Despite the effort of getting up early to be collected from the hotel at 515am, “mellow” is the theme for the day. At the Can Tho waterfront we’re greeted by a chunky, pudgy, squat, strong women with a hugely disarming smile that she flashes with regularity displaying a healthy set of gums and teeth. Her round face is open, charming and delightful. The supposed wife of the little man who sold us the boat tickets she is purported to speak “50% English”. Turns out it is more like 5% with “hello, taxi, toilet and coffee” being her repertoire. Good enough for me.
She mothers us; helping us on to her sampan, ensuring comfortable seating is in place on the wooden bench of the boat and placing life vests at our backs to lean back on. From nowhere she conjures up an awning to cover us from the light early morning mist and then with a deft skill borne of years of experience she takes up her oars and rows us away from the jetty and into the Mekong river.
Her sampan is powered by a small long-reach outboard motor that she steers by hooking her right leg into a hoop attached to the front of the motor. This requires that she stand up to steer us and, of course means she needs to be vigilant about weight distribution in the boat. Within easy reach of her outboard motor are two long oars that have been lashed to either side of the boat. By standing and manipulating the oars she is able to maneuver the boat in any direction. And by pushing the oars away from her she is able to propel the boat forwards; reverse requires that she pull the oars. Rowing like this requires that she use all her body weight and a lot of upper body strength. The motor is a pull-start and she effortlessly tugs the motor into life once we’re far enough away from the jetty. I’m impressed – by now I would have either turned the boat turtle or lost one or both oars or failed to get the engine started and drifted the boat downstream, never to be seen again.
An early morning start is always a lottery; sometimes the effort is repaid with a spectacular sunrise and sometimes not. Trouble is, you can’t tell unless you get up and try. Today is one of those anti-spectacular sunrise days. Heavy cloud hides the sun and all that results is a filtered light that slowly grows in intensity – there goes the intended photo of a Mekong sunrise.
Settling down to enjoy the river wasn’t difficult; the steady drone of the outboard motor had a meditative effect. Feeling mellow and relaxed I settled in to watch the world go by. Our lady of the sampan takes us upstream, tacking from bank to bank to find the slowest parts of the river.
In our little sampan bubble we pass through the early morning rituals of life on the river. All around people are waking up, starting motors, switching on lights, washing, bathing, loading, laughing, waving to us or just stretching into the day. Fishermen are already on the river setting their traps or preparing their nets from long boats of varying lengths and beam. Some fish by casting nets, others by setting traps. Still others have a simple drag net system which they use to catch shrimp and fresh water prawns.
Whilst the town of Can Tho is busy enough with people and houses, a surprising number of people live on the river in house-boats that range from small (like ours for two people) to larger accommodating ten people or more. The river and all its tributaries and offshoots is all the world to the people of the Mekong delta. It is a source of food, the means to grow crops and fruit and a way to transport people and all manner of goods – timber, minerals, sugar cane and other foods. People live on the river and on its banks. They trade from the river too selling fish, produce and services. There are floating petrol stations. It even serves as a warehouse of sorts for lumber. Large logs are lashed together on the banks of the river where saw mills cut, shape and distribute the resulting wood.
I’m awakened from my reverie as our sampan lady turns off the main river into a smaller canal marked by a metal bridge and thus enter a myriad of canals that delight with each turn. The brown river water snakes lazily, the river banks rise high above the river water. The riverside vegetation and various stilted houses reflect the high-water mark of the river and it’s various tributaries and canals and I figure it’s a change of at least a metre and a half.
Sampan lady pulls in at an arbitrary jetty and indicates for us to disembark, which we do readily because she’s muttering the “coffee” word to us whilst waving us off the boat. A short walk along the rickety jetty and the proprietor of the coffee shop awaits us. The coffee shop, like many businesses throughout southeast Asia, is an extension of his house. He seats us on a thatch-covered deck, on plastic chairs, with a view of the river below us. Coffee is brewed and dispensed from a kitchen deep within his house which extends backwards from the deck. On the front porch a snow-white rabbit in a cage chews on lettuce leaves and several fish swim aimlessly round a large fish tank. I estimate the fish tank to be about a metre and a half long by half a metre wide and deep. There are six prettily coloured fish, each no bigger than a man’s fist and one giant fish easily the size of a large serving tray. All the fish come from the river and the proprietor informs me that the large fish is called an “elephant fish” … bearing little resemblance to an elephant, I can only assume the name derives from its size. With my cigarette supply running low, I notice a cigarette stand near the fish tank. The proprietor persuades me to buy “Winston” cigarettes as he has no Marlboro’s and he assures me the Winston’s are “same same”, which of course I know is not true but I could hardly refuse his conviction.
Back on our sampan I realize we’re on a tourist trail and I spy other similar sampans carrying two tourists each. At first I’m a little annoyed that we’re not sufficiently off the beaten path but soon get over myself. I could have kayaked myself down the river and still bumped into tourists. It’s how it is when traveling – “off the beaten path” is less of a place and more of an attitude and I remind myself that I’m seeing all this for the first time.
Each twist and turn of the delta’s system is a delight just waiting to be photographed. I could spend days here with my camera. This is the perfect zen of travel; a pace slow enough for the world to unfold by, with time to reflect and absorb and get lost in thoughts, observations and memories. There’s sufficient distance from the people on the river for detached observation yet I’m close enough to feel part of their life story. And in this relaxed detachment, I make space in my head for thoughts to distill and grow and the ghosts of people past to visit and converse with. Lost in this state I talk to the spirit of my Dad who travelled vicariously and read voraciously of Vietnam and the Mekong.
We stop for a toilet break and walk a kilometer or so alongside the canal and see verdant rice paddies, duck under huge overhanging leaves of banana trees, wave to excited little children who rush out to meet us, hear the sounds of pot-bellied pigs snorting as they rummage and step around chicken and chicks pecking at the ground for food. Each house we pass is prefaced by a spirit house with burning joss sticks and the smell is alluring. Families live together, several generations under one roof. It’s delightfully simple and refreshingly charming.
We board again and come to the floating market. Here a collection of twenty or so boats coagulate in the middle of the river in a dazzling display of colorful fruits, vegetables and flowers. Our sampan simply melds into the melee and we become part of their universe. Like most markets I’ve seen in this part of the world, this one too is a run by women. Dressed colorfully, their hats providing shade from the sun and protection from the rain, the women chatter and laugh and trade and maneuver their boats. Goods change boats and money changes hands. The women constantly count their money, some even keep score in books. They squat, sit cross-legged or balance in a standing position while trading. They’re all smiles and laughs and good natured cheer. Regardless of their age, they’re beautiful. Round, open smiling faces, their eyes light up when I make eye contact. It’s bewitching almost and they happily pose for my camera.
Our sampan lady feeds us mango, pineapple which she deftly cuts and shapes with her machete and then dragon fruit. She adorns us with rings and bracelets she’s woven from reeds and bamboo all the while smiling and grinning. The fruit is beautiful. So is the whole experience. Life on the river.
We’re taken to lunch at another tourist spot that is exquisitely rural and hospitable. It’s a bit of a tourist thing but so what – time is too short to do it any other way.
After lunch its a slow and rain-soaked ride back. Despite the rain and grayness, the experience is complete and rewarding. Life can be deliciously simple and fulfilling sometimes, uncomplicated too.
Tonight I feel the first scratchy touches of a cold coming on.