Tuesday, March 04, 2008
the mystique and magic...of the Mekong ( Cambodia to Vietnam)
It is rare that I have ever felt so far from the Western world. It seems that no matter where I have been before in my life, there was always a street sign I could read, a familiar brand of food to be bought, and a familiar word or two that could be shared….
But alas, I have arrived in Vietnam and as much as one would think and expect that English would be the common language here , it is just not the case .….(but , alas, there is still the occasional Coca Cola bottle stand and accompanying smiles wherever I have gone thus far so I guess I am not THAT far from my “familiar” world..)
The experience of traveling down the mighty Mekong River from Cambodia to Vietnam will be an experience I will not soon forget. Once again, pictures do only half the justice of the most surreal and magical moments I had traveling down this awesome river.
What struck me more than anything was the amount of love and attention that was shown to all of us aboard our little riverboat as we passed each village or riverboat. There was not a child we passed in our 4 hour journey who did not wave to us with all of his/her might, no matter how far away he/she was…Oftentimes, I could hear the sounds of “hello” resonating in the distant shores, no seeing where it was coming from but always knowing it was a young child wanting to connect in his or her own special way.
Some of the local children were in the river bathing and playing as children do…, others were helping their family with the carrying of rice into the hillsides and beyond; others still were in fishing boats passing us by, taking home their “catch of the day” to feed them and their families….
And one point, my heart literally felt like it just burst and tears just came streaming non-stop down my face…the love that I was feeling was oh so obvious….and it was being given absolutely unconditionally…a most beautiful feeling, indeed.
The tranquility of the what I saw also left a most lasting impression. I saw the most basic of homes I have ever seen in my life yet the smiles that I saw emanating from these homes gave me a most strong impression that these people were happy. Poor (according to western “standards”), but certainly at peace with their lives.
To finally cross the border into Vietnam was also another experience I wont soon forget. We had to leave our trusty little river boat with all of our luggage in tow, trapse across a rocky hillside for several minutes (not really being told what we were doing or where we were going),cross a supposed border marked only by a barb wire fence (always an eerie image for me) and then was “hoarded” into a “holding area” while immigration (marked by unsmiling men in military looking uniforms) checked all our passports and luggage. For a startling moment or two, I suddenly went back about 35 years and had a quick glimpse of what it must have felt like for these people to be constantly “watched” by the US in similar man-made “holding areas…an amazingly startling moment I wont soon forget.
And the noise…ah, the noise…I had read about how noisy Vietnam was in many of the guidebooks was but I really had no idea or expectation of how high the decibel level would be until I (mistakingly) arrived in the Mekong town of Chau Doc. The nonstop sounds of motorcycles, car horns, people talking loudly, bicycles ringing bells, and the seemingly never-ending announcements that were being made on traveling loudspeakers atop small cars and trucks greeted me immediately upon stepping off my quiet little riverboat.
One of the “rudest” awakening I had in this small town was at about 5 o’clock in the morning when some loud nationalistic announcement was being made seemingly right outside my guesthouse window…(my first thought was, “do people march at this early hour of the morning?”)…and luck would have it, there was a power outage in the town about an hour later and suddenly the sounds of generators throughout the city added to the cacophonous symphony of sounds that already were part of the aural tapestry of the city. All I can say is thank goodness for a good pair of earplugs….:)
So I have now ‘escaped’ Chau Doc and the loud city noises for a few days but not without a price….After being told I was to be transported to the ferry boat in a nice 45 seater air-conditioned bus, I was greeted at 6:30 am by a a very small, somewhat “beaten up” looking van that already had 10 not- -very-happy looking western tourists inside. Little did I know that we were to pick up 4 more people along the way and would be in for the ride of our lives…yes, that is correct…there were 14 of us in a very small van that most “normal” standards would have been set for about 9 people. The best part was that our Vietnamese “tour guide” had the audacity to share with us (with a typical big Vietnamese smile) that normally they would fit more people..but, as he wonderfully reminded us using hand gestures and a few words in broken English, “Vietnamese are very small people…you, you are all very big. With Vietnamese people, we could fit 4 more !”
So off we went on a 4 hour incredibly bumpy, fast, and noisy ride (with me in the very back row over the left wheel) to the western shores of Vietnam. All along I am thinking just one thing :how I could find my trusty Ipod or earplugs amidst the piles of luggage around me in order for me to survive this treacherous journey …I even started to look for little scraps of paper around me just to use to plug out the devastingly loud and irritable sounds all around me….but alas, I just let it all go and surrendered to the higher powers that be…this was a wonderful test, of course, to release that all too present need to control the situation…and there was no way in hell I had any control whatsoever here…
So I just began to smile and laugh with the other eager tourists on board, knowing full well this will be a story we will all have to share with our families and friends one day when we returned to our wonderfully organized worlds full of asphalt roads , lane dividers, and traffic lights.
two worlds seemingly collide here as I took this picture from a 400$/nite hotel (no, I was not staying here) ovedrlooking the mekong river where extreme poverty was just a stone's throw away.
I am now on the island of Phu Quoc, the westernmost island of Vietnam and only a few miles from the Cambodian border. It is a wonderful island , with only 50,000 residents and much fewer tourists. There is still a few military bases here but mostly it is a sleepy island filled with beautiful beaches and coastline, a national park filled with pinetrees and wildlife and an incredible potential for tourism. I am glad I am here now and not in 5 years. Once they decide to pave the roads here, I think it will be a very different place.
I went on an incredible motorbike ride yesterday that took me over much of the island on mostly red dirt roads with very few road signs and even fewer people that could give me any sense of where I was or where I wanted to go. 90km or so later, I eventually found my way back to my guesthouse and slept like a baby for almost 10 hours straight. It is amazing the amount of energy one expends, I guess, when driving on either very busy roads , or roads that are filled with only potholes, dirt, and rock.
It is , of course , great to be on a beach again for a few days, especially having been in some very noisy and busy cities before here…My next stop will be Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) this coming weekend and I am sure my head will be spinning once again with all the sights, smells and sounds that this wonderfully historic city has to offer..
And, yes, I will keep my earplugs very close at hand.
I hope you are well and that your world is also giving you a reason to smile and be amazed….
Until next time…