Life on the Mekong Delta

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The Mekong Delta was already hot and humid at 8:00 on a winter morning.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After driving south from Hue I checked into the Golden Sands Hotel in Hoi An, and was ushered into a suite about 35 feet from the South China Sea. I spent the next few days walking on the beach, looking at the beach, and thinking about the beach. In between these important activities I also toured ancient Hoi An.

The Golden Sands Hotel is exactly the kind of resort that I don’t think should be built. But now that it’s here, is it sinful to enjoy it? I came back to the question again and again. It’s a question I’ve also asked myself at resorts up and down the California coast.

I started the trip’s last leg at the Danang Airport, where I was told my confirmed seat didn’t exist. Vietnam Airways had three more flights out that day, all overbooked. There was no way out of town—shades of the chaotic evacuation of Danang in 1975! Fortunately, my generally-inept local guide Mr. Jiang did some fast talking. Or bribing. He disappeared for about 5 minutes, then returned beaming with a business-class boarding pass. OK, Mr. Jiang gets a tip.

From Saigon we drove southwest into the Mekong Delta. The Mekong River is over 3,000 miles long, starting in China and winding its way through Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before crossing the border into southern Vietnam, where it splits into 9 tributaries—the Nine Dragons. Like most major river deltas, it’s extremely rich farmland, very crowded, and prone to annual flooding.

After more than two weeks in other parts of the country, I can see the people here are ethnically different. Many are Khmer, taller and wider than their Viet counterparts. Their ancestors are immigrants from Cambodia—some from a century ago, others fleeing the insanity of the Pol Pot regime after 1975.

Life on the delta, of course, revolves around the river. I agreed to a very early wake-up call in order to see the large floating market while it was busy. We putt-putted some 4 miles toward the ocean, viewing the riverbank activity—people washing clothes, cooking, bathing themselves and their kids, along with an enormous volume of commercial movement—loading, unloading, shipping, building.

Suddenly the floating market came into view—several hundred old flatboats hawking every kind of produce imaginable, from garlic to grapes, lettuce to lemongrass, coconuts, mangoes, dragonfruit, on and on. Our boat drifted up and down the “aisles” of the market, and we watched—practically touched—farmers, restaurant buyers, and other locals doing the day’s business.

Eventually we sailed past the market, turned off the river onto a small canal, and drifted lazily through patches of farmland. We got off and walked along the bank, stopping in strangers’ homes, ogling their lives. They were unfailingly nice, offering us food and explanations of what they were doing.

At one home a lone woman stirred a pot of rice over an outdoor wood-burning flame (it certainly wasn’t a “stove”). When we admired a stack of coconuts she expertly hacked one open, pushed it toward us and said “drink.” It was amazingly sweet and fresh-tasting.

A quarter-mile down the road there was apparently a big death-day anniversary coming up (“bigger than birthday,” we were assured), so one group of women was slicing up bamboo to make the string to tie around the sticky-rice cakes all those attending would take home. Over 100 sticky-rice cakes, all home-made. Oh, and a feast for 100 as well.

The soundtrack to this was a gentle cacophony of chickens, birds, the occasional insistent child, and the chat between the women. Except for the insistent click of my camera, it was perfect.

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