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Rach Gia, Western Mekong
Letter #2: March 12, 2002
by Beth Buffam

Mekong Boat Driver
Young boat driver navigates the Mekong.

Dear Friends,

If this is Tuesday, I must be heading for Ca Mau, the southernmost big city of Vietnam. A week with the family of my friend from Maryland is over, and a week bumming around the Mekong is beginning.

Since I can get pretty wordy, for those of you who aren't going to make it all the way through this email, here are some highlights (or more accurately -- lowlights) of the past week. I trust that any Vietnamese readers will take it all in stride.

Introductions. Being introduced at least 50 times as: " This is Anne. She is 59 years old. She has one son but no husband. Her son is 36 years old. " Then, to make sure of the facts, they were always intensely discussed: She's 59 years old, eh? She has no husband, eh?? Her son is 36 years old, eh? :) So much for keeping personal matters personal!

Using a "catfish" toilet for the first time. Steve or anyone who has read Catfish Mandala (or who has lived in Vietnam) will know about these toilets which are wooden boxes conveniently placed above a pond with catfish in it. Very economical. But when I looked at the one log that went out to the box and the relatively rickety hand rail, and then looked down into the green pond of catfish and you-know-what, the thought of what would happen if my foot slipped off was truly unappetizing!

Jumping from boat to boat at night. Well, there was a time that I could jump, but I haven't done much of it recently. To get to the boat to Ca Mau, I had to take the one on the far side (di o ngoai! di o ngoai!) and there was no board to walk onto it. You just jump! People here would laugh at a board, as they've been jumping on and off boats all their life.

4 women seriously asked me to adopt their daughters.

Ugly Viet Kieu. There were a few occurrences of the latest "Ugly American" -- the "Ugly Viet Kieu". I hate to see Vietnamese from America who are loud and throw their weight around.

Breaking a floor board when hanging my clothes out to dry! The floor boards weren't meant to hold up Americans...

Now... let me help you to visualize the home, street and surroundings in which I spent the last week. In this area, vital talented families live and die. I see this place, not as a tourist, but through the filter of my friendship with Ni's daughter Nhi, now in the US getting her PhD, who grew up in exactly this situation.

The wooden home I'm staying in has an open front which is closed at night, and is on stilts, as the area floods each year. Steps leading up to the house are for your sandals, as the floor is kept immaculately clean for sitting on. Inside are several wooden beds and hammocks, and a kitchen on a lower level. Flowers and fruit trees in the front yard, and

That's the house. Our street -- one main street, kind of like downtown Nappanee, borderd by homes, small businesses, schools, etc. I'm living with Sister 5; Mum and Brother 10 are across the street; Brother 3 is 2 houses down to the right. (Yes, Joanna, the brothers are usually called by their number even though they have a name.) Each of Ni's brothers is more handsome than the next (particularly tanned and out on a boat! The other 4 brothers are within easy motorcycle distance. Behind our side of the road are meticulously farmed patches of fruit trees, vegetables, fish farming, and of course, rice. Also the family cemetary, including Ni's dad's grave -- big, ornate, white. Behind the houses and across the street is a branch of the Mekong. Rivers and canals are on almost every block, and provide better transportation than roads in the rainy season.

And finally, down the road to the west is downtown Cho Moi -- the Cho (market), canh sach (police station where I had to check in and out), the soup kitchen (where volunteers cooked food for the hungry), the herbal medicine store (where leaves were dried out front and medicine was given out free to the needy), etc.

The day starts soon after 4:30AM with the loud crowing of ga chong (the hen husband)! Or heaven forbid, some loud wailing music sounds from somewhere. Then the commute begins down our personal beltway -- people, mainly women, pushing heavy carts laden with things to sell. (Men spend a great deal of time caring for their children, and women do heavy jobs, so Gloria Steinem has nothing to contribute here!) Motorcycles packed with up to 5 people squeak to let other commuters know where they are. And then the students heading for school -- blue and white garbed elementary school students, and the most beautiful sight in all of Vietnam -- high school girls sitting ramrod straight on their bicycles wearing long immaculate white au dais.

By then I'd be out of the mosquito net, had a bath (bucket and scoop) and ready for the day. Always something to do. "Di cho (go to the market), di choi (go out for fun), di ghe (go on the boat)". I learned Rule #1: Don't plan anything. And Rule #2: If you go with the flow it will be fun. By the end of the week I was bold enough to say: Uong ca phe, roi di ghe (drink coffee, then go on the boat). Communicating wasn't impossible, as everyone simplified and listened carefully to my "pidgeon" Vietnamese. Of course there were moments -- since I can't hear the difference between the Vietnamese "th" and "t" very well, I didn't know whether I was supposed to take a bath (di tam) or go visiting (di tham).

The teenage girls took me under their wing -- they're beautiful, sweet, smart and occasionally conniving. We went up and down the river many times in the ghe (medium-sized transport boat), looked at the xuong (small boats) and tau (bigger ship, ferry). I'll never forget those girls.

I also took walks with Mum's siter-in-law 6 who reminds me of my mother -- thin, energetic and very warm. We walked through the farms in the back, over the canals (on a thin pole!), through neighbors' back yards. When I left she said: "When you leave, everything will be sad..."

I enjoyed the kids in the school next door -- and have to mention a terrible catastrophe: I thought I had mastered the digital camera. The kids loved to have their photos taken, and I had kept 2 of the very best photos of them, along with 18 other photos that I was proud of, including my walk with Sister-in-law 6. Then I ran across the "format" option, and assuming it would give me a format menu, pressed it!!! How sad!

Coming back, there were always people sitting on the flor having animated discussions. In America, the children would be making the most noise, the adults next most, and the grandparents -- if they were there -- would be fairly quiet. Here it's almost the opposite -- children are quiet and the grandparents have a lot to say about everything.

Here in these few homes, people pass their lives. I'm not sure if I would like that situation myself, but it is a source of strength and joy to these families. The kids have a hundred parents, the parents have someone always to care for them.

My upbeat experience doesn't mask the fact that this is a desperately poor area. I was told that a teacher makes $2 a month, which might be about $20 in American terms. Ni's sister's husband works 7 days a week. Children and older women selling lottery tickets (the only job available) are omnipresent. With such talent and energy, it makes one wonder if something like a small business oculdn't be started -- selling custom clothes to the US for example -- that would reward all the work.

Then it was time to say Goodbye to this dear group of people, whose faces are burned in my memory forever. No one wanted me to go to Ca Mau (Ni said she would never go there herself, the police are corrupt and people will do anything to you for your money) but the reason I was traveling with her is that she will let this crazy American do what she'd like to do. So after we went on a tour of towns bordering on Cambodia (Chau Doc and Ha Tien) she dropped me off in the city of Rach Gia (Near Ha Tien we saw a horrifying place, Ba Chuc, where Pol Pot had tortured and murdered 3000 Vietnamese in 1978.)

I was more than a little worried myself -- I'd never bought bus tickets on my own before, and the Lonely Planet didn't say anything about a bus to Ca Mau. But there's a good reason to go there (in addition to the fact that I want to go from South to North in Vietnam). A friend of mine, Le, has a photo of a man who was her husband's bodyguard in Ca Mau 30 years ago. She would love to see if he is still there, but doesn't have an exact address. So I have a quest!

And on that note, I'll bid those brave souls who are still with me adieu!!

-Beth

(7 provinces seen, about 53 to go!)

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