Tomfoolery in the Mekong Delta (Vinh Long, Vietnam)

I Abandon My Zen Training – Tropic Heat – Vinh Long – Bargaining – I Experiment With a “Homestay” – Three Conclusions

It was in Southern Vietnam, somewhere in the middle of the Mekong Delta, that I finally abandoned my absurd goal of becoming The Ultimate Zen Traveler.

I had no guidebook – ironically, by choice – and I was completely lost.  I had intended to get off the tourist track once again, so I jumped into Vietnam with absolutely no idea where to go.  No hotel recommendations, no notion of the “backpacker districts”, and unsure of what cities to visit.  I heard Saigon was nice, so I broke up the journey from the Cambodian border to Saigon and stopped in random places along the way.

The motorcycle taxi drivers were quick to point out the absurdity of my plan.   You no have Lonely Planet Guidebook?  You crazy!  They were right.

I was off the tourist track once again, and trying to convince myself that I was having a good time.  Truth be told, I was not.  The tourist track is popular for a reason; it provides travelers with everything they need, from accommodation, internet cafes, toilet paper, the English language and dining establishments that do not double as blood-soaked fish markets.  These are luxuries one seldom appreciates until they are absent.

The sun beat down mercilessly from above and the scarce sources of shade offered no solace from the heat or the humidity.  My clothes were soaked through with sweat.  They stunk from months of reuse and neglect.  I had been doing my wash only once every two or three weeks and my clothes were on their last legs.

I ran into the nearest convenience store to bathe in the free air-conditioning – for I had not slept in an air-conditioned room in three months – only to see the young Vietnamese girls recoil at the sight of me.  I looked in the mirror – I was beastly, indeed.  Unshaven, unkempt, and generally uncivilized, I looked like a Neanderthal.

The heat was too much for me; it was transforming me into a wild animal.  To say the tropic heat is immobilizing is a gross understatement.  It is impossible to move.  This heat has altered the courses of entire civilizations, restricting their peoples’ productivity to a tiny window of cool air between five and eight o’clock in the morning.

The heat drives people into the shade, into the comforting cocoon of a hammock, from whence they emerge weeks later transformed into a veritable human sloth.  You see these sloths all across South East Asia, from the common Laos Sleeping Tuk-Tuk-Driver Sloth, to the elusive Cambodian Jungle Sloth and the ubiquitous Migrating Mekong Sleepy Fisherman Sloth.  I too have succumbed to this fate.  I bought a hammock in a Cambodian bazaar for $2 had I have hardly left it since.

The heat underlines the absurdity of European colonialism, especially that of the British variety.  British pukka sahibs employed legions of servants to manually operate ceiling fans in a futile battle against the unconquerable heat of India, to say nothing of their vain attempt to freeze the glaciers of ice required for gin and tonics.  But no amount of gin could bring England to the jungle, and the only tonic for prickly heat is a ticket back to London.  The whole top-heavy system stood upon this shaky foundation – it was simply too hot for the British to sustain an empire in the tropics.  It was not nationalism that defeated the British Raj, it was the prickly heat!

I was determined not to suffer the same fate.  I’d had enough of the heat, enough sweat-soaked misery for a lifetime.  It was there, in the Mekong Delta, that I concluded my foray into the tropics; I decided to make a slow and steady retreat up the Vietnamese coast to the highlands and beyond to the Tibetan plateau in China.  To hell with Peace With Honor, I was getting out while I still could.

I was not just sweaty, I was also lost.  I wandered from street to street, from town to town, like a caveman in search of some prehistoric mammoths.  I had no map, only a piece of paper with Vinh Long scribbled on it – I was told it was a good place to arrange an authentic “homestay” with a local Vietnamese family.  My bus passed through Vinh This and Long That until I finally found a town that possessed both words in the same name.

Vinh Long was charmingly authentic.  Half the town was a never-closing street market where Vietnamese women squatted in the streets and peddled their wares in what appears to be their uniform – brightly colored long-sleeved pajamas, surgical masks and conical hats.  Only their eyes were visible, like they were wearing an Asian purdah.

Bargaining in Vietnam is tough, and I barely escaped from the market alive with a mango and a baguette.  Above all, bargaining here takes patience.  The Vietnamese are very conscious of losing face and therefore one may not lose their temper while bargaining.  This was almost impossible to avoid in this unbearable heat. Furthermore, almost any price is open for negotiation.  A man working at a travel agency will quote you 70,000 Dong to go halfway to Saigon, while a sign behind him will advertise a bus to Saigon for 50,000 Dong.  If you point out this illogicality, he will kick you out of his shop and shut the door, leaving you standing in the street staring into the shop somewhat regretful, partially insulted, and totally confused.

Despite all these difficulties, I somehow arranged a “homestay” for a reasonable price – $10.  This would include transportation to an island on which the family lived, a motorcycle ride to their secluded home, dinner with the family, a bed in their house, breakfast in the morning and transportation back to town whenever I chose.  They promised me I would be the only foreigner staying in their house, and I eagerly accepted the opportunity.

The adventurous boat journey was nothing more than a one minute ferry ride across the Mekong, the motorcycle ride took me no farther than two kilometers and dropped me at a home that, despite being on an island, was practically still in the town center.

The family home was nicer than my own; no mud huts, no language barriers, no meals of questionable origin.  Just boring old comfort.  It was closer to a luxury bed and breakfast than the authentic experience I had imagined.  In fact, it was no different than a hotel, except the owners slept in the nicest rooms.

Neither was I the only person staying at the home.  There was an elderly couple of Australians who, as many elderly couples do, enjoyed their time together in complete silence and successfully avoided a fight during dinner by abstaining from any form of conversation whatsoever.  We spent the afternoon walking around the gardens pretending each other did not exist.  We were both promised solitude and if it did not exist, by God, we would imagine it!

There was also some confusion about the terms of my deal with the family.  The food was included, that much was certain.  Then the owner came by with glasses of rice wine – also included.  I grabbed a beer from the ice chest, assuming (incorrectly) that it was included as well.  It was not.  Egad!  I was already over-budget from this ridiculous excursion, and now they stuck me with this hidden charge?  I grabbed the bottle of rice wine and tried to drink my way to an equitable solution.

My hosts picked up on this and took away the rice wine.  I was forced to make up the deficit with green tea, which, at about five cents per cup, took about 20 pots and the entire next morning.  After drinking enough green tea to kill a nurse shark, I wave goodbye to my hosts and embarked on a journey to Saigon.

Three things were clear in my mind.  First, I would never pay anyone for an ostensibly ‘authentic’ experience ever again.  Secondly, that being a Zen Traveler was not all it was cracked up to be – I preferred my imperfections to all-knowing worldliness.  And lastly, that I would buy a Lonely Planet immediately upon entering Saigon!  No more of this tomfoolery, I needed a guidebook!

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