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Ca Mau
Letter #3: March 14, 2002
by Beth Buffam

Angelic Smile
This girl with angelic smile companioned Beth during her 10 hour boat ride.

Dear Friends,

The mosquitos are actually pretty tame in Ca Mau, and the Honda drivers love to talk with me for 5 minutes without stopping though I understand very few words. In a search for Nguyen van Anh, the friend from 30 years ago of my friend in Maryland, we've talked to about 10 people, passing around my pair of glasses so they can look at the drawn map of his original home. We decided to put an ad on TV, and have travelled more miles on a motorcycle than my butt is happy about.

And, although many of the people we talked to -- former soldiers and guards in the Southern Vietnamese army -- were skeptical that we would find him, he did indeed appear!

A thin humble man. I absolutely couldn't believe it. He had seen the TV ad and responded. He called my friend by phone to confirm his identity, and we had a big celebratory meal complete with lots of beer and clinking of glasses (did you know I was such a partier?) And the sweetest most heavenly tasting mangos I've had since I was in India.

Anh is a very sweet man, with 7 daughters and then 1 son, and I am so happy that he could be reunited with his former friend. I went to his home on the river, and had to cross on a small boat that would tip if you stood up, but had no seat (therefore one had to squat), and squatting is something I still haven't really mastered!

By the way, should you be in this neck of the woods, travel from Rach Gia to Ca Mau by slow boat is definitely the way to go. I had been very unsure of how to get to Ca Mau, as the map showed a road but the Lonely Planet didn't mention a bus to Ca Mau. Then... it turned out that the night auditor at our Hong nam hotel was a man written up in the Lonely Planet who spoke English well. Apparently the road is impassible; he suggested going by boat. The trip was a delight.

Express boats can make the trip in 3 or 4 hours, but this took 10. There were about 30 people on a long boat with hammocks in the middle. We slept in the hammocks, and enjoyed the sights of the Mekong -- boats of all sizes and shapes, lobster traps, people living their lives on the river.

By the end of the trip, many people knew about why I was in Ca Mau, and had given their suggestions about what to do. The people in the boat (whom I came to know pretty well after 10 hours!) were interesting to watch. There was one threesome composed of a mother tending to her very old and sick and small mother lying in a hammock. The grandmother was a carbon copy of the mother, and then there was a daughter, a third carbon copy. The daughter quietly wiped the grandma's brow and tried to put her arms around her mother but got snapped at for some reason. Beside them was quite a different threesome -- a young Mom and Dad with their arms around each other and a kid in Disney shorts -- either Viet Kieu or a family from Sai Gon. This is the first time I've seen contact between the opposite sex, but boys, men, girls, women walk arm in arm down the road with members of the same sex.

Let's see, then there was the 2-year old son of the boat woman, ruling his empire with moods and smiles as only a 2-year old can. Everyone took turns entertaining him (he loved my digital camera). Beside me was a 15-year old girl with the face and smile of an angel. She was traveling with her ba ngoai (grandma on mother's side) and had she not talked with me, she would have been completely still and quiet the entire 10-hour trip. Can you imagine an American teenager doing that?

And finally, the teenage boys who ran the boat (scared me at first when I found out our driver was 15 years old!) who flipped their hair out of their eyes and strutted in the sunshine as if they knew the admiring eyes of young girls were on them. Lots of fun.

Well, success achieved in Ca Mau, I decided to head straight to Sai Gon and pick up Steve's soccer balls which I had left behind the better to travel light through the Mekong area (a small backpack with one change of clothes). There was a bus from Ca Mau to Sai Gon which left at 10 pm, and I assumed, since the distance was quite a ways, would get to Sai Gon Friday morning. The VERY possessive Honda driver (who had helped me find Nguyen van Anh, and I had tipped him well) helped me buy the ticket and saw me off, trying to elicit promises that I would write to him, would tell my friend Le of his help, would bring him to the US, etc :).

Then, you've heard of a bat out of hell. The bus was indeed that, driving and honking madly, bouncing over rough roads as if it was a freeway. If I buy Vietnamese stock, I'll buy in the Car Suspension industry! By the way, I've conquered mosquitos and catfish toilets, but I've finally met my match. The blaring music of the Vietnamese version of the Ungrateful Dead was at top volume the whole night trip. We changed buses at Can Tho, hometown of my Tieng Viet Co Giao, Ba Hoa.

And then, at 4 am (!) we were in an unknown section of Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). It was a mother's nightmare, being dropped off at night in the big bad city. I had planned on taking my time to read the Lonely Planet and find a hotel. Fortunately, I remembered one street name, Duong Pham Ngu Lau, and the Honda driver took me there without taking me to a back street and robbing me of all my money (including the money in the secret pocket around my waist :). At 4 am, all the hotels were closed but I found some men awake sitting on their small stools drinking coffee. I ordered some ca phe sua, and was delighted to find that now that I was back in Sai Gon, I could understand and be understood! The men made sure I always kept my purse and backpack tightly to me.

This is a new world -- the Pham Ngu Lau tourist area of Sai Gon. I saw a towheaded man heading toward a hotel with his arms around a dark haired girl, which seemed sad. A young man from Australia stopped by to talk -- he'd been up all night, was drunk, and was sorry that he hadn't been able to score with a girl from San Francisco. Lots of pierced body parts!

And then ... I saw coming toward me a lady whose photo is in my last trip's album! A beautiful lady who found me a cheap and nice hotel here the last time, and is still doing that. It was a great reunion, and she seems to have a talent for teaching, so I hope I can chat in Tieng Viet with her a bit in the weeks ahead... She found me a $6 room, and I got the sleep I hadn't gotten the night before, which gave me the strength to face the past 5 (!) hours on the internet...

Tomorrow I hope to head to Ben Tre and give the soccer team there some soccer balls from Steve Spangler, and also revisit my friend in the banana forest of Tien Thuy, near Ben Tre...

And with that, I wish you a great weekend!

Love, Anne

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