Posts Tagged 'mekong delta'

A Tale of Two Tours: Part II, Khmer Village

White girl comes to town. Crowd gathers.

Duc had a prison-style dragon tattoo and a speech impediment, and he gave me the best goddamn tour I went on in Vietnam.

I kept seeing him around town. My first morning, groggy-eyed drinking coffee at a corner cafe, I saw him sitting at a neighboring table. He was selling his tour services to another sola Westerner, and it appeared to be working. He was younger than the other motorbike drivers, wearing a sleeveless shirt, something beat-up, kind of tough about him. He’s working it, I’d thought.

He looked over at me and we exchanged brief nods.

I saw him again that afternoon atop Sam Mountain, two skimpily clad female backpackers hopping off the back of his motorbike. Yup, I thought. Woooorkin it.

He asked me about my tattoos, peeled his shirt back and showed me a jagged dragon across his chest. The lines of it were half-blown out.

“You tattoo? You use neddle?” he asked me. I shook my head, “No way, a gun, man!”

He grinned a soggy-toothed grin. “Me, no gun.” I could tell, though I didn’t say it.

And again outside my hotel that night. He talked up his tour services, an English at once clear and garbled, that snagged and stuttered on certain words. I’d already booked a Delta tour with my hotel; I politely refused.

The next day’s tour was my third one in Vietnam with barely-to-no English spoken. We motored the Delta’s brown waters, through a “village” of tattered boats—faded wood, clutters of laungry, children flying kites from somewhere on the decks—and to a Cham ethnic minority village on dryland. It was fascinating, beautiful, but I had no context for it, no way to learn, to understand what I was seeing. I wanted to know more, felt it building up in me, bottling up, nowhere to go—an asphyxiation of unasked questions.

I was over it. Over the seeing-and-not-knowing tours.

Which I guess is how Duc sold himself to me. I sat later drinking coffee on a plastic stool in the shade. He pedaled his motorbike up, said hello. He asked how my tour had gone. I told him not great.

“You go with someone who speak English, it better.”

“Yeah, you’re right about that.”

He must have sized me up pretty well. He told me about a Khmer village about 15km away, very remote and isolated, “no one else take you there.” He kept talking and talking, and I thought, It’d be nice to see something with someone who can explain it. I also thought, If his tour guide skills are anything like his sales skills, it’ll be pretty good. I’d already spent too much that day, but said fuck it.

“Okay, okay,” I smiled. Then added, “You’re a good salesman.”

We drove through the Delta, its murky beauty: corrugated tin shacks perched on bamboo stilts like skinny legs, a Dali painting; ladders to reedy docks, leading precipitously down the muddy banks, into the muddy water (love, love, love that dirty water). My brain was on fire with images; I kept trying to scribble them down. Writing poetry on the back of a motorbike, it turns out, is very hard.

Duc kept pulling over along the way, to show me things, rice and seeds, things laid out on tarps to dry in the sun. He didn’t have to do that. He explained how the rice patties were harvested, how the people worked long hours, “very hard work.” He didn’t have to do that either.

Every now and then a vagrant stutter would lurk through his speech. But he’d work through it—drag his speech and himself through the snare of it—and something about it struck me as sad and somehow tender, like a bird with a broken wing.

I pretended not to notice.

We made a few other stops, finally pulled off and bumped slowly down a dirt road. The landscape changed—more cows, bone white and skinny-ribbed, flowering trees I hadn’t seen elsewhere. The houses were suddenly different too—thatching for walls as well as roofs, so the structures looked furry, like animals.

We crawled out of a cloud of dust as the bike came to a stop.

We begin to walk the town’s road slowly. He explained: a town of about 400, ethnically Khmer. There were a few towns like that along this strip of the Delta, a ribbon of land that had once been part of Cambodia. They stayed pretty isolated, stayed to themselves; residents rarely left. So traditional ways, instead of blurring with those of the Vietnamese, stayed pretty intact. And I could feel it, could feel the immediate difference.

Curious brown faces began to appear. “Hello!” one of them shouted, then hid behind the back of another. “My name is—” then a chorus of giggling. I answered back hello, and they laughed more. We went on like that, as I kept walking.

Every face I passed seemed to smile. I was an outsider, an oddity, but they seemed pleased by me. I passed a baby in a hammock, being rocked by a rope that was tied to it, a mother tugging, tugging. She smiled too.

The crowd of children grew, big grins on small faces. Most were barefoot, their clothes thin and worn. They held their hands to their mouths, the girls chewed their hair, they smiled and smiled.

We passed a woman making these omelet/crepe things I’d had before, filled with sprouts and meat. I was hungry. I motioned for one and sat down.

This is when the real delight began to grow. And the crowd.

I’ve heard other travelers’ tales like these: being surrounded in some small village somewhere, stared at. But I’d never had to happen to me. I kept stopping eating, looking around—an entire circle of faces, just watching, watching, and smiling too.

I laughed—what else could I do? I searched for Duc’s face, hidden behind the crowd; his was smiling too.

A very small, very hunched and wrinkled old woman, tapped my shoulder. She handed me a short tin cup filled with water, and I thought I might cry. They were all so welcoming, so sincere; the children giggled and the adults watched and they all kept smiling. It struck me as about the sweetest thing I’d ever experienced.

Duc and I began to walk slowly back towards the motorbike, the village’s kids trailing behind us—a shadow of children. I turned around and waved. “Good-bye.” And a chorus of “good-byes” erupted and a flurry of waves, and we drove off, away: a precious little place I’d never be again.

And it struck me, there, on the back of that bike, that Ba Chuc must have been a lot like that town before the Khmer Rouge came. Only bigger.

We cruised back into town. I hopped off in front of my hotel, handed Duc $10 instead of the $9 we’d agreed on.

“Oh, you tip me? You happy?”

“Yes. I’m very, very happy.”

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A Tale of Two Tours: Part 1, Ba Chuc

We were racing the sun. It was begining to glow orange, cut into pieces by the great green palm leaves. The Mekong Delta—the landscape of every Vietnam War movie I’d ever seen, where boat engines sounded like the echoes of helicopter blades.

We were trying to get to Ba Chuc before the sun went down. It was the site of a Khmer Rouge massacre; a pagoda with the bones of the deceased had been constructed. I’d planned on visiting it the next day, but when Sam Mountain turned out to be a bust—cages full of endangered birds for sale, and small boys peeing between make-shift altars—I’d decided to make a run for it.

We pulled into a dirt lot with the sun low, barely above the squat structures—corrugated tin walls and thatched roofs. The motorbike driver didn’t speak English; he pointed at the sign on a small, concrete building. “Ba Chuc.” I handed him my helmet, and he leaned back to wait.

Inside was empty, a lonely government building—fading paint and dusty floors. The walls were lined with photos depicting the massacre. Along this stretch of border, there were several Khmer villages; it had, at one time, been part of the Khmer kingdom. In 1978, the Khmer Rouge had come into the town of nearly 4,000; only one person survived the massacre.

I’d read this all in my guidebook. Here, all the signs were in Vietnamese. The brutal black-and-white images didn’t need translation. I walked slowly, alone with the freeze-frame horror.

A barefoot woman entered the room. She was withered and hunched. She tugged at my sleeve, pointed to the picture of a girl’s body impaled through the vagina. She made a thrusting motion, her eyes desperate. She motioned around.

She kept pointing, I kept nodding—what else do you do? She held incense out towards me, made a motion for bowing. I didn’t want to buy any incense. Not so much that I didn’t want to buy it, but that I didn’t want to burn it, to bow—to mime the motions of someone else’s religion, someone else’s sanctity, someone else’s tragedy. Not mine, not mine. (I hadn’t wanted to go to my uncle’s funeral as a little girl, and it was the same feeling—an old feeling, buried feeling, that I’d forgotten—something in me saying, “No, no, no.”)

I walked over to the pagoda. It was in a grassy lot, mostly deserted. A large tree grew next to it. It was pretty, rural, littered with trash. Two teenagers sat holding hands. Three small, dirty boys played on the steps leading up to it. They leapt up, walked over to me, palms open. I shook my head (no, no).

They followed me as I walked in a slow circle around the pagoda. Behind glass, skulls had been arranged according to age: 0-2, 17-25… It didn’t seem real.

I circled around once, twice. I didn’t feel anything I thought I should be feeling (“There’s no right or wrong way to grieve.”) I didn’t feel anything, really, but numbness, and a “no.”

I walked back down the few steps, back towards the motorbike, the driver, another distance to be traveled in silence. A rock hit the groumnd beside my sneakers. I looked back, and the boys giggled. Had they meant to hit me? Was it malicious, were they playing, who was I, what was I doing there?

I walked back to the motorbike through the dirt-lot dusk, feeling nothing but “no.”

Saturday Night Fevered

Long stalks of flowers and twisted plumes of incense burning. Nodding, bowing, chanting with their eyes closed. Trays of food—peeled fruit, shrink-wrapped cookie packages, an entire plucked chicken—held atop people’s heads as they murmur. Candles and coconuts, red glowing altars (to what, to what?).

Children and hunched-up old people, a constant bumping, bustling, brushing against—the Asian conception of personal space, or lack thereof, exemplified. Announcements on a loudspeaker (what, what?).

Smoking a cigarette while he prays. Sweeping rubbish out from under the feet of the worshippers—playing cards with footprints on the floor.

Photocopied money in buckets being carried, to be burned—tossed into a pit outside that shoots scraps of burnt paper all over, raining ash in the night wind. Smoke rising (to where, to where?). Calling to children—“Em oi! Em oi!” Some kind of urgency, some kind of plead—nothing Christian about this piety. Nothing solemn; everything sacred.

Security guard siddles up to me, glances at the furious scribbling in my notebook (for what, for what?).

A Buddha-looking diety looking down on it all—a halo of neon, flashing in technicolor.

——–

This was perhaps one of the biggest What The Fuck moments of my travels. I had no idea where I was, what was going on, what any of it was for—just that I was suddenly immersed in it, plunged into a cloud of incense smoke and chanting and riotous fervor. These were the notes I made in the middle of the madness.

The motorbike driver didn’t speak any English. We were coming back from another site outside of Chau Doc, a town along the Cambodian border in the Mekong Delta. The roads became cluttered, lined with food stalls and carts and bodies, bodies. They filled like a clogged pipe until they choked and he had to pedal the bike through the crowd.

He stopped in front of a temple adorned with blinking Christmas lights. He pointed. I went in.

It was a funny thing, to be wrapped up in the zeal and fervor of it all without having the slightest clue what any of it was—an entirely sensory experience, a ritual out of context, a girl out of context, cultured-shocked.

When I got back to the hotel, I asked the English-speaking desk clerk, “I just went to some temple, up the road and—”

“You saw thousands of people,” she finished me, nodding.

“Yeah! What was that?”

She told me that they’re city-folk; they come to Lady Temple after the new year to ask for good luck. On weekends in February, March, even up through April, the otherwise sleepy town of Chau Doc swells with these Vietnamese travelers.

“Pilgrims, pilgrims,” the other clerk told me the next day. He’s younger than the girl, I thought, but he only seems it—he later told me that he’s almost 40. I wondered where the years went, behind his boyish smile.

“Other times, not so many people in Chau Doc. It very good for the business.” He looked out the glass lobby windows onto the town’s main market, overflowing into the street with tourists—not so many of them Western.

Snapped a couple of jostled photos before I saw the "No Camera" signs...


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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