13. Journey to the Mekong

Nearly 80 percent of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is covered with rice. The region is always wet and green. But a visit to a tiny riverside village is a cultural adventure as well as a geographic one. …

A tiny Mekong Riverside house in Quoi An, Vinh Long province (JGA photo)

The Mekong Delta includes everything south and west of Ho Chi Minh City, an area about the size of Switzerland or The Netherlands. Its 12 provinces embrace the mouths of the Mekong River, which starts as a trickle on China’s Tibetan Plateau and runs 2,700 miles (4,350 km) down the borders of Laos, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. It finally pours through Cambodia and Vietnam into the South China Sea, known here as the East Sea.

The Mekong exits the vast Asian heartland not as a single vein, but as a network of intertwined capillaries, a multitude of canals linking natural waterways. For most of its human history, it was navigated only by boat. Even in the modern era of bridge building, many homes remain on the water, and a handful of traditional floating markets persist. The major towns, including Can Tho, with its 1½ million people, are bustling commercial centers.

I was glad to visit the Mekong and escape metropolitan HCMC during the Tet holiday of 2020. Embracing an invitation from my old friend Kurt Bennett, I traveled to Vinh Long province and the tiny village of Quới Ân, a place that isn’t found on any tourist map.

Quới Ân is the family home of Kurt’s wife, Thi, whom he met when working in HCMC some years ago. This year during Tet — Vietnam’s annual mid-winter tribute to the lunar new year — Kurt and Thi invited me to share several days with Thi’s extended family, which welcomed us as guests in one sister’s rural home.

Dream waits astride his motorbike for a Mekong River ferry (JGA photo)

Motorbike adventure

Thi’s nephew, “Dream,” as he calls himself, was more than happy to provide my transportation from the city. Self-taught in English, this young man in his early 20s, a shipping clerk and dedicated runner, made a great companion for my four-hour motorbike ride into the pastoral hinterlands. I took what I needed in a small backpack, donned my facemask and helmet, then shared the rear seat of his Honda Air Blade with three pizza boxes. The family in Quới Ân loved it when he gifted them city cooking, Dream explained.

As we traveled, urban sprawl slowly dissipated, along with smog and the relentless buzz of motorcycles. It gave way first to modern industrial parks, then to rice fields as we headed westerly from HCMC on Highway 1. Nearly half of this country’s rice, in a variety of textures and colors, is produced in the Delta.

Loosely tethered water buffalo grazed beside the highway, occasionally lifting their heads to low deeply and slog to a new patch of grass and mud. Behind them, as we scooted across the fertile countryside, the rising sun cast diminishing shadows on a multitude of greens — emerald, jade, celadon. Helen Reddy’s “Delta Dawn” would have been an appropriate soundtrack.

I was grateful to break the journey twice, giving my hind side a rest, for cups of coffee at roadside cafés. Already, still not far from the big city, I felt my muscles relaxing and urban stress slipping away.

A local ferry crosses one of the many ocean-bound rivulets of the Mekong River. (JGA photo)

At the market town of My Tho, we exited Highway 1 and took the back road through languid Ben Tre, a center for day-tripping urban explorers who want to see the Delta but return at night to the comfort of their Ho Chi Minh City hotels. We didn’t pause, instead climbing high above the waters of the Mekong on a couple of Vietnam’s longest and highest bridges. From these perches, it was easy to get a sense of how this region might have looked a century or two ago: broad muddy rivers and rivulets dissecting deep green palm forests, small fishing boats venturing into the flow from villages built on stilts in the middle of the streams.

Beyond Cai Mon, there were more backroads. These had no bridges for river crossings; small ferries took us where we wanted to go. The last one, not coincidentally, crossed the Mekong channel known as the Cổ Chiên and deposited Dream and I directly in Quới Ân.

Arrival in Quới Ân

Kurt and Thi greeted us in the open market next to the ferry terminal. Compared to Saigon, the market was (as English-speaking Vietnamese like to say) “same, same, but different.” “Same” were the abundant displays of fruits and vegetables harvested that very morning from local farms: mangoes, bitter melon, water spinach and dark green — rarely orange — oranges. “Same” were the mountains of fresh coconuts and the stalls of inexpensive clothing and cookware in tidy but crowded shops. The fragrance of fresh flowers from nearby nurseries was a welcome antidote to other, less pleasant market odors.

Ducks awaiting slaughter bicker in the Quoi An marketplace (JGA photo)

Decidedly “different” were the river fish flopping in shallow baths next to prawns, octopi and eels. The latter were plucked from rice fields along with chubby bullfrogs, dozens of which clambered over one another in tubs beside a chortling merchant. Plump white ducks bickered from an open crate that stood beside the butchered carcasses of their kin. This clearly was not a place that saw many tourists.

From the market to Thi’s sister’s house, we followed a narrow dirt track along the riverbank, passing a colorful pagoda, a long-abandoned elementary school and several well-loved homes. I wondered how some of these houses survive heavy seasonal rains and flooding.

Certainly, the potential for natural disaster is increasing each year. Global warming is causing oceans to rise and inundate the banks of the Mekong, which in Vietnam is barely above sea level anyway. Vinh Long city, 173 miles (278 km) inland, has an elevation of fewer than 10 feet (about 3 meters) above sea level. Dire forecasts paint a gloomy picture for rice farmers in future decades.

Home away from home in Quoi An village (JGA photo)

For now, however, my friends’ family is unaffected. The elder sister’s home, where we stayed, faces a serene country lane a couple of hundred meters from the river, behind a sand-and-gravel company lot. With marble floors, it is surprisingly spacious and beautiful, both inside and out. Family portraits and Buddhist iconography adorn rosewood furnishings. Outdoors, a flagstone fountain, bonsai sculpture and animal statuary point the way to a charming gazebo.

During the next few days of Tet, the gazebo became an outdoor party space. It was put to good use by husbands and boyfriends anxious to hoist a tin of beer — Tiger, Saigon Special or 333 (say “Ba Ba Ba”) — with the foreign visitors. And that’s where the next installment of this blog will continue.

Dream, Kurt, John and Thi in Quoi An

Next: The sacred and the profane


Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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