capital city of Phnom Penh.

For the moment, however, I am free of cell phones, internet access, and other trappings of modernity and have more existential visions to contemplate in the growing darkness. With the Mekong River sprawled out before me, I find myself—like Conrad—traveling “back to the earliest beginnings of the world.”

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