Amazing, Wondrous, Unexpected Vietnam

It is April 2016. I leave the overwhelming heat of Cambodia by cruising down the Mekong River on a comfortable yet noisy speedboat for three hours and head into the just-as-overwhelming heat of Vietnam. At least it is cooler on the river.  The boat pulls to the shore in the middle of nowhere. We step off the boat and trek a few dozen yards to a little ramshackle building tucked into the jungle where a tiny Cambodian man in a tiny hut stamps our exit visas. We walk another few dozen yards up the bank of the river and get our Vietnam visas checked and stamped by a tiny Vietnamese man in a tiny hut, who spends his entire day checking and stamping visas in the middle of the jungle.

Mekong River

Boating from Cambodia to Vietnam

We all pile back onto the boat, and a couple of hours later I check into the Floating Hotel in Chau Doc, Vietnam. Right away I meet Steven, the owner of the hotel. Steven is Vietnamese and lived in California for many years before returning to Vietnam in 2003. He has become a successful business owner, having opened the Floating Hotel, two restaurants, and a large tour company, among other ventures.

The Floating Hotel, Chau Doc, Vietnam

The Floating Hotel, Chau Doc, Vietnam

As we chat, one topic of conversation leads to another, and I end up agreeing to do some editing and writing for him in exchange for room, board, and any and all expenses that I may incur while staying at the Floating Hotel. My private room faces the Mekong River at a large juncture where several tributaries flow in separate directions. Each morning I sit on my private balcony and watch the fishermen head out to the open water. I wave to the women in their little motor-powered rowboats as they head to markets on the river. I eat three meals a day at Steven’s restaurant and work as I sit on my balcony and watch the world pass by.

The view of the Mekong River from my balcony

The view of the mighty Mekong River from my balcony

I help to develop Steven’s new tour itineraries, update his website content, and write up a new travel brochure detailing all of his tours. At the end of a week, he gives me an all-expenses-paid five-day waterways tour of southern Vietnam so that I have a better understanding of his tours.

On the first day of the tour, I board a small motorboat and head to the Tra Su forest, a wildlife sanctuary deep in the jungle of the Mekong Delta. This magical jungle region is home to 140 types of flora, seventy species of birds, eleven types of animals, twenty-five species of reptiles, and twenty-three kinds of fish. The unique region is flooded and overflowing with cajeput (mangrove) trees. Deep green vegetation grows thick on the surface of the water.

Tra Su

Waterway of Tra Su forest

I arrive to Tra Su after a thirty-minute boat ride. I step off the motorboat and walk a short way through huge, overhanging branches that form a tunnel along one of the few dirt paths in the flooded forest. Arriving at a tiny wooden dock, I carefully step into a wobbly two-person paddle boat as the cry of an enormous grey crane echoes through the mossy trees.

Tra Su

Guided paddle down the waterway

In complete silence my guide begins to paddle, and we gently glide over the still water, slicing right through the lush green carpet that blankets the waterways. The cajeput trees tangle together overhead, creating a tunnel that lends itself to the silent mystery of the swamp.

Cajeput trees

Cajeput (mangrove) trees

In the following days I visit many stunning and oh-so-foreign villages. I ride the boat to two of Vietnam’s famous floating markets, places where farmers come on large, old, rickety boats from all over southern Vietnam, their vessels loaded to overflowing with produce.

Vinh Long

Vinh Long floating market

One of these markets is in Vinh Long Province. Here, weird and unusual fruits, including the strange mangosteen, the spikey red rambutan, and the extremely pungent durian, are available for pennies. The merchants also offer potatoes, watermelons, pumpkins, squash, and many other fruits and vegetables for sale. A bamboo pole soars high above each boat as a sign of sorts; at the top of the pole a sample of the produce available on that boat is displayed.

Watermelon for sale

Watermelon for sale

Shopkeepers from nearby villages steer their small boats up to the floating merchant boats and load up with produce to bring back to their shops.

Shopkeeper buying her wares

Shopkeeper buying her wares

Several small trips throughout the tour provide delightful explorations of the local culture, from watching coconut candy being made by hand to laying out bamboo mats in preparation for drying huge sheets of rice that will eventually become rice noodles. In some unknown village, I ride a bike along a little river, hearing and smelling and seeing the rich, sense-filling abundance of the jungle, ecstatic at the complete freedom I feel.

Bike ride along a river

Riding a bike along a river

Enormous jack fruits hang from the trees, impossibly defying gravity.

Jackfruit, several pounds and 16 inches long

Jack fruit, several pounds and 16 inches long

Chickens and roosters run wild and free everywhere, from deep jungle to inner city. I walk among the local artisans and taste the treats that abound along the streets. And everywhere there is water; from the banks of the enormous Mekong River itself to the shabby tin huts towering over the tiniest tributaries, life throughout the Mekong Delta is rooted in living near and on the water. Villagers live, travel, and fish all along the thousands of miles of waterways.

Riverside homes

Riverside homes

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on the third day of my tour, I enjoy the bustle of the streets, especially at night, when everything lights up and music blares from dozens of bars and restaurants. I get a lesson in how to cross the unimaginably crazy, traffic-filled streets.

Typical Saigon traffic

Learning to cross the street in this traffic is, um, unusual.

The next morning I spend a good part of the day at the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Saigon. These famous tunnels are in a former village where the Viet Cong were farmers and villagers by day, cunning and ruthless soldiers by night. The tunnels were hiding spots, communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches, and living quarters. It is truly fascinating to see the workings of the North Vietnam fighters. As I slide my body straight down through the narrow space to enter a tunnel, I appreciate how small the Vietnamese people are and why the American soldiers, with their large bodies and huge backpacks, were outsmarted and outmaneuvered. Once inside the pitch-black tunnel, I crawl on my hands and knees 150 meters (500 feet) over leaf-covered dirt, the occasional bat flying right past my head, my phone’s flashlight the only source of illumination.

I am too enthralled by the Cu Chi tunnels and grounds to take any pictures. You will just have to use your imagination.

It is time to head back to Chau Doc and the Floating Hotel, but my adventures and saying “yes” are far from over. On the long bus ride back, I sit next to a tiny, bald, thirty-ish Buddhist nun. I never learn to say her name, so she becomes Little Buddhist Nun. She is initially very shy, but we start communicating using Google Translate, laughter, and lots of hand gestures.

Little Buddhist Nun

Little Buddhist Nun

I mention that I would love to find some charity work to do during my travels. Little Buddhist Nun tells me that she is leaving in two days to deliver supplies to a small village at the very southern tip of Vietnam. She asks if I would like to join her. Of course I say yes.

Little Buddhist Nun and I part ways, agreeing to meet up in two days so I can join her charity group. Steven welcomes me back and immediately makes arrangements for me to get to Little Buddhist Nun’s village by bus. After some confusion about our meeting point, Little Buddhist Nun finally comes roaring up on the back of a motorcycle, accompanied by another friend on a motorcycle to pick me up. We spend the rest of the day touring her tiny little village, where the people are extremely poor, yet seemingly happy and content.

Late that same night, Little Buddhist Nun and I join the large charity group for a very long bus ride on a big, luxurious, air-conditioned bus provided by Ms Kim’s tour company and filled with supplies) to the very tip of southern Vietnam. The older women on the bus, all of them benefactors of the charity, vie for my attention and want to hear my travel stories. They are so cute, and I fall in love with all of them. Using Google Translate, we talk and laugh, and they all adopt me. Many invite me to come stay with them.

Southern tip of Vietnam, where we went to deliver supplies

The blue arrow is  at the southern tip of Vietnam, where we are delivering supplies

We are delivering the provisions to a community that is in extreme suffering because of a two-year drought. Their once-flowing river, which supplied all of their water for food, animals, and living, is now just a mud puddle.

This is what is left of their river

This is what is left of their once-full river

The Buddhist charity is helping fund ten water wells, but in the meantime the people are hungry and without enough drinking water.

After riding all night, we finally arrive at the village in the late morning with four tons of supplies, everything from rice and cooking oil to spices and blankets.

Delivering supplies

Delivering supplies

We pass out all the provisions to the villagers and then take a tour of the school where we distributed the supplies. Exhausted, we drag ourselves back onto the the bus for the fourteen-hour ride to Saigon. On the way, Little Buddhist Nun introduces me to a friend of hers, another Buddhist nun named Phom Deau (easier to learn her name!). Phom Deau asks me if I would like to come to her Pagoda (Buddhist orphanage/temple) in a small village outside of Saigon to relax for a few days and meet the orphanage’s children. Of course I say yes.

And that is the beginning of an incredible, heart-opening adventure that is to become one of the greatest experiences of my life. Stay tuned.

The Floating Hotel and Mekong Explore tour company are owned and run by Steven (Dung Dang). You can find them at http://mekongexplore.today/.

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