The river washed away the humidity of the wet-season. A soft breeze drifted over the waters of the Mekong Delta, granting some relief from the heat. Our little wooden boat putted further and further upstream as a wall of green closed around us. Civilisation seemed far away.
Only that morning I’d been wandering the chaos of Saigon. Before dawn the bikes start their chorus of horns. Even at that hour the streets are busy, and the place simply bursts with energy. It is a city totally alive – and totally exhausting with its humidity.
Our minivan soon left the city behind. Lush rice paddies stretched towards the horizon. In a scene unchanged with the centuries, water buffalo pulled ploughs as farmers in their conical hats bent under the sun, planting rice seedlings. Colourful ancestral shrines stood amongst the verdant fields.
Beside the road, all manner of things were for sale. Food, cold drinks, clothes; there were even places for repairing cars and motor bikes. We passed row upon row of stalls in the middle of nowhere, and vast open sheds filled with people stopping for a quick bite.
At My Tho we left the road for the water. By now the Mekong had become the Mekong Delta (essentially a web of waterways crisscrossing over some 60,000 square kms.) After clambering into a long, skinny wooden boat, our driver shot us into the chaos of boats.
Soon, however, we left the main waterway behind. Local houses opened onto the water, and an occasional lane ran alongside the river. Kids splashed amongst the mangroves as women did their washing. Long boats were drawn up amongst the mangroves or tied to a hidden jetty. Not a car was to be heard. Fishing nets were strung through the water, or hung on trees, drying.
The waterways became narrower and narrower. A maze of tiny freshnets opened off on either side of the river, leading further into the unknown. At times the river was so shallow the bottom was easily visible – hence the long, narrow boats with their shallow draft (very similar to the ubune used by the cormorant fishermen in Japan).
The heat of the day closed down around us. Aside from the river lapping against the boat, the buzz of a dragon-fly or the splash of a walking fish was all we could hear. Masses of hyacinths adorned the riverbanks, and vegetation smothered old houses and forgotten boat sheds. Kingfishers darted amongst the greenery.
We pulled up to a local nursery and met the 92-year-old owner. All manner of tropical fruit trees were growing. We crossed a large pond using a monkey bridge. This is essentially three poles of bamboo in the shape of a V: a narrow one for the base, and another on either side for guides. It is next to impossible to hold both handles at once, and crossing while balancing my camera bag proved a challenge! The bridges are so-called for monkeys can easily cross them – they are often covered with monkeys at dawn – yet larger animals, such as tigers, cannot.
Nearby was a candy house, where popped rice and other rice sweets were cooking over hot coals – the heat was incredible. We had a turn at making rice paper – deliciously sweet when eaten fresh from the pan – and tried a mouthful of snake wine, from a vat full of snakes fermenting in whisky. (Next to it was one filled with snake penises. Not to everyone’s taste, but there is very little I don’t eat when travelling.)
In the midst of nowhere, our boat pulled into the bank and we climbed up some stairs hidden in the undergrowth. We entered a wooden house complete with intricate carvings, where a local family had prepared lunch. Sitting on a large open verandah to catch the breezes, our meal began with deep-fried elephant fish (served upright, and held in place with chopsticks). The flesh had a very delicate flavour. Our host quickly shredded the fish with chopsticks, and used it to make rice paper rolls. Next came prawns, pork with rice, then a platter of fresh fruit.
Fully sated, we retired to some hammocks to relax for a few hours as the heat of the day faded. Half a dozen local dogs slept beneath us. As the others snoozed I went for a short stroll. Following a winding dirt path a stone’s throw from the river, I often couldn’t see the waters through the deep undergrowth. A turn in the path, and I was lost to view; it’s easy to imagine people wandering into the jungle never to be seen again.
We then headed further upstream, only this time in a tiny boat rowed by a lady who stood at the back wielding two oars, much like a gondolier. As we drifted along the heavens opened, and a tropical shower left us drenched within a few minutes. It just as quickly passed, and soon we sat steaming in the heat.
Somehow our guide led us through this web of waterways and back to the Mekong, where we came to Can Tho. Our hotel, The Victoria Can Tho, was a gracious building in true French colonial style. A water buffalo stood outside, and inside we sipped passion-fruit juice from ceramic cups.
From our hotel, I strolled along the waterfront. Here the water way was impossibly wide, and boats of all sizes plied their trade. Old men stood fishing from the pier, and lovers wandered by, hand-in-hand.
As darkness fell, we caught the hotel ferry along the Mekong into town. The river was still busy. Fishing boats floated on the water, many nothing but dark shadows with no lights.
Can Tho bustles by night. The local markets stretch over a couple of streets. People pull up to the stalls on their motorbikes, buying things without ever dismounting. (Mice, apparently, a quite a speciality). Unlike larger cities, no one hassled us to buy, leaving us free to wander at our leisure. Many shops were still open, the owners sitting in the doorway eating their dinner as toddlers tumbled about their feet.
We sat on the rooftop balcony of our restaurant, L’Escole, watching the lightening play in the distance. Soon the rain was upon us, thundering across the roof. Yet even as I sat watching the tropical storm play around me, part of me was still in a small boat exploring the Mekong, lost in my own Vietnamese Heart Of Darkness.
The Literary Traveller:
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad described the Congo as “a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.” The same can be said of the Mekong. Rising in China, it flows through six countries before becoming the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, a web of waterways covering some 60,000 square kilometres.
Reading this novel awhile cruising this network of waterways, it is easy to understand how, the known world left behind, the rules and decorums of the ‘civilised’ world become increasing irrelevant the further you travel along the river. To stay on the river overnight and listen to the sounds of the jungle, is to hear the primeval world which so intrigued Marlow, and captured the mind and soul of Kurtz.
Although set in Saigon, The Quiet American is Greene’s homage to both that city and to Vietnam herself. His admiration of the country and her people is evident on every page. It is a novel which comes alive as you travel through the country. Follow this link for my review.