Monday 19 September 2022
Hue (Hway) aka Harry is a cherry, bespectacled chap with an open face and an engaging demeanour. His primary job is as a salesperson for Norwegian company Jortun but I wonder if he prefers his second source of income more – a Mekong tour guide. It goes against the grain to utilise a canned tour but we only have a week so we take a deep breath and hire a private guide. Harry immediately proves to be a gift. Apart from having excellent English he has a deep and balanced sense of history and our conversation as we clear Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is informative.
Harry’s mother was one of thirteen children so his cousins ranged in age. While he was in primary school his adult cousin taught him English. But it is obvious the family has a perspective on the current regime. It is not bitter but rather quite pragmatic. His parents were part of the organised repatriation allowed after 1975 and they are now resident in Dallas, Texas given they worked for the US government. His grandparents also worked for the US government and had to undergo re-education in one of the post war re-education camps. He views it all with humoured pragmatism. Saigon is Saigon when he is not happy with the establishment. But, he says, its mostly HCMC, given his overarching contentment.
Our route to the Mekong is via a Buddhist temple. By now we are seeing Caucasian faces we have seen in HCMC. We are clearly on a well worn trail. We swirl around various representations of Buddha, admire some artwork before finally arriving at the Mekong. Water hyacinth slides past in large islands of green or fragmented pieces of broken foliage. Just to our left is Dragon Island, immediately ahead is Unicorn Island (lucky) and out of sight behind it are Phoenix (beauty) and Turtle (long life) islands. The swath of water is dramatic and the islands are so far off they seem to fade into mist and humidity.
The rest of the day is choreographed beautifully but the artifice is not so far from the surface that we cannot see it – brought to our attention every time we bump up against another group of tourists or have another group push into us. But for all that we are able to indulge a little fantasy that we had everything to ourselves. We have already paid the ferryman so find him and his clapboard (literally) little ferry. He takes us directly to Unicorn Island where we sit with our hosts who entertain us with some brief snippets of music (singing and lyres/guitars) and we sample langgan (think lychee), sapodilla (sweet), pineapple and other fresh fruit grown in these intensive horticultural plots. While they supply the markets in HCMC the farmers rely heavily on tourism which has yet to make a full recovery post COVID. Tucked away in the lush plantations and greenery of this place, under canopies of ripening fruit tables and benches by the hundreds wait empty for customers. They won’t be coming today.
Our exit from Unicorn Island is via two women paddlers who sit side saddle bow and stern and paddle us down a wide drain set on the side by palms. Mudskippers, some with iridescent bellies, watch us pass, or should we come too close flip away across the mud. Our ferryman picks us up as we depart the island and rejoin the Mekong. The girls battle a strong breeze to bring us alongside. The bow paddler gives us a cherry farewell before adjusting her countenance to marry the effort of reach the shelter of the palms and we are immediately separated as the breeze and current snatches them away.
Our ferryman applies his tanned leather hands to the stainless steel wheel and directs us across to Turtle Island where once again we discover industry under the tree canopy. Industry which is dependent on tourists for survival. First stop is a coconut candy factory which sounds more grand than the artisan shop that it really is. It’s an intriguing process which we support by purchasing some of the toffee before taking a fifteen minute ride by horse drawn cart to lunch which is beside another wide ditch which drains away to the Mekong.
We stop here for an hour and bump into others we have seen at our hotel and on the street of HCMC. It is an entrepreneurial hotchpotch of restaurant, kids park, crocodile and fish farms. Harry observes that the kids park, which looks like a colourful version of a military obstacle course, complete with water obstacles, was designed to help children break the internet habit. To get them outside. No kids there today though to be fair we are travelling during school hours.
We leave tourists teasing crocodiles with catfish tied to string on a pole (10,000 dong a poke (that doesn’t sound right)) and hop aboard the highly titled ‘Transit’ – just another small punt though this one is equipped with a small throaty motor and off we go back down to the Mekong. All roads (streams) lead there after all. We reconnect with our waiting ferryman. He negotiates his way back past Unicorn Island and threads past ponderous powered barges which give no hint they would every alter course as they plough upwards into the fast flowing waters heading down to the South China Sea.
It was a canned production but it was pleasantly good. We met people reliant on our trade. We saw something of the regional and rural. We smelt the Mekong and tasted some of its produce – that Elephant Ear fish tasted pretty good although I am waiting for that Tiger Prawn to blow up on me – provenance of seafood here could be an issue. Not quite the issue I had with ‘seafood’ in landlocked Kabul but one should take care. But perhaps the standout experience today was Harry who was surprisingly forthright and matter of fact about life in his socialist-communist country. He’s a proud citizen and speaks positively of his fellow and their collective prospects. But he is a realist not idealist and he knows what could be so much more.
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