My Tho, Vietnam

April 23, 2008

There were rivers and there were RIVERS! The puny Pasig in the Philippines belonged to the former, the massive Mekong to the all-caps latter.

Mekong and Me

As in any delta, the river splintered into many branches before spilling its contents to the sea. The Mekong River delta had nine such branches called the Nine Dragon Delta in Vietnamese. The silt-laden waters were actually melted snow from the Tibetan Himalayas. The murk was composed of organic remnants of the countries the river cut through: China (Tibet and Yunnan), Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and finally, Vietnam.

We arranged for a day-long trip (TNK Travel, $9 per person). Since there were only four of us, we ended up in a van with various groups of multinational tourists. Eavesdropping for a pastime was out of the question. We settled at the back expecting a sleepy ride. Just as we negotiated the highway, the van vroomed at full tilt, suspending our asses in mid-air with every small bump on the road. That was the bumpiest ride ever on an otherwise well-paved highway! As Ayee (my travelling companion) put it, it seemed our brains had been rearranged. Preparatory ritual before facing the dragon, I supposed.

After 2 hours of having our neurons winnowed like grain, we arrived at My Tho, a city sitting on the delta. There, we boarded a motorboat to navigate across the Draconian Dragon – the Mighty Mekong. It was the biggest river I had seen so far; it took all of 45 minutes to cross its width.

Mid-way through, the waves got rougher and we were in for another bout of ass-tossing, ‘do-damaging, and brain-rearranging. No wonder it was called a dragon. My heart was in my shoe the whole time. Perhaps due to neural displacement, I had visions of capsizing boats and drowning in murky waters – all in crisp cinematography. I threw the boatman an accusing look. He must’ve read my mind (which, by now, probably transliterated brainwaves into Vietnamese) because he just flashed the smuggest smile this side of Saigon. I smirked back. Perhaps the van-ride and the boat-ride were meant to complement each other. Brains were messed up, then shuffled right back.

Murky Mekong and my Guide

Thankfully, we ended the trip on the opposite shore, not the next life. Our guide, who actually spoke good English but in a voice that mostly dissipated in the breeze, led us to another boat. My head spun; I think my eyes rolled with it. Not another friggin’ Poseidon adventure, I protested.

But no worries, it was a lazy, meandering ride through thick mangroves. We met many locals with their cone hats called non la. Perhaps they were fishermen, but most had become virtual gondoliers in these Venetian environs. My gondolier was an amiable sort who communicated with facial expressions. Again, we spoke in the same brainwaves. My face went, “This is cool!” His smile said, “Cooler than throwing nets around and hoping for a meal.” I tipped my cone hat to that.

Like a Conehead (wearing a non la, Vietnamese cone hat)

It turned out we were not on the opposite shore after all. We were in the middle of the Mekong – on an island called Tortoise Island. Ironically, no such amphibian was in sight. I could only hope they were not hunted to extinction.

We walked through what looked like a wilderness of swamp shrubs that opened into a clearing with a huge – what the hey – restaurant. It’s an in-ya-face anachronism, but we were famished so I was more relieved than aghast. They actually had menus. Who could be passing by and deciding to dine in this island in the middle of a draconian delta? Of course, my being there asking such questions was the answer. Duh!

A group of local musicians serenaded us as we gobbled up diced watermelons. Our guide explained what they were singing, which went just like any kundiman (traditional Filipino love song): poor boy loves rich girl, yada-yada. Hearing it in Vietnamese just made it more surreal than cheesy.

After the refreshments, we walked to a road to get on what our guide called “the super carriage” – a steel horse-drawn carriage, it turned out. While waiting for one, I rolled up my shorts to feign hitchhiking. A local woman saw me, snickered and said something in the vernacular, which probably went, “That knobby knee wouldn’t even stop an ox-cart!” I shouted back in my mind: “Hey lady, my brainwaves got that!”

My Thigh in My Tho
Mekong Candyman

Next stop was a coco-candy factory. This small island apparently housed enough people to maintain a cottage industry and a tourist entertainment program. The guide was busy explaining with his dissipating voice. Unmindful, I quickly sampled the aforementioned candy and asked no one in particular, “So how did he say this thing is made?” With comic timing and deadpan tone, an American tourist beside me retorted, “They mix it with mud.” My eyes almost popped out and exclaimed, “NOW you tell me THAT?!” (with the same incredulous intonation of Meryl Streep in Death Becomes Her when she said “Now a warning?” after she had gulped down the elixir of immortality!).

Good thing they also served heavenly honey tea. What better way to wash down mud. I’m not a tea fan, but this one got me. Neither too strong nor too diluted. Channeling Goldilocks, I thought it was just right. But any good thing has an attendant challenge. Dodging hovering bees was it. It wasn’t a swarm, but still rather disconcerting. I didn’t want to be stung and go sightseeing with a head the size of a pumpkin. How the hell would my head fit in my non la?

Tea or Me(kong)?

Finally it was time to leave. All was sunshiny until I realized…we had to cross the darn river again. Exhaustion was a good antidote. I learned that you can actually be too tired to get scared. By the time we got on the van, we all promptly dozed off while being flipped about like pizza dough in Sbarro.

I had conquered one of the Nine (draconian) Dragons – through brain rearrangement and sheer exhaustion!

Meditating among the Mangroves