- 01. To The Rescue
- 02. Last Minute Minutia
- 03. Spiritual Me
- 04. A New Approach
- 05. Cruising Cambodia
- 06. Ox Cart Aerobics and Buddhist Blessing Yoga
- 07. My Great Cambodian Depression
- 08. A Day on the River Limbo
- 09. Lies, Damned Statistics, and Tourism
- 10. Saigon Reunification
- 11. The Way to Huế
- 12. A Hot Time in the Old Town
- 13. An Hanoi-ing Experience
- 14. Southeast Asian Rescue
The Tuesday morning excursion was to a Vietnamese village by the name of Tan Chau, not far from the border. We met our guide for the remainder of the cruise, a forty-ish gent named Thang who at first blush came across as more formal, almost stilted, than our Cambodian guide, Samath.
A “local junk” (small wooden powerboat) took us to the first stop, a fish farm. It comprised of a series of docks surrounding and enclosing four netted fish pens in the river, each maybe ten meters square. One of the pens was covered with a simple shed roof, another by the home of the family that operated the farm, their continual presence necessary, according to Thang, to prevent fish thievery.
Thang explained that each pen started with about 90,000 newborn fish, about half of which lived the six to eight months to their one kilogram maturity, whereupon they were sold to the local processor, generally for about one US dollar per kilogram. I calculated this to mean a harvest worth $45,000 before expenses, three or four times a year if they were using all four pens. That struck me as an awful lot of money – unbelievable? — given the living conditions I was witnessing.
We viewed the massive swirl of fish in the covered pen, and I jumped on the chance to dump a few shovelfuls of fish food in, starting a feeding frenzy. Nearby a scrawny boy, who couldn’t have weighed much more than fifty kilos himself, carried one twenty-five kilogram sack of fish food after another in from an eternal stack on a external barge. An Aussie lady became worried mom, asking how old the child was, and was said to be fourteen by his apparent mother. That struck her as awfully old — unbelievable? – for a boy that size.
Next the junk took us ashore where we walked through a cluster of simple homes, each spotless. Indeed, the dirt surrounding each showed the marks of a fresh sweeping, a marked contrast to the rubbish we found in Cambodia. There were very few residents around, though, leaving me with the feeling that they had prepared and fled as if Thang was their real estate agent who had warned them of this open house. Small but harmless dogs yelped continually, Thang explaining their continual presence was necessary to prevent thievery.
We came to a street where a line of bicycle rickshaws awaited. The bicycle rickshaw is a bicycle with a seat on two wheels attached at the rear, allowing single passenger to precariously perch while being whizzed through traffic. They are clearly designed for people smaller, better balanced, and more flexible than me, nevertheless it was an improvement on an ox cart. I offered to do the pedalling, an offer the driver seemed happy to accept, but Thang pointed out that twenty-five Vietnamese people a day leave home never to return. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I took it as indication I’d best stay perched where I was.
The Vietnamese silk factory was an industrial masterpiece. The Cambodian factory’s silk looms seen earlier were woman-powered, with that formidable source of power also making the decisions to determine pattern and colour, yielding half a meter for a day’s work. Here, the looms were engine-powered behemoths threatening to chew fingers with the first wrong move, with decisions being made mechanically by large wooden punch cards strung together like a player-pianola roll. A single such automated loom cranked out eight meters a day, with one operator running six looms, yielding a day’s work of almost 50 meters, almost one hundred times the Cambodian factory’s output. I am reasonably certain that those who can tell the difference do not shop at Target.
Back aboard the Aussies got our chance to subject the French to their trivia challenge. It went reasonably well, with the singular unforeseen consequence being the French demanding revenge, not unreasonably. That was an ordeal yet to come. Nevertheless it created a jovial camaraderie at lunch where a bit more wine than usual was consumed. At least by me.
The ship wandered down river during the afternoon, the wine continuing to flow at least as fast as the river. At four o’clock Thang gave a lecture on Vietnamese culture. It was odd. During the morning tour, Thang had demonstrated himself to be a pleasant, knowledgeable and personable individual, but prone to giving “facts” that just didn’t add up.
In recapping the events that led to the division and then war between Vietnam’s north and south, Thang lurched into an anti-Catholic diatribe which left us all scratching our heads. Apparently, out a population of 90 million, the 150,000 Catholics (0.17%) heading south after the division were the cause of the problem. Impressive leverage if true.
Thang then advised that the Vietnamese bicycle rickshaws on the Ho Chi Minh trail during the war carried up to two thousand kilograms each. That’s about one-and-a-half Volkswagen Beetles on a dirt road over mountains being carried on a bicycle rack. I suggested that was, um, — unbelievable? He stuck to his guns, pardon the unfortunate idiom.
I began to wonder whether some of this was simply, and quite literally, the “party line” he was required to toe. In any case, he lost much credibility with me. Allowing for the raconteurs’ credo “Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story”, I sat silently through the rest of the lecture, save hailing the bartender.
After dinner there was more trivia – apparently Gaby had an infinite amount already prepared when we toiled through the previous day to create ours. Sigh. More wine, please. This contest was of higher quality and translated better than ours – name that tune, and such. I was feeling a bit precocious, infiltrating the French ranks, helping one of their teams lose badly. Frank’s team of Aussies won, netting a prize of a zillion chopsticks and an elaborate case in which to store them, never to be seen again.
In the morning I was surprised to awaken at six, feeling pretty good. Up on the sun deck the other Aussie early riser complimented me for a sturdy constitution given my previous night’s antics. Soon Frank joined us, equally puzzled by my perky demeanour. “Are you still drunk?”
After breakfast we boarded the junk bound for the floating markets of Sa Dec, near where we had moored overnight. Five minutes later I sobered up, realising I never should have gotten out of bed in the first place. We arrived at Yetanatha Pagoda, which spun around me as I sweat profusely, guzzling a litre of water in seconds. Very little of the floating market was actually on the water, so I found electric fans to afront while cowering in the shade. Thang pointed of the tables laden with skinned hides of “Vietnamese Kangaroo”, a rodent whose true identity I was not interested in knowing, but there was no stopping that conversation. Even in my very sorry state, I appreciated the bizarre array of fruits, vegetables, fish and meats around us.
Last we went to some house where some famous movie I’d never heard of was filmed. I thought I was going to die. My head spun, I perspired like a fountain, my heart raced, and I lost balance near enough a row of chairs under a fan to allow the tour to continue without me.
I made it back to the ship, barely. I lay down in the air conditioned comfort of our stateroom, vowing never to leave again. It is quite possible I did, which would suggest the balance of this story might be a concoction of malarial hallucination.
I am certain, though, that I stayed in bed until lunch, as next to nothing kills my appetite, dammit. Then I hid until I was certain everyone had left for the afternoon excursion to Cai Be, involving something called snake wine. I had very little interest in anything involving wine at the moment.
The highlight of our final evening on the cruise was the entire crew thanking us for being such wonderful paying customers who might be induced to pay a bit more by singing Auld Lang Sine in Vietnamese, or was it Khmer? Whatever, it was heart-warmingly mercenary, in a way that would have made Bobby Burns proud to be Scottish.