Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mekong, You Read (Thank you, Dennis, for that post title- remember, from the competition?)

The Mekong River, or The Nine Dragons River as the Vietnamese call it (because of all of its tributaries), is the 11th-longest river in the world. From the Tibetan Plateau it runs through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Mekong Delta is where the Mekong River empties into the sea and My Tho is the city that is called "The Gateway to the Mekong." My Tho is just a few hours south of HCMC, and Tarn and I read about a village near My Tho that hosts a guest house in the jungle -The Lonely Planet calls it a "Green Oasis" with great food and free bike rental.

Of course you can book tourist trips in the Backpacker District and they aren't too expensive, but when you're in the mood, finding your own way is a much better (and cheaper) way to go. We're in that mood on Saturday, and we feel we are on a reconnaisance mission for the rest of our friends who want to go, so we get a bus to the station that is supposed to have a bus that will take us to My Tho. We are ushered onto what looks to me like a mini cattle train - but without a gateway to hold the cows in - and I say to Tarn, 'Is this our 'bus' for the next two hours?' He's not sure, but says he thinks that 'two hours' may be an optimistic estimate. The Vietnamese people on the cattle train laugh and smile and are a little shy about us being on the open bus with them, but they are very friendly. So we settle in for what we think will be a long cramped ride, and I am able to get the best shot yet of motorbike travelers:

But it's not going to be a long cramped ride. The mini cattle train takes us to another bus station outside of town, and we have to dismount while it is still moving, but a woman who is making the same transfer helps us understand what we're supposed to do. Then we board a 1/2 size bus and circle the station about ten times, picking up passengers on each round. During this circular game, the people in charge of the bus tell us that it costs 200,000 Vietnamese Dong (VND) ($12) for the trip, for two people. We already know from our book that it should cost 18,000 (approx. $1.10); Tarn shows them the page and the cost and everyone is appalled at the number (NO NO NO NO NO!) except for the woman who transfered with us. She stares straight ahead, dignified. We ask her if this is right and she shakes her head back and forth. No. We look to the people in charge. OK, OK, 100,000 VND. We look to our ally and she shakes her head again. No. We start to get off the bus and they all erupt. NO NO NO NO! OK, 50,000 VND for both! Close enough. We pay.

Then Tammy gets on the bus. Tammy is about 20 years old, cute and kind, speaks English, but it's a kind of English that you cannot trust. She tries to be helpful, but she tells us that the place we're going requires a ferry, then she says, no, we just need to hire a motorbike. She says it's 40,000, and then, no, just 4,000. She really doesn't know. Fortunately, Tarn is sitting near the aisle and he is a bit more patient than I; he continues to try to get communicate with poor Tammy because she really wants to help us. Meanwhile, the woman who acted as ringleader to swindle us begins to ask me 100 questions as if she had not just tried to take all my money. Tammy keeps having to stop confusing Tarn to translate: How old are you? Do you have any children? (everyone asks everyone has to do with how they address people in their language) Where are you from? She even makes me take her picture!

After traveling this way for an hour, Tammy suddenly commands us to get off the bus with her. We don't know what else to do other than to obey. She leads us to what is apparently her parents' home, just one block away. She tells us to sit. Her maid gets us something to drink while Tammy calls her father. Her father appears at the door within minutes driving a mini-van and we are told to get in. We do. Tammy tells us that her father would love to take us on a tour of My Tho before we head across the water to our village. Do we want a tour, or do we want the ferry? Tarn and I don't know what the polite answer is, but it doesn't seem to matter: in Tammy's alternate English universe, within minutes of saying "Thank you, we would enjoy a tour of My Tho" we are at the ferry terminal and within a few more minutes we are on the mighty Mekong.

When we arrive at the other side, we know the oasis is near, but we're not sure how near: The Lonely Planet says it's difficult to find. But Tarn is a map guy and loves this type of challenge, so we walk down a lovely street- it's wide and quiet and lined with palm trees and one-story houses, some of them quite rustic. We stop and buy a grilled banana wrapped in a rice cake from a woman and her two sweet daughters and look at all of the vegetables and fish alongside the road. At one point we see a long jungle path (pictured) and Tarn says, wouldn't it be great if that path leads to our oasis? But we keep walking down the lovely road. We come to what we later think may be the house of a witch: a woman beckons us to come inside her home and she has many witchy things hanging from a long string of ivy that she wants us to buy and she keeps making a sleeping gesture. When we don't buy anything, Tarn says that she will probably put a hex on us that will not allow us to sleep for the rest of our lives.

Soon we feel we have walked far enough and ask for directions and guess what...the jungle path does lead to our oasis. And it's a beautiful oasis near a canal with many separate grass huts for eating and rooms that are rickety but clean. It's such a happy place that even the garbage bins wish you happiness (if you can't see it too well, underneath the gymnast it says "Happiness to Everyone.' We check in and get bikes right away- it's 5 pm by now and we want to ride the 12 kilometers into the nearest city, Ben Tre. What a great evening; it's cool and breezy and the road is wide; if someone had dropped me into this scene from Seattle, the motorbike traffic would have completely frightened me, but now, after HCMC, it's no big deal. We ride out to a bridge where we see some magnificent views of the Mekong at sunset (which my camera does not come even close to capturing). We also take note that this city has a theme, not unlike the streets in HCMC: Ben Tre is a city of coffins and weddings. The frilly dresses that I pictured when Nam took me to his daughter's work are everywhere and these shops are juxtaposed by many, many coffin shops. We also note that no one is eating out. Is there a connection?

When we return to the oasis it's around 8 and we are starving. The gracious host of the hotel recommends the local dish we have read about: deep fried Elephant Ear fish. We're in. Before we know it, two men are catching our Elephant Ear fish in a wooden crate/pond behind our table. Within ten minutes of its death, it is presented to us wholy deep fried. A girl follows with a tray of rice paper and vegetables. She removes the scales and picks off the flaky white meat and places half of it on our plate of rice and the other half she portions onto sheets of rice paper with pineapple, tomato, lettuce, basil, cucumbers and rice noodles. She rolls them up and tells us to dip them into the peanut sauce. The whole dinner is out of this world. We drink the local rice wine and right at the end of dinner while we sit under the palapa, it begins to pour. We are grimy and sweaty from our ride, we're exhausted and full. We were going to venture into town to find karaoke, but you know what? No. We opt for sleep. When we compare notes in the morning, we agree that despite the witches' spell, we have the best sleep since arriving in Vietnam; it's so quiet: we are sleeping with the sounds of the jungle as background music.

I wake up early as usual, and I need to wrap up this post so that I can study the Phoenicians tonight, but there is so much to tell: the morning is just beautiful. I walk through the jungle paths and people are on their way to town: biking, walking and a few motoring. It's paradise. Wherever I go, children run out of their homes and yell and wave "Hello!" For most of them, it's the only English they know, but it is so pure and happy. The same thing happens in our alley: "Hello!" and then when we ask their names, etc, they get really really shy. Anyway, I leave the jungle path for the highway and meet an English speaking man who is waiting for his son to get out of Sunday English school (very common). I ask him where I can find a good breakfast and he knows the perfect place. I get on the back of his motorbike (his son stands in the front) and he speeds me away to another jungle path which we ride down for about 1/2 of a kilometer. It's his aunt's home, and by the way, where he works. Here, throughout the whole country, I am learning, everything is about connection. So it's 8 am by now, and I find myself choosing king prawns out of a pond for my breakfast. And- this is going to make me sound so brave but really I wasn't brave at all about it- he offers me King Cobra wine: There is a big plastic container that looks like it should be in a biology classroom -- because inside is a dead King Cobra sitting in rice wine. Linh, my new tour guide, insists that I taste it and I just sort of end up giving in to peer pressure. It tastes like gamey whiskey. I have only about two drops, but Linh assures me that I will have more strength all day long (remember, it's only 8 am). Whatever. Oh, and to make matters more digusting and dangerous, when we emerge back onto the highway, we hit (and kill) a rooster that runs out in front of the motorbike. I can't believe Linh is able to recover from this hit, but it scares me to death.

I spend the rest of the morning riding the bike down long stretches of highway next to rice fields and water buffalos where I buy lots of coconut/durian/peanut candy wrapped in rice paper (so delicious) from these cute kids (open stands line the highway because this is where the factories are). I also ride down every jungle path I can find because this village is my new vision of paradise. Tarn has his own cool morning adventure, which involves a small Cao Dai temple and a monk down a jungle path. But this isn't his blog, is it?
And as for the return, we are not in the mood for any more adventure. We hire a semi-private bus and pay 60,000 VND each for one ride, all the way back to HCMC. And it's worth every penny of the $2.40 we must pay!


Anonymous said...

OMG-I AM TRIPPIN OVER THE KING COBRA WINE AND THE HIT AND RUN ROOSTER STORY COMBO! Let alone the perfect jungle path to your paradise with the relentlessly positive waste receptacle. My oh my-you are truly getting your Dong's worth and MUCH MUCH MORE! LOVE HOW YOU MEET PEOPLE AND DESCRIBE YOUR ENCOUNTERS-PRICELESS! LOVE JACI

Anonymous said...

I forgot to add that all of the Dead King Cobra and Rooster Action happened early in the sure do manage to accomplish a great deal everyday. How do you wear so many exciting and tantalilzing hats! :)
Jaci again

Anonymous said...

This story should be read aloud to every traveler wannabe! It contains all the risks, faith, daring, and trust one needs to truly travel ... not just sight see.

Gramma Willis, thank you for participating in our collective efforts to promote, support and focus on Marjie. I think it must have been a slip to say "as much as" when our little comments are merely sparks generated by the Marjie fire.

Marj and I began teaching at the same time and we were, I might add, great creative colleagues together ... unusual in the high school. We both love teaching, traveling, writing, ... and I used to love to eat. My life turned toward the traditional, while Marjie has done a chest bump with the gods of traveling and lives my path not taken. I have loads of time to obsess on her blog as I avoid mopping and PTO meetings.

Marjie, I assume you meant your Large Band.

Marjie said...

Large Band. You made me want Lyle, so I just put him on. What song?? "In My Own Mind." What a great one! Lyle sounds good and right anywhere in the world!

Marjie said...

Oh, and Chest bump with the gods of, that is cool.

kumma said...

Wow - what a fabulous post... the joy of paradise came oozing forth! Love it.