Before the story of a summer journey down the Mekong delta, I want to tell you the dreams which our youth often calls the “run-aways”. It happens when you are distressed by urban pollution, urban crowd and unnameable troubles from tedious daily works. You want to travel. You crave for journeys, short or long. You thirst for the feeling of exhaling freshening air of a place where there are only you and the vast sky. Dreams of the run-aways. Dreams of forsaking worldly weights.
The story comes at the dawn of the day. I have just returned from a two-day trip. Today dawn reminds me of that miraculous morning: I woke up to the river passing thousand kilometers, reflecting sunlight. Downstream Mekong is an end to a fascinating novel with extravagant shades of emotions: melancholy, sweetness and regret.
It started on a sunny Saigonese morning. Am I going to recite a fairy tale? – “Once upon a time, on a sunny beautiful day …”? Hmm … It is going to be a great story.
The coach brought me to My Tho city after one and a half hour journey. Saigon was shrouded behind everlasting highways through the fields. Do you remember your first time stepping out of your “small world”? This is it. This is that charm. This is that childish fascination. This is the sparkling in your eyes gazing at things anew. I found them when Saigon was further and further behind and the fields invaded my vision.
How lucky you would be, if you were a river folk. On the wooden boat down the currents, the water surface gleaming with sunlight, I was envious with the folks who can ravish that coziness on a daily basis. Poetry romanticizes paradise by the visage of clouds, lakes, warm light and evergreen hills. If so, I think I was in paradise. Wait! Those flowery words were not suited for that place. You can forget who you are when you breathe in the breezes chanted with duckweeds and river soils and look at your shadow on the water surface. Only to breathe and feel. And feel. Feel that you are free. You are here, at the mystical downstream Mekong. This is not paradise. Everything is as surreal as the streams hitting the side of the boat.
I adore the part where I “disguised” as a fisherman. There is not enough excitement to make you shiver. You should not follow me until the end of this journey if you prefer mind-wrecking fun. Indeed, all you have is peace in this place. Everything was solitary and quiet. You fished, tardily, in a sunny day. You derived enjoyment from simplicity: a bailed fish, the blue sky and zero worry for tomorrow. You may have recollected forgotten memories, some lost friends or a share of tranquil speculation. Being a patient fisherman drove those thoughts to me, as if I stumbled upon an old tea from a long past.
I arrived at An Khanh – a renowned tourist attraction of Ben Tre – ob boat after a rural lunch at My Tho. The coconut trees emitted cool shadow. The boatman led me to a fruit garden. Green. Ripe. Plums, mangoes, durians, lychees, etc. South-western farmers loved their trees with paternity. Mayhap their honesty and devotion had mixed to the soil, which bore fruity trees. How interesting! They would tell their stories. By their cool shadows in the summer noon. By the sweetness of their fruits. By the fragrance of their flowers. The trees seemed to be full of love that a stranger like me could not help feeling melancholic.
In the South West, honey is a gift of nature. Mix it with ginger and mild lemonade. Imagine. Sitting at the farm door. Closing your eyes. You were surrounded by trees after trees. The Mekong river was glittering with sunlight. You could smell honey and river soil. You could hear the summer sounds. And you tasted the honey lemonade. How would you feel?
I also listened to ‘đờn ca tài tử’ – traditional South-western music. At that time, dusk began to take its place. I love the daily life echoed from the melodies. Besides đàn tranh, đàn tỳ bà, đàn kìm, đàn cò, đàn tam (all traditional musical instruments), flute, drum, etc. the farmer-artist also adopted shoves and basketry to their songs. This was their cherishing of their labour. I remembered the morning trolls and office work. Though modern our life could be, we lacked credit for what we had. A smile faltered upon me. Maybe, after this journey, I would go to work with a different attitude. The more you love something, the more happiness you are endowed.
Then, I stopped by a household coconut candy studio. They hired a few employees, all locals. There was no distance between employers and employees. They worked, laughed and talked together. Small pieces of candy were full of coconut scent. I asked an employee about the working environment. She said that they preserved the aged tradition of the region. They loved it and did not think of it as a work. I listened in fantasy. The South-western honesty was nourished in the soil of the Mekong. Fierce yet kind.
At night, I dined with a small Can Tho family. That was the last stop of the journey. I was starved after a memory-filled day. The husband played a joyful song by a đàn cò in the garden. April moon was graceful. The wife called everyone for dinner. The song stopped. The small household gathered around the food tray. The westerners were unbiased even to their table etiquette. They set the rice bowl at the middle; the guest could eat to their heart’s content. There was no pretence. In busy days, how many times have you eaten alone? How long have you not have a cozy meal? I was emotional. Familial taste was eminent of that Western meal beside the Mekong in a moon night. When we were young, we craved for journeys. After all, we longed for a family gathering and heartwarming chats. You travel, only to know what you need.
Do you remember the dawn at the beginning of this story? Or are you lost in the gardens and the dinner under moonlight?
When the dawn was young, I got on the boat along the downstream Mekong. The water was reddish of the soil. The sun rose. The green trees on the two banks were occupied welcoming morning. The boatman sang a traditional rhythm out of excitement.
Until now, my spirit is still lifted by that morning. It was so fresh and fond! In the middle of the flow, you felt like a beaming wanderer in pictures of rivers and mountains. You were carefree as if bathed in the Mekong water. Filled with good faith and budding beauty.
I arrived at the crowed floating market Cai Rang. Big and small boats were loaded with merchandises, the majority of which were fruit. Strangely, there was not chaos. The sounds were loud and blissed. The fragrance was fresh and the waves would not stop pattering the boats.
I met a food boat and ordered a potion of Vietnamese vermicelli soup. The taste was special. It may be because the food was directly prepared on board. The seller jokingly accredited the deliciousness to the water resource. The locals looked at the rivers like maternal milk. They cherished and appreciated Mother Nature.
Monkey bridges may be the most perspiring challenge. I was at awe at the cleverness and ease at which the locals crossed the bridges. You had to be passionately concentrated and happy. Fear would falter you! As you can see, crossing a monkey bridge was similar to overcoming hardships. Balanced and optimistic. Then you reached the other side! The spirit lifting and crazed joy were fantastic!
Wow, such a long story is the result of a sheer two-day trip.
I returned at Saigon a dusk. The city hustle did not shield the new freshness of Mekong water in my heart. Night streets were clouded in summer realm. My lesson from the river folks are to love what we have and then we will gain happiness. You travel, only to know what you need.
Some days, I think, you will be like me and write your own story of the downstream Mekong. When you are fresh as if bathed in the Mekong river.
Are you ready?
From Như Duyên – A Traveller