Vietnam – land of the yellow star

Saigon in the Stream

Southern Vietnam is steamy and a place of rice noodles and rushing motorbikes. It’s also where life is lived entirely on the water, if home is the mighty Mekong River.

Story and photos: Keri Harvey

Sa Dec market day

Sa Dec market day

Captain Nguyen Van Duyen has a dream. “One day,” he says, looking at the horizon with a smile, “I want to travel all the great rivers of the world, from the Nile to the Amazon.” Before taking over at the helm of the RV Amalotus, Captain Duyen spent over 30 years sailing the Mekong River – first on cargo ships, then captaining passenger boats. “I am completely in love with sailing,” he adds, and his eyes immediately light up, “and the Mekong is always changing. There is such great natural beauty here.”

By the time the Mekong reaches Vietnam, it has already travelled over 4 000km from the highlands of Tibet, winding through southern China, skirting Myanmar and clinging to the Thailand-Laos border, before entering Cambodia on its way to Vietnam. It’s a massive river and, in Vietnam alone, nine tributaries flow into it to create a vast water world. The Mekong Delta is also the rice bowl of Vietnam and life here is lived in or on the water, with many families never knowing terra firma. Homes are floating villages or boats and so are shops. A fluid life, you could say, for people who walk on water every day.

Floating villages along the Mekong River

Floating villages along the Mekong River

Floating villages are built just as they would be on land, except solid earth is replaced by water. Wooden houses, replete with wide verandas and even enclosures for poultry, all float on the Mekong – water gently lapping at the edges. Here, children can row boats from the age of seven and lithe women wearing traditional palm-leaf conical hats slowly pole themselves along on long slim boats. In between the tiny boats, barges with their decks piled high with rice ply through the waters too, and children frolic in the water alongside their homes to cool off in the still, tropical heat.

“You can buy anything for the kitchen in Cai Be floating market,” says guide Hung Phan. “It opens at 4am, and peanut oil lanterns provide light until the sun rises. Everyone selling the same thing parks their boats together and lives aboard, so it’s easy to compare prices.” Poles planted in the water beside boats have different fruit and vegetables dangling from them, advertising exactly what’s for sale. Choose your fresh jackfruit, dragonfruit or grapefruit and take it home for breakfast, just like the people of Cai Be have done since the 19th century.

Fresh greens at market

Fresh greens at market

Back on our mother ship, RV Amalotus, which is our floating luxury hotel down the Mekong, we reminisce on an extraordinary day of glimpsing other lives. That these river people live on water from birth til death, sleeping, eating and working on water, is difficult to imagine. There may only be one real road through the Mekong Delta, but few will ever even travel it, or will ever even want to. It’s a completely different way of living, which is also under eminent threat. China is building massive dams on the Mekong that will change the environment, the lives and livelihoods of these traditional river people beyond imagination. And with them 10 000 different plant and animal species along this great river could be under threat, even disappear forever.

Saigon streets by night

Saigon streets by night

Setting sail in the late afternoon, we leave Cai Be and head for the port of My Tho. It’s the end of our Mekong River cruise and the start of Vietnam on dry land, Ho Chi Minh City to be exact. Originally built by the French for half a million people, the city that was Saigon now heaves with a population of 10 million. Throw into the mix four million motorbikes and half a million cars and the result is a touch of chaos, especially at rush hour. Dedicated motor bike lanes sift them from the traffic and there is no road rage amidst the tangles of traffic. Any accidents that do happen are in slow motion at low speed, which generally means accidents are minor.

Cathedral in Saigon

Cathedral in Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City has a green heart of shady parks and perfectly clipped gardens. It’s quite unexpected and beautiful. French building fascades and bagettes blend with a mesh of laden bicycles and pho, the traditional rice noodle and meat dish. In the centre of town is also the red-brick silver-spired Notre Dame Cathedral – a must visit for newly wed brides on photo shoots – and opposite it the elaborate old post office with bursting souvenir stalls inside.

In all the areas of the city frequented by tourists are green uniformed tourist police, keeping an eye that all goes well. They’re aloof but alert, much like the rest of the city folk, who exude a communist coolness.  But then, keeping cool is high priority in such tropical climes, and most Vietnamese women – often clad in wildly clashing clothes – wear the traditional conical hats to shade their creamy complexions. Hats are even worn in the steamy markets, where everything from sea cucumbers and weasel coffee (made from the animals’ droppings) to spices and coconut sweets are sold. A favourite souvenir is the striking Vietnam flag T-shirt, bright red with a big yellow star.

City traffic

City traffic

At ground level, amidst the slow chaos, it’s difficult to piece together this massive city of old Saigon. But a trip up the Bitexco Financial Tower to the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor gives a 360 degree city perspective. Ho Chi Minh City flanks the Saigon River, plied by barges carrying rice to feed 10 million mouths. Apartment blocks reach for the clouds and golf driving ranges are netted so the sport can be played in the city. It’s an alluring place, with a magnetic gross charm, and something to stop you in your tracks around every corner.

A women slowly peddles her bicycle with pinion racks filled with dozens of carefully packed eggs; a young man buzzes past on a moped, one hand holding a tray of food and drinks; another moped passes in the opposite direction with a huge floral arrangement between the driver’s legs. Gold fish sellers lie in the shade while their racks of bagged fish swim in clear bags suspended in mid air; other mopeds are mobile nurseries with towering plants and trees in tow. These are the quirky sights of Vietnam’s southern city, and the place Captain Van Duyen calls home for the few days a month he is there.

Mobile petshop

Mobile petshop

“My home is really the Mekong River,” he says, “right aboard the RV Amalotus.” And the beautiful gardens he has created aboard are testimony to this. “They are to bring life to the ship,” he clarifies. Since the Mekong is brimming with life in diverse forms, all nourished by its abundant waters.

Travel advice

Best time to go: November to Feb in the cooler, drier season, though weather is hot and humid all year.

Visas: SA passport holders do require a visa ahead of arrival from the Embassy of Vietnam in Pretoria.

Language: Vietnamese. Very little English is spoken or understood on the streets.

Currency: Dong – US$1 = 20 000 Dong

Ease of travel: Cruising the Mekong River is the easiest and most comfortable way to see southern Vietnam – see www.cruises.co.za

Safety: In the cities, carry only essentials with you in a cross-body sling bag, or money belt under your shirt. Bag snatching is on the increase.

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