The water was very low in the Mekong the day we were there, making it a muddy, muggy trip up the river. We travelled along several tributaries, past large colonial homes set on slight mounds about 40 feet from the water, fronted by always open gates of wrought iron and tile, and small sheds covered with corrogated tin roofs perched atop stilts in the water, usually with a veranda of sorts over the water for such activities as cooking and cleaning. There was no rhyme or reason to the location of these homes, no high rent district or poor area. They were just mixed and mingled, as were the families who lived in them. Our guide, Drang, had lived in the Delta all her life and never planned to leave. She wasn't alone.
At one point the boat driver had us all move to the front of the boat, with some climbing on the end, because the water was so shallow and he wanted the weight to keep the motor from tangling with the ground. Eventually, we docked at a rickety pier - most were - and our guide told us we had "Short walk, short walk" to the bonsai garden where we'd have lunch. This short walk was about 1.5 miles along the back trail, the village trail most tourists didn't use. It was just a dirt path really, a couple of feet wide, rutted from the bicycles and motorbikes that traversed it regularly. As we straggled out in a long line, in the quiet, it became easier to imagine life in the delta. The path followed a small brook, low but still visible. We passed over small bridges over even smaller creeks filled with fronds and leaves and shoots and roots. One footbridge bore a shorter and yet unnerving resemblence to the bridge at the end of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," you know, the one with the uneven slats and spaces in between. Although this one didn't have any rope railings and didn't, fortunately, fall into the river.
People watched as we passed, a grandmother and baby taking a few steps, kids playing what looked like hacky sack although I'm sure it has a much more complicated name here, women cooking. Many people would come out and greet us, "Hallo, hallo" or wave and we always responded. Even the children, some as young as 3, called out to us, grinning when we stopped, squatted down and said hello. Some just watched with the curiousity reserved for odd animals along the roadside but most were friendly and happy to see us.
About half an hour later we reached our destination, a restaurant of sorts although it seemed to be just a home with a large porch and covered areas for people to eat. I didn't see any bonsai but there were many plants and a boa constrictor we could play with after the meal.
With pride the family brought out the speciality of the Mekong, elephant ear fish. When prepared and served perched upright between two pair of bamboo sticks it looks like an elephant ear. OK, that's fine, it still had eyes. I have problems eating things that watch me do it. Still, when in Rome. We made our own rolls, sort of a Vietnamese fajita with fish, greens and perhaps fish paste wrapped in thin, thin pieces of rice paper. They also served the huge shrimp again, a blend of sliced vegetables that included carrots and lots of other green and white things I didn't recognize but that tasted good, and rice. Dessert, as always it seems, was fresh fruit. And I mean fresh, pineapple tasting pure and sweet, slices of pungent red watermelon and other more exotic options including mangostine and leilee and dragon fruit, a melon of brilliant red skin and white pulp with black marks throughout that tastes a little like a tart watermelon. All this and the ubiquitous bottles of purified water, coka cola and orangina.
After some of the folks got their pictures taken holding the "friendly" boa constrictor, we left for our home stay. A few of us opted for the bigger boat - falling into the Mekong wasn't on my schedule - while others climbed into small saipons, the carved-out canoes, driven by slight women with two oars standing at the back. We expected to walk back to where we'd left the boat but in the time we'd had lunch the water had risen about five feet and the boats were only a few feet away. We then learned that usually folks on this tour didn't take such a trek through the jungle, we had to because the river was too low to get closer. After all the discussion about which boats to take, it ended up our home for the night was only a few dozen feet down the river, in much closer walking distance. But I guess the "experience" was riding in the saipons for a bit. Us in the motorboat found ourselves faced with a high river and no dock. We ended up just pointing the nose of the boat into the bank and walking off, far easier than any of the docks had been. We then turned and looked up at the home where we'd be spending the night.
At first glance the home was quite baronial, with two wings of entry stairs and columns, a broad two-panel doorway and an inside with ceilings 30 feet high. Carved wood with gilding reached to the ceiling, with dark, heavily carved furniture and old photo portraits mounted on the wall. But it was clear the home had seen better times. While pristine inside, mold and perhaps old smoke from a fire afflicted the stonework and many of the tiles were chipped or broken. We learned the home was almost 100 years old. Drang told me an old mandarin owned the home in the 1940s. The mandarin, a high-ranking official in the imperial government, terrorized his neighbors, many of whom were pooring than he. She said people would not walk the path in front of his home but swim across the river, at that point about 30 feet, and walk the opposite pathway until well beyond his home. People disappeared near this mandarin's property. Eventually, he died under mysterious circumstances and is buried in the back with his family. His great-grandchildren own the house now, although I don't think they live there much. They rent it out to groups like ours who wish to get a rustic feel for what life is like on the delta.
Let's see, what's the definition of rustic in the Mekong Delta. Well, it wasn't too bad. We slept on swaying Army cots of wood and canvas, all situated below mosquito nets. At night the homeowner came along and tucked us into our beds, making sure the netting was slipped under the blankets so the bugs didn't slip through from the bottom. I lay there as she did so, flat and unmoving, hoping the cot would hold me and the fan would once again oscilate toward me and cool my sweaty skin. We ate on a patio near the river, fish again, with rice and vegetables, and water, lots of water. We bathed in a do-it-all bathroom - a small tiled room with toilet and one end and shower head at the other, about six feet from each other, with the faucet in between. The cool water felt wonderful in the steamy heat but it was hard to keep dry clothes dry in there. And after being sticky all day, sitting on a wet toilet wasn't too pleasant. Like most humid climates, the challenge was to keep anything dry. Still, we managed to get clean, brush teeth, take out contact lenses and otherwise get on with life.
I didn't sleep well. I think I was tense the whole night, afraid of moving. I got up once to visit the bathroom in the dark - a quiet, slow walk from our side room through the main house, through a back bedroom to the door outside, down a few uneven stone steps to one of the loos in the back. The question was whether to flip the switch for light and invite mosquitoes to dine while you pee, or to pee in the pitch dark. I picked the darkness. Getting out of the cot was an exercise in balance and precise placement of hand on wooden frame to leverage yourself up. I only did it twice and that was enough. I woke early, about 5 a.m., but the boats were already moving up and down the river like commuters steering their cars on the freeway. The owners had locked up the house, closing the large, heavy doors and then placing long wooden rails behind each one, the kind of rail that snaps when marauders take a battering ram to your door.
That didn't happen, however. I sat in the main room reading for a bit, but others soon started wandering out, shuffling to the bathroom, stretching with yawns. One man entered from outside. He'd braved sleeping outdoors, which sounded like the preferable option to me, out in the cool of the night. But he said he'd been assailed by bugs, insects that grew larger as the night progressed, with escalating buzzing sounds, attacking the net with dive-bomber precision. Normally the guides sleep outside while us frail westerners sleep protected behind closed doors. But this guy wanted to try it out. We all gain our experiences in different ways.
We loaded into the boat and head to a terra cotta factory the next morning. Now that I remember it the guys unloading the rice husks were at the terra cotta factory not the rice factory. The use the hulls to fuel the firing ovens. These are huge kilns, two or three stories tall, all filled with clay shaped into lions and dragons and the like. It stretched back for several hundred yards, from kilns to carving to storage, and at each place we saw people working, creating the terra cotta by hand with no machines in sight.
We traveled by bus to Can Tho then, the largest city in the delta and home of the Providence orphanage run by nuns. It was extraordinary the difference we found at this orphanage compared with others we'd visited. The children were happy and clean, running freely or chattering exhuberantly. Even those babies with special needs seemed more chipper than those we'd seen at the government-run facilities in Saigon. This orphanage, too, is ostensibly run by the government but I think it is far enough away from the city that the sisters run it as they will. I delivered my bag of supplies to Can Tho, a bag of small things including toothpaste and baby aspirain, bandages and crayons, cotton balls and pens, things that cost money and aren't easily found. Others had brought toys for the children or candy. most of us also gave money to each orphanage we visited. They never asked for anything.
At each orphanage the adoptees who had stayed at that home were greeted with almost Elvis-like exhuberation and Can Tho was no different. The sisters came to our group and welcomed us all but reserved special smiles for those who had come from there. The genuine thrill they found in seeing these children return so healthy and well defined heartwarming. The children were equally excited if for different reasons. One class of toddlers came out to greet us, calling hello and eagerly breaking into the baggie of toys and goodies one woman had brought. Out came the small cars and candy canes and party favors. While some of us went upstairs to visit the babies, others stayed with the toddlers, enjoying a rousing rendition of the ABC song and other folks songs in Vietnamese. We left the Can Tho orphanage with some uncertainty. The sister who had been in charge for decades planned to retire in a few months. No one knew what would happen to the orphanage in the future.
This became a universal them in our visits throughout Vietnam, constant change. In Saigon many of the orphanages were gone, torn down to make way for new construction. But the people were gone, too, the sisters in charge of the babies, the child care workers, etc. Memories are fading away. People still searching for roots may find they're buried under concrete.