Who Can Pass Up A Banana?

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Looking at the Mekong from the a plane, as we did when returning from Phu Quoc Island, provides a remarkable view of Mekong Delta life. At a landscape scale, the delta is composed of nine fingers of the Mekong, known as Cuu Long or Nine Dragons.

Each dragon floods annually during the rainy season, sending fertile silt throughout the broad alluvial plain. Thus, the Mekong Delta provides rich soils for abundant harvests of rice, fruits, and nuts.

The fingers are bordered with dark green--forested settlements, fruit trees. Between the fingers is a checkerboard of rice fields criss-crossed with canals. A web of roads covers the landscape, lined with seemingly endless communities.

Although a wide variety of package tours were offered at reasonable prices, I decided to head to the long-distance bus station in Saigon, destination: the Mekong Delta.

The first difference was that I was the only foreigner at the bus station: in Vietnam, Open Tour buses and group tours are so efficiently managed that they have cornered the foreign tourist market; open bus tours operate from the tourist districts and use the streets as their 'bus station.'

The second difference was that hardly anyone spoke English. I mangled some Vietnamese as my fellow travelers helped me to pronounce a few of their difficult, tonal words. We also shared peanuts, gum, and M&Ms together while watching Vietnamese music videos on a small VCD player.

Soon, I was in the heart of the delta in the town of Vinh Long and rented a bicycle for the afternoon. I crossed the ferry to An Binh Island and paid my nickel's worth with a dime, but didn't get my change. The amount didn't matter, it was the way that the woman collecting the tolls blatently tried to scam me. I continued onwards, vowing revenge later.

This was my first experience with a Vietnamese person scamming tourists. Before coming to Vietnam, so many travelers reported that Vietnam was difficult because you always had to be watching out for overcharging and such. So far, I find it to be the exception as opposed to the rule and would say the opposite about the Vietnamese people; the woman running this internet cafe, for example, just brought me a bowl of watermelon: "just for you," she said, smiling. The rules of traveling to avoid scamming apply just as easily to other countries.

An Binh island was a land of fruit trees--rambutan, banana, orange, limes--a maze of freshwater yet tidal canals, a network of narrow roads with arched bridges, and a mix of small huts and medium-sized mansions--the homes of wealthy Vietnamese. The people were farmers, artisans, fishermen, and...extremely friendly.

On the way, children and adults, celebrating Tet, waved and said "hello." One family completely surrounded my bicycle to say hello, find out where I was from, and to shake my hand. Some of the jestures seemed belligerent, although it reminded me of the bonding jesture the campesinos of Mexico used. Still, I felt strangely like Han Solo meeting the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

As the sun neared the horizon, cumulonimbus clouds doused An Binh island, my first real rainstorm since first arriving in Laos and the second rainstorm since the wet monsoon season ended in November. The rain felt good, for a change.

Leaving the island, I passed the ferry toll people: "one thousand dong," the woman said. "I already paid," I said and continued on as the woman looked at the one who collected twice as much from me earlier; there was nothing she could do (it was the principal, not the amount).

In the morning, I went on a boat tour around the waterways near Vinh Long. Although the floating markets were closed because of the Tet celebrations, all the boats were decorated with flowers and people relaxed and talked on their boats anchored next to one another. On the way, we stopped to visit people popping puffed rice (Sugar Smacks), weaving conical hats, tending bonsai trees, cutting pieces of peanut coconut candies, and making rice paper for spring rolls.

That afternoon, I took another bus 65 kilometers south to Tra Vinh, where the waters are more saline. For lunch, I found a streetside full of people and stopped there to eat some pho with them. Pho is their noodle soup, pronounced fur yet different. Above the 'o' of Pho is a little apostrophe and something resembling part of a question mark. These are clues telling you the pronounciation and tone of the 'o.' Basically, it's not an 'o' but something else.

For seven cents, I bought fifteen bananas and shared them with people walking the streets: who can pass up a banana?

At the end of the afternoon, I returned to the streetside full of people and went with one of the motobike guys to the nearby Hang Pagoda, a Khmer style Buddhist temple rebuilt after being hit by a bomb in 1969. Many people of the delta are Khmer people, the people whose heart and center is Cambodia. The delta, after all, used to be part of the Khmer Empire.

But like most of Southeast Asia, almost everywhere used to be a part of someplace else at one time or another.

After dark, I found another minibus and returned to Saigon, passing hundreds of kilometers of pho restaurants, motobikes, homes, and towns--a long seventeen hour day on the web of Mekong Delta roads. I was exhausted...time to slow down again.
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