There are three reasons for my return to Viet Nam for the third time. Since my last trip here was over four years ago, I was curious to witness the changes that might have occurred in this country now toted to be the fastest growing economy in SE Asia. The second reason was to delve more closely into the Mekong Delta region in the south…a part of Viet Nam I have never visited. The third is the people…for their spirit, openness and generosity.
I have been twice to the North and seen many of its beautiful attractions, such as Halong Bay, Sapa, Hue, the original Imperial capital, and the present capital of Hanoi. However, it is the south that beckons me this time around. The two regions are quite different in culture and historical background. The war in the 60’s and 70’s precipitated by Ho Chi Minh’s dream to unite his country with his communist manifesto seemed to divide the country more than ever. As we know, he was not successful, but that has not stopped this country from moving on. Both the south and the north now look at Ho Chi Minh as a national hero.
My entrance to this beautiful country was at the small city of Chau Doc bordering onto Cambodia…and why Chau Doc? It is one of the overland border crossings into Viet Nam where with relative ease tourists can enter the country from Cambodia after a leisurely boat trip down the mighty Mekong River.
I was pleasantly surprised by what I experienced in this friendly town with a population of about 103,000. There isn’t anything outstanding about it other than it claims to be Viet Nam’s foremost fish farming centre. It also has a floating market as many towns and cities in the Mekong Delta can lay claim to. Nevertheless, there is comfortable feel to it which lends visitors a reason to linger for awhile.
I almost made the mistake that most tourists do… of going straight on to Ho Chi Minh City thinking that there was nothing of interest here. However, something told me I needed to give Chau Doc a chance so I booked a hotel for four nights. I was more than ready to leave behind the chaos and grime of Phnom Penh and Chiang Mai for the slower pace of a town in the idyllic Mekong Delta.
Chau Doc welcomed me with open arms. Mr. Nguyen Van Long, the owner and operator of Mr. Long travel agency, which happened to be right around the corner from my hotel was the first to do so. I arrived the night before so next morning before looking for a place where I could get some good coffee and food, I first needed water and a map, and he had both. An older man in his 60’s, well-educated with fairly good English, we were able to quickly connect. In no time I had booked a tour to the floating market and a fish farm, as well as my bus trip to HCMC. I also discovered he was teaching English in his spare time to a small group of kids who were anxious to improve their skills When he found out about my teaching background, I was the perfect catch for him and immediately received an invite to attend his attend his Sunday morning class.
His generosity didn’t end there. He arranged to partner me up with the mother of one of his students to take me out to their favourite restaurants for authentic Vietnamese food. I was not expected to pay so they blocked any attempt at my efforts to return the favour. After my second meal with them, Trinh, the mother, insisted on taking me to the closest thing to a night club. We watched couples who took formal dancing with a smattering of jazzy moves thrown into the mix strut their stuff. Added to this were some pretty good singers accompanying them with sad love songs. Again I tried to pay for our drinks when she went to the ‘ladies’ but again she had beaten me to it. Later on I found out that the Viet Namese are very good at adopting people they like, going above and beyond in their generosity to prove this.
There was no question that I was being treated like royalty. In fact, Trinh would arrive at my hotel to pick me up on her motor bike at exactly the time we arranged. Like all bike drivers in Viet Nam, she was a master at manoeuvering the traffic all the while she was turning to talk to me sitting behind her. She spoke very little English making it difficult for me to understand her and know what she was doing. I had to resign myself to sitting back and going with the flow… not always an easy thing for me to do.
The tour I had signed up for with Mr. Long had me up at six in the morning for a visit to a floating market.We left just as the sun was rising in a small wooden boat steered by a woman which is common throughout the delta. Seeing how the families live on their boats and conduct their business is always interesting. We stopped to visit a family who had received bags of watermelons which they were busily sorting and preparing to sell to the vendors at the markets. Of course, I got to sample some.
My tour also included a short visit to a Cham village where we visited a mosque since many Cham are Muslim. They and the rest of the Viet Namese who could be of either Khymer or Chinese lineage all seem to carry on peacefully with their daily living. However, I did see some rather poor children begging so my guess is that this Cham community isn’t doing as well as the others.
Mr. Long informed that the fish farming industry in Viet Nam accounts for over 20% of the country’s seafood output. He remembers when there were maybe 100 farms around Chau Doc where he grew up but now over 150,000. The fishing is carried out on the in houses built on stilts with floating metal drums attached underneath them for raising the fish. The fishermen import the fish eggs come from the Tonlee Sap…the largest lake in SE Asia located in Cambodia. They are then raised to a market size of about 1 kg. and fed on a dough like substance consisting of cereal, vegetables and fish scraps. Each drum can produce up to 400 tonnes of fish in a 10 month cycle. Their fish is exported to all of Europe and the Americas. It’s a huge business with two kinds of catfish as the prime fish. For how much longer I asked? His answer was that the industry is already showing signs of trouble ahead for several reasons: the rising cost of fish food, the dams which have been built on the Mekong by China, and climate change.The farmers now supplement the fish food with their own food scraps. The excessive building of dams and climate change have played havoc with the water levels causing the fishermen to move around much more and work harder than they ever had to.
Meeting Long, his friends, and students were the highlight of my stay in Chau Doc. They are perfect examples of the open and generous spirit which caught my attention the second time I visited Viet Nam. On my first visit to Hanoi in the north, it rained the whole time I was there. The terrible weather, my too brief visit, and the more reserved nature of the northerners failed to make a positive impression upon me. The special energy that I and many others have noticed which prevails largely in the south, perhaps explains why this country is moving forward in leaps and bounds. They have left their horrific past behind them, they are living very much in the present, and they dream of a better future for their country. No where is this more evident than in Ho Chi Minh City, HCMC, formerly Saigon, which will be the subject of my next post.