The Mekong. Snaking its way from the Tibetan Plateau through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia to Vietnam where I find myself on a small boat heading into the delta. For a girl from New Zealand where the rivers I know are fresh and clean and clear the muddied waters of the Mekong break my heart. The pollution here, at the end of the line, is incredible. Rubbish floats past us as men piss in the river and fishing nets plunder. I lean forward into the wind but the spray from the river horrifies me. I don’t want to get it on my face.
I follow the lines of the boats. Traffic along the river in both directions, heading towards us with prows painted with eyes watching, heading away from us with hammocks hanging and the peoples quarters on the back. Children smile and wave. The people watch us curiously. We head across an open expanse of the river, littered with fishing boats, floating hotels and people travelling. We head into a smaller canal, on our way to the home stay for the night. In the canals the built up houses of the towns make way for open plots of land where people make their homes and keep gardens right up to the waters’ edge.
Bundles of water hyacinth float down the river, a rich green against the murk of the river. Chickens and geese graze and scratch at the fertile soil along the banks. A dog stands guard by a house and watches our progress. In the background I can hear a bike humming along, for a moment it’s visible between the trees, riding single file on a track that winds behind the plots of land.
Our home stay is beautiful, built out over the water with a jetty jutting out into the river and a ramp leading down. It’s a wooden house with cerulean blue details and hanging baskets. We stay in a shared dorm room with big beds and mosquito nets. The facilities are out the back, down a concrete path in the gardens. I set myself up in a hammock and take advantage of the brilliant wifi that we’ve found everyone has here. It’s usually free as well. Our host sorts my partner out with a fishing line and he sets about catching dinner. We’re both so comfortable and relaxed here, out of the way, the peace is bliss.
I’m asked if I want to help with dinner. Out the back to the kitchen, almost a completely separate room from the rest of the house with windows without panes and a cat asleep on top of the TV where our hosts’ wife and daughter in law prepare our meals. It seems that I’m to be the evening’s entertainment as they sit me down and teach me how to roll nem (spring rolls). It’s a fun, messy process and I enjoy myself. People here seem to be mischievous and friendly, however we are only shown what they want to share and I’m not comfortable asking my usual, pressing questions.
Dinner is huge. The food is really good here. Fresh, straight from the garden produce flavoured delicately with lemongrass and ginger. The ginger here is amazing. Its fragrance is enhanced and it gives such a good flavour to the food. I can’t help myself. I’ve got a fat food belly to sleep off. We stay up and talk with our host. He’s interested in the economic condition of the world, he wants to know who we blame and how we think it should be fixed. His beliefs shine through in his statements and a good keen mischievous Vietnamese spirit. It’s clear he loves his land, his family and his life here on the river.
Fireflies are pointed out in a tree just beyond the jetty. It looks like someone has strung Christmas lights through the branches. The river laps softly beneath the house. As the evening falls the harsh heat of the day mellows. This place is so tranquil. A firefly finds its way into our room and I fall asleep watching it.
We have to get up early to see the Cai Be markets at their best, but the sun is pouring in through the windows as we rise and prepare to leave. I have time to walk through the gardens and take some photographs before breakfast. The light here is simply stunning. The ladies of the house sun a new addition to the family on the decking overlooking the water. Our host stands and waves until our boat is out of sight.
The river is still muddy brown but when I see it I’m thinking of the fertile soil that gives the people here their livelihoods. The rich green of the lush vegetation that grows on the riverbanks fill my eyes. We see fishermen out in small boats pulling up the nets that will provide food and income for their families. We see wives, up early, doing washing on the riverbank. Children smile and wave from the back of boats and we smile and wave back. The Mekong River has won me over.