Mekong Ho!

The guide from the Sinh Balo tour operator is waiting at the reception desk and I am still not ready. I want to linger over breakfast and coffee.

But this trip is a short one so there’s no time for relaxing, there are places to go, people to see.

Over breakfast I had looked down at the street below to see crowds of energetic school kids charging down the street. Sunday morning in HCMC and the place is buzzing with joggers! How about that?

I’m a keen runner myself, but a seven thirty sprint through the streets on a Sunday morning is not something I am ever likely to take up as a recreational pastime.

I was smugly sipping my coffee and enjoying the fact that I didn’t have to move myself, when the call came that it was time to leave.

We’re headed on a one day cycle tour of the Mekong Delta.

I’m in two minds about it. On the one hand it’s damn exciting to be heading out on a bike tour to such a unique place. On the other, I just wish we had more time to take a long tour and really get a feel for the place.

Still, one day is better than none.

As the bus trundles through HCMC it’s clear that Sundays are no different here from any other day, in terms of business. The streets are as noisy and bustling as a weekday.

And so it is we find ourselves in an eight am rush hour on a Sunday.

“Where are they all going?” I ask Mr Chien our guide.

“Home. Sunday is a big day for family visits.”

I look at the traffic and somehow this clarification makes me feel less peeved. All these people off home to visit family for dinner and chit chat. It makes the place feel very welcoming and familiar somehow.

As we drive, Mr Chien is keen to point out the mass of construction work that is taking place around the city.

The riverside slums that are being removed. The sanitation plants that are being built. The solid, neat housing projects that are springing up.

I take it all in, and I must admit, I’m impressed.

I ask him who is going to live in such swanky housing – where will the slum dwellers go?

He looks at me through the rear view mirror, a little confused.

“They’ll stay here.”

“In the new houses?”

“Yes. That’s why they’re being built.”

Gee.

It’s hard to know whether to believe it.

Poor people are to be housed in new, prestige accommodation, close to the centre of this bustling metropolis?

Perhaps.

I consider the influx of workers the city has seen in recent years, and the economic expansion that requires improvements in housing and roads and silently decide that it is ecomonics, rather than altruism, that is driving this building boom.

I want to crush my disbelief, and imagine those slum dwellers safely ensconced in their new homes, but somehow I am not succeeding.

So I simply turn and look out the window, watching the city disappear and change slowly to green.

In a small, unnamed town we disembark and hit a wall of heat, and it’s thenI realise that I have forgotten my hat and my sun cream and curse immediately. It seems so dumb, but never mind.

Such stupidity also brings profit, just not for me.

A canny stallholder has everything a forgetful, pale westerner could desire and so it is that I straddle my bike, attired in the very latest in red star baseball caps.

A pleasing emblematic contrast if ever there was one, that’s for sure.

We trundle through town, dodging traffic, heading for the river and the quieter paths that will take us to our first destination.

There’s a local industry here that Mr Chien is sure we will enjoy – sweet making.

With coconut and sugar palms in abundance, making sweet caramels has become something of a local speciality.

So ducking palm fronds and skating about on the muddy paths, we head to the small production line.

Which is really just a cottage industry, consisting as it does of a sugar cane press, a few stoves for boiling the vast vats of sugary goo, and some tables for rolling, cutting and wrapping the final sweets. All outdoors by the river, under cover of a wooden canopy.

It’s all so relaxed and simple and the sweets themselves are delicious and tacky and sugary as hell.

I’m recovering from the sugar hit when Mr Chien produces a small cup of amber liquid for me. He has a cup himself which he knocks back with abandon, so I follow his lead and do the same.

It’s hot and very humid, and early in the morning, the sugar cane alcohol knocks me back with some considerable force.

We have a full days cycling ahead and here I am knocking back super strength shots of pure alcohol.

Woah!

I stagger back to my bike and mount it with some trepidation. Mr Chien and Paolo though seems unperturbed by their alcoholic breakfast , and whizz off through the mud all pink and merry.

Damn them!

Cursing, I follow, sliding about on the muddy track until I eventually realise that the best thing to do is just to get some speed up and hope for the best.

When we hit the road again I look ahead to see Mr Chien’s hand in the air waving me on and indicating the turn we need to take to get to the ferry which will take us over to the delta trail we will follow.

As we weave through the speeding traffic I am glad of the car dodging skills I’ve developed after years of cycling through Amsterdam, but very relieved when we finally make it to the ferry.

The terminal is busy and we need to jostle into position among the hoards of motorcycles and vans. The whole place is buzzing with chatter and laughter and my cycling shorts seem to attract a degree of merriment among the crowds.

I try to remind myself that I am out on a cycling trip and that my get up is comfortable and practical, but looking around at the crowds all neatly dressed in their Sunday finery, I feel awkward and inelegant and wish the ferry would pull in quickly and steam us over the vast brown swathe of water that is the Mekong.

Eventually it arrives and we are soon heading out down river, the sun on our faces, and a gentle river breeze taking the ferocity out of the sun’s glare.

Later, that same breeze will bring with it a ferocious and dark thunderstorm that will drench and freeze us, but for now, the day is balmy and warm.

The cycle trail through this part of the Delta is surprising. Narrow dirt tracks twist and turn in unexpected ways, and all around it feels as if we are entangled in a net of green. Then, just as you feel you are headed into some forbidding jungle, the track widens and a road appears, and you realise that you are actually coming into a little hamlet of coloured houses.

It’s a beautiful sight. Some houses are little more than wooden cabins, put together haphazardly, with goats and chickens scurrying about in the front yards and children dangling and swinging in coloured hammocks.

Others however, are fine stately looking dwellings with imposing gates and brightly coloured facades. Shades of pale blue and pink gables mingle with the wild greenery and the neat gardens blooming with exotic flowers seem proud and improbable among the tangled junglescape.

As we cycle on I notice strange edifices sprouting up among the gardens and in the fields. Elaborate coloured tombs that stand graciously among the living.

People are busy in the rice fields surrounded by family tombs. Dogs sniff about in the gardens, cocking a leg up against some ancient looking headstone. A small girl sits on the edge of a heavy flagstone that supports a sarcophagus. The dead, it seems, are just there. In among the living, a presence like any other.

I want to stop to take some photographs, but a part of me can’t do it. In an ordinary cemetery back home, graves are anonymous, and the dead are rendered distinct from life. But here, that anonymity doesn’t exist. The girl sitting on the flagstone gives meaning somehow to the person in the tomb, makes them more tangible, a part of today, connected through her to this moment. So much so that to photograph it feels like an imposition somehow.

So I cycle on and keep the image of that girl in my head, the only image of this place I will take home with me.

Out onto the wide roads, the agricultural wealth of the area suddenly becomes apparent as we pass abundant fields of rice and sugar cane, the large houses amongst the fields, indicating the prosperity that such vital crops bring with them.

I am just starting to get into a cycling rhythm and enjoy the wide expanse of road when we pull into a large town and head towards the river once more.

It’s already time to load the bikes on the small boat that will take us to the restaurant Mr Chien has arranged for lunch.

The only way to really get a feel for the Mekong river is on a small wooden boat. Ducking under the small bridges, through the overhanging plants, you get a sense of how extensive and disorienting the waterways are. As we twist and wind our way through the greenery, I begin to feel lost and the brown murky water lapping at the side of the boat seems deep and treacherous.

I ask Mr Chien if there are crocodiles in the water and he simply nods, as if the question is unnecessary .

But it’s enough to get my imagination going. I have a lifelong fear of (and respect for) crocodiles that I developed as a child in Africa that I cannot shake so I take my hand out of the water, just in case.

We slide on gently, reaching a little clearing that houses a small colourful veranda with turquoise chairs and red hammocks. Our lunch destination.

Wow!

As we settle in, Mr Chien heads off to find the owner. He seems perplexed that no-one is there.

Not that it matters. The hammocks are so relaxing and the scent from the garden is pungent and heavy and delicious.

I settle into the hammock and listen to the thunderstorm as it rumbles and roars in the distance. I am wondering just how far away the storm is, when I get the answer in the form of an instant and torrential downpour.

Sheets off rain seem to hang over the awnings and one second out in the garden proves enough for a thorough drenching.

I dash back to the hammock wondering just how long the monsoon season lasts here. It seems very late in the year for such a drenching.

After half an hour Mr Chien returns and he seems very embarrassed. Apparently the restaurant owners had forgotten we were coming and have been happily celebrating a village wedding. But not to worry, they’re headed back now and will get lunch going very soon.

Now I feel embarrassed.

“Gee if they’re at a wedding then it’s really no problem. I can skip lunch. Really.”

But it’s too late.

A tap on the shoulder and I am confronted with the smiling, bloodied face of the owner.

In his drunken rush to get back to cook us lunch he has apparently slipped in the rain. His white shirt is wet and splattered in blood and mud but he seems unperturbed.

Mr Chien quickly explains that the owner has, unfortunately “had a lot of beer”.

I just nod because I don’t know what to say. I feel bad that this man has run out in the rain just to come cook lunch.

I’m also worried that he plans to cook on a naked flame in his current inebriated state.

Thankfully though his wife and sons have noted his departure and have arrived to take control of the situation, and soon the kitchen is buzzing with activity as rice and vegetables and fish are expertly rustled together to create the quickest and most extensive lunch I have ever seen prepared.

I look around me in disbelief. The river is springing with energy as the rain thunders down in huge droplets and splashes back into the air. The palm and banana leaves seem huge and greener than ever. The whole scene seems wild and primeval and yet here we are sitting down to a copious and delicious feast.

I doubt I will ever have a Sunday lunch quite like it again…

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