Looking For The Mouth Of The Mekong
The heat struck first. An overwhelming warmth and humidity that immediately provoked a sweat that balled down my chest and pulled my shirt to my back. Forehead, neck, back and legs instantly damp as my body panicked to cool down while my nostrils tried to find anything that resembled the air I was used to in the overpowering heavy-scented atmosphere. The smell hit next. Diesel, combustion, sweat, decay, incense, grilling meat, frying garlic, rotten fruit, sweet starch, dried fish. Some familiar, others not. Some pleasant, others repulsive, but as one they opened fire on my senses until the third strike, the noise. A relentless, unforgiving, unstoppable din of boisterous, beeping, tooting, choking, spluttering combustion that filled every spare space in my head. My eyes darted to make sense of these manic surroundings. It was impossible. The whole place moved in fast forward. Mopeds raced and zipped in every direction. Cyclos and bicycles weaved and meandered and bullying buses and impatient taxis blasted their horns in an effort to cut through this unremitting tangle of traffic. In an attempted to cross the street, I was rooted to the pavement, totally overwhelmed.
Air travel allows this violent transition to occur. A bike ride from London to Vietnam would have allowed me to gradually become accustomed to these surroundings. The heat, the smells and noise of the tropics introduced slowly in a continuous string of subtle changes as I headed east. But instead, in number of air conditioned, climate controlled hours, I had been zoomed from the cool, clean, crisp surrounds of an autumnal afternoon in London to the tropical, noisy, smelly surrounds Ho Chi Min City, the largest metropolis in Vietnam.
I was hungry after the flight. What little food had been served was not enough. The strangely appetizing smells that wafted ahead of the metal box had been deceiving and after unwrapping everything from its protective plastic, there wasnt much to live on. A bread roll embalmed in Clingfilm, some butter in a plastic casket, foil sealed noodles in a polythene tray and a few hunks of watery fruit bound in cellophane. Everything packaged and protected from something, and although the stewardess smiled behind her plastic face-mask and wished that I enjoy my meal, I didnt and once my bike and bags were checked into a cheap guest house I went in search of something real to eat.
Following broken pavements, a muddle of rubble and litter that ran next to the torrent of traffic, food was available everywhere. Under the harsh glare of fluorescents bulbs flattened dried-squid hung like X Ray results on lengths of string; Sweet-smelling steam drifted above huge vats of stock that sat atop charcoal burners in part time kitchens set up in dim alleyways and blackened woks through flashes of flames into the evening. Orange skinned roast duck were hacked and handed to customers waiting on mopeds and old ladies sat behind flat wicker baskets heaped with boiled peanuts, quails eggs and strange looking fruits. Wherever the space allowed amongst parked mopeds, street lamps and cracked concrete, collections of small plastic chairs and stools were filled with men and women hunched over deep bowls working with chopsticks while enjoying lively conversation as if the deafening traffic never existed.
Taking a spare seat amongst a dozen locals squatting on low plastic furniture at the cross roads of two main avenues, I perched ungracefully on a red stool, my stiff limbs and heavy western frame completely out of scale. Above me a tangled confusion of thick liquorice-black cables sagged from lamppost to lamppost, bunched tight at the ends like the sinews of a huge muscle before fanning out chaotically in all directions to connect the shabby buildings that flanked the street five, six, seven and eight stories high. As far as the eye could see, violently luminous neon signs blinked and flashed products and services I could not understand and still the swell of traffic continued.
Dressed in floral pyjamas, a middle-aged woman obscured my view. Her expression suggested impatience and after barking a short collection of vowels at me, I rudely pointed at the loaded plate of the man sitting next to me and she hurried away.
Smoky wafts of grilling meat and the sweet, starchy odours of boiling rice muddled in the muggy diesel-scented air and making the most of one corner of this busy crossroads and cool fluorescent afterglow of a street lamp that swarmed with insects, a mother and daughter team had set up shop. All clad in lose pyjamas, made from a material that you might make curtains with for a Wendy house they busied about their work. Serving 20 or 30 street-side covers from a portable cart, a collection of bike wheels, sheet metal, pans, baskets, bowls and buckets.
Squatting impossibly low to the ground the youngest girl was washing up. Mechanically dipping, wiping and rinsing a pile of plastic bowls and plates in an aluminium vat of soapy water. The bowls were stacked to dry on the curb before an older sister loaded each one with a heaped spoon of steaming white rice. These were passed to an aunt who added some fermented shredded carrot and Chinese radish, along with a spoon of chopped spring onion and a half spoon of fried garlic, before the matriarch of the operation, busy turning pork ribs on a grill dense with smoke, added the meat.
Distributed to customers with shallow dishes of fish sauce, sliced chillies and chopsticks the operation moved without effort and within a few moments of sitting down, food was in front of me. The broken rice was sweet and sticky, the fried garlic chewy and flavoursome. The carrot and Chinese radish cool and sour while the chilli aided the sweat that now coated my body. The pork was tacky and chewy and pulling at each rib in my fingers I sucked and chewed the last of the meat from the bones before going to work on a few stubborn pieces of rice with my chopsticks. The noise and smell of the city was everywhere, I was overheated, uncomfortable, unsure and alone but amongst this dirty, badly lit chaos I began to unwind my thoughts. Sitting on a corner in the back streets of Vietnam’s largest city, eating, listening, smelling and watching I was at the start of a new trip, cycling and eating in South East Asia, and if could survive the traffic it was going to be a delicious adventure.
Although I felt a week in Ho Chi Min City, other wise known as Saigon, was enough, I was sad to leave. A traffic clogged, malodorous city of seven million people and mopeds, she had an energy and pace that was intriguing. Like the ordered chaos of an ant’s nest, her people rushed everywhere following a system unknown to me, but everything was getting done and life moved forward at a remarkable speed. Power tools and heavy equipment echoed above the traffic. Clanking, beating and hammering were constant while roads were dug up, bridges constructed and cables laid, the city expanding in every direction with a momentum all of her own. Her buildings were charm less, cable covered, laundry hung and weather stained, but they were functional and being used. Their mix of architecture new and old told some of the cities history but Ho Chi Min City didn’t seem concerned. She was charging head first at unstoppable speed towards the future and the tireless street vendors, day and night markets, cluttered shops and constant exchange of money displayed a desire for ceaseless commerce that cemented her reputation as Vietnam’s economic and commercial powerhouse.
After a day or two my mind blocked out the noise, only reminded of its presence when having to shout to be heard and I soon understood the rules of the road. On first impression entering the traffic would lead to certain death but learning that all I had to do was resign responsibility for my life and well being to others on the road while in turn I tasking on an obligation for the safety of those around me, I discovered that cycling here was in fact remarkably simple. This system of equality allowed the massive volume of traffic to coexist and move forward I never once sore the road rage or aggression that is endemic on London’s comparatively quite streets.
Other than tutoring myself on the traffic my week in this remorselessly expanding urban sprawl also provided me with limitless opportunity to eat and drink, giving me a vital introduction to Vietnam her food. In the early morning the city was cool and at her best. A soft light almost made her attractive and enjoying strong cà phê á, sweet dark coffee served in a glass beaker of broken ice, I would perch at street-side cafes and watch the city wake up. Bicycles laden with fruit meandered the streets. Yawning cats slinked amongst street furniture, shops metal shutters rattled open and dripping sacks of ice were delivered on the shoulders of burley men while old women swept the dust from the pavements in front of their homes. School children in spotless white uniforms clung to their parents on the back of mopeds before stopping to breakfast at school gates from street carts serving tofu, milk and noodles. The noisy chattering of children was joined by the yeasty aroma of baking bread, as sweaty topless men unloaded trays of fresh bread to the delivery men on mopeds, who set off around the city distributing these small baguettes to the street carts, my signal that it was time for breakfast.
In my simple view had the French not arrogantly waded back into South East Asia, after being totally trounced in the Second World War, the horrors that were inflicted on the region in the later half of the last century might have been avoided. Their actions directly led to the provision of American aid, both financial and military, and the rest, as they say, is history. But to give the French their due a few positives did come from their short-lived colonial occupation and the French being French, they could not leave without leaving a culinary mark on Vietnam. This is best represented by the fresh baguette that are sold on almost every corner morning and evening in the form of wonderful Bánh mì. Small baguettes are cut open and filled with rich liver pate, diced roast pork, homemade mayonnaise, fish sauce, chilli, cucumber and coriander. Eaten on the move the bread is crisp on the outside and soft in the middle where it has become saturated in meaty juices, producing a mix of flavour and texture that is the perfect street-side breakfast.
At lunchtime in busy canteens, shared with taxi drivers and office workers I hunched over bowls of hot Phß Bò, Vietnam’s utterly delicious beef noodle soup. Watching others around me I learnt how to pluck the tender leaves and shoots from the bundle of aromatic herbs provided adding them to the soup, before mixing in bundles of bean sprouts, a squeeze of lime and chopped chillies before going at the thick noodles and tender cuts of brisket in a slurping, burping sweaty attack with spoon and chopsticks. Rising hungry after a little siesta in the mid afternoon I would cycle the streets looking nibbles. Schools emptied around four and their gates where a hive of street snacks, where Bánh nm (rice cakes stuffed with puréed fruit) bánh xèo (an omelette cum crepe filled with shrimps and wrapped in lettuce) and GÏi cuÑn (delicate spring rolls of shrimp, noodles and herbs wrapped in rice paper and dipped in a punchy peanut sauce) were sold in abundance.
As darkness fell I would sit on the street watching the city sipping ice cold bottles of Saigon beer, popping boiled peanuts, peeling quails eggs and chewing on Mñc khô, (dried squid) before taking on some Ch¡o Tôm (minced shrimp wrapped around sugar cane and barbecued on makeshift grills) or perhaps a small bowl of con nghieu hap (clams sautéed with lemon grass) eaten in my fingers.
Seven days of eating and cycling in this chaotic city and I assumed I had a simple grasps of the pace of life, I had begun to explore the food but what would it be like to ride my bike and eat away from abundance of Ho Chi Min? On a sunny Saturday morning I decided to find out, loaded my panniers and began my journey to the start of this trip southwards to the mouths of the Mekong River.
The Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers. From its humble beginnings, high in the mountains of the Tibetan plateau, it flows some 4500 km, snaking its way through South East Asia, before reaching its conclusion in an expansive delta that spills into the South China Sea. On its journey south it passes through all the countries that constitute South East Asia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma as well as China and Tibet, and physically and symbolically it is a single thread connects the diverse cultures of this region. My plan was to follow the Mekong from mouth to source on my bicycle, exploring the vital role this fascinating waterway played in the culinary culture and everyday lives of the people of South East Asia.
Studying my map I could see that before leaving Cambodia, south of Phnom Penh, the Mekong divided into the Tien and Hau Rivers that meandered into Southern Vietnam. Here the sheer volume of water gathered on the river’s journey south seemed to force the river to branch into a number of further dis-tributaries that divided and spread into a maze of waterways canals, dykes and ditches know as the Mekong Delta. Covering an area of over 67,000 square kilometres this once forested area, is now one of the most populated corners of our planet, whose inhabitants live off an abundance of fish, rice and produce farmed in silt rich soil irrigated by seasonal rains.
Producing over half of Vietnam’s total rice output, the Mekong delta has become one of the great rice bowls of the world, which seemed the perfect place to start my journey, but to get to the mouth of this great river I had to navigate my bicycle through the backwaters and roads to a deserted beach that lay between the Dinh An river mouth and the Cung Hau mouth at the southern most tip of Tra Vinh province.
Leaving the city was easier than I expected. Once on the main road south towards My Tho, all I had to do was go with the flow. Joining a tightly packed current of two wheeled traffic that hemmed me in and tickled my legs with exhaust fumes I was led out of the city. Mopeds carrying families of four swerved before me, their arms and legs spread like multi-limbed deities. Babies slept impossibly on handlebars, huge sacks of coconuts and pomello sat swollen behind drivers and passengers carried car panels giving the impression of strange robots in mid transformation, while others dragged metal rods that clattered and sparked on the tarmac behind them. Cycling past mechanics and schools, hospitals and temples, endless rows of shops sold baskets, engines, flowers and clothes. Every possible inch of roadside- real estate being used to sell something to the massive volume of possible custom that rushed past. Beyond the city limits the rules of the road changed. Vast lumbering trucks joined the energetic stream of mopeds and bullying buses that now dominated the best of the road. But this logjam couldn’t stop the flow. The mercurial nature of the mopeds found another way. Up along broken shoulders, through deep polluted puddles, around pylons and broken ground and I was forced to join them.
Staring my day in a sweltering heat, within moments of leaving the city the sky had darkened and a rapid down pour engulfed everything. A reminder that in early October the rainy season was not yet behind me. As the rain thrashed down translucent ponchos now covered the mopeds and pilots and they raced like phantoms amongst each and stopping in the surge to find my own jacket the traffic simply went around me, as if I were an island in this polluted stream. The damp air stung my eyes the sour taste of gasoline hung in my mouth and the ground around me was smothered with waste. Like the mouth of a monsters cave the outskirts of HCMC city were littered with the unwanted, unusable waste that the she produced. Lunch did not improve my situation. The site of another westerner in canteen pulled me in and I was greeted by a gaunt and weathered Australian in his sixties, his forearms decorated with faded tattoos.
‘Food good here’ I asked.’
It does’ he replied getting up to leave.
‘Where you headed? he asked studying my load.
‘You watch the traffic. Life’s cheap out here.’
‘Your living here?’ I questioned before he pulled on his helmet.
‘Yup I’m one of these dirty old men whose married a girl young enough to be me daughter ‘ You take care now’ starting his engine he vanished into the traffic.
Life may have been cheap on this highway but thankfully so was lunch. Taking a seat at one on many empty green chairs a teenage boy pulled himself away from a televised cock-fight to make a pour bowl of noodle soup that was overpowered with MSG. I handed over 15000 Dong (55p) and got back to cycling. The traffic remained constant but the rain cleared soon after lunch. Only to be replaced with a debilitating humidity. Unfit and unused to cycling in these conditions, the culmination of heavy traffic, rain and humidity were sapping and four hours later I arrived at dusk in the riverside city of My Tho. I found a cheap place to stay ate a couple of gÏi cuÑn (fresh spring rolls) on the street and collapsed fully clothed on the lumpy bed and slept.
In the morning I showered, found my Bánh mì and iced coffee and life tasted better. I sat on the edge of a quiet side street studying my map and planning the day ahead. I was desperate to escape the traffic, I was determined to combat the heat but something heavier was on my mind. From my brief encounters to ask directions and refuel it was already clear that language was going to be a huge hindrance on this trip. While in HCMC I had memorized a few key phrases. How much? Too much? How far? Please and Thank you, but otherwise I didn’t have a clue. Reading from my map and phrasebook gained me nothing more than blank stares or laughter and I began to ask myself whether a culinary journey without language would be possible here.
My first view of the Mekong came as I climbed a large bridge over Tien River north of My Tho. Cycling a hundred feet above the water I pulled over and spent twenty minutes starring at the river below me. I wish I could tell you that the Mekong is beautiful at this late stage in her life but she is not. As a river she looked tired, perhaps exhausted after her journey through mountains and cities, villages and towns, feeding irrigating, washing and powering those who depend on her continuous flow. Under a grey sky her muddy waters were the colour of an over-brewed cup of tea and they moved languidly and lifelessly, only occasionally rising in strange surges and muddy whirlpools. On her surface strange nomadic plants that have no desire to put down roots floated in her currents, gathering in ugly clumps and my eyes couldn’t penetrate her murky depths, allowing my imagination to conjure all sorts of unpleasant life-forms that might be exist within them.
Between the cities if My Tho and Tra Vinh the traffic and heat didn’t subside. It rained heavily at the same time it had the day before and the mopeds were ever present. When did this swarming invasion of buzzing machines take over this country? I asked, for the presence of mopeds was not exclusive to the road. They had left their mark everywhere. In any gold rush fortune is not limited to those digging the nuggets and panning the gold. Those who supply the hammers and pans also get rich and this had certainly been the case with the Vietnamese moped boom. While the roads team with two-wheeled two-stroke traffic the roadsides and towns are a market place for anything and everything you and your moped could ever desire. Should a sudden down poor catch you out, plastic ponchos were for sale by the dozen. Helmets of every colour and design were stacked in tidy rows. Old men with spluttering air compressors waited on corners to pump up tyres. Teenagers with high-pressure jet hoses blasted away mud and dust and multi-coloured new seats hung from doorways. Oily handed mechanics tweaked axels and changed filters; wheels were whacked back in place; foil wrapped spare tyres hung in rows of hundreds and glittering boards displayed new stickers to advertise your football allegiance. Wheel builders tweaked spokes and bashed rims, plastic bottles of gasoline shone in the sunshine and rusty tools lay for sale on curb side next to coiled drive chains and oily cogs .The roadsides of southern Vietnam are so cluttered with the oily, noisy, clanking subsidiaries of the moped industry and its paraphernalia, it was almost impossible to imagine how life looked and sounded before this advent. I hoped that perhaps people quietly repaired and looked after bicycles, but the bicycle is less complicated than her boisterous cousin the moped.
One of my great weaknesses is for coffee. So powerless am I to its magical powers a bag of the stuff is always in my panniers as well as small espresso filter and without it I am almost totally ineffective. Thankfully in Vietnam the black stuff is in abundance. Grown in the central highlands on the Truong Mountain Range that borders Laos and Cambodia. Brewed thick and sweet it is poured into beakers of broken ice and served everywhere and one offshoot of the moped trade I was happy to enjoy were the small cabins and thatched shelters that served refreshments to the other men of the road. Cycling in tropical heat and humidity was exhausting and if I was going to get any enjoyment out of it I needed to slow down. This was achieved by taking numerous rest stops in the tidy roadside cafes where moped riders took time away from the road and so did I. Set back from the highway, they were often no more than palm thatched shelters kitted out with some miniature furniture and low-slung hammocks, but in the shade of these cafes I took refuge from the road. Swinging in tatty hammocks I would gaze from the shade at the rushing traffic, while cooling down on cold cups of caffeine. Swinging beside the other customers played cards and slept before getting back on their mopeds and into the rush.
Beyond city of Tra Vinh, life at last began to slow down, the narrowing and deterioration of the roads acting as a filter to the larger traffic. Broken asphalt turned to concrete slabs, which soon morphed to russet dirt roads of sticky clay and I was now cycling along the banks of muddy dykes and canals where sampans and rice barges roamed up and down behind the hanging branches of banana trees and coconut palms. Gaps in the trees revealed vast paddy fields, damp with the waters of the rainy season as my route south continued over small arched bridges that rattled and sang as I rode over their uneven planks.
And then the road would end. The river dividing the land into a myriad of islands meant that flat-bottomed barges had to ferry passengers to the other side for their journey to continue. These bottlenecks dissipated the traffic further as well as providing a hangout for vendors of bananas, coconuts, sugarcane juice and coffee who made the most of a captive audience. The length of the crossing determined the length of the wait. Sometimes minutes, sometime an hour, these natural dead ends provided a chance to rest in the shade with a cool river breeze where I was reminded what a good companion my bicycle was. In these backwaters a foreigner was a rare attraction and locals would gather, firing questions that I didn’t have the language to answer. Soon bored their attentions would turn my bike. Probed and probed, they would tap at the hard saddle, raise eyebrows at her sturdy wheel, squeeze her breaks and question her load and through these encounters I am sure she was able to tell them more about me, where I was from and what I was doing than I ever could.
Once the boats arrived, passengers scrambled aboard with their vehicles and wares. The journey continued and from the vantage point of the river life this far down stream looked different. Here the rivers banks were overgrown with giant plants that hid the small huts and homes fishermen whose slender wooden boats floated outside. At the end of unstable looking duck-boards women washed clothes and pots in the shallows, while overloaded sampans chugged up and down sending a rolling wake that lapped on rivers edge. Arriving on the other side the river was as important to the small towns as the road. Boats and barges gathered on run-down concrete jetties where lines of shanties hung over the water. The centre of these shabby waterside settlements was the market that spread in crooked plastic-covered alleyways from the road to the waters edge. Overloaded boats unloaded baskets of crabs, fish, pigs, ducks, water fowl, snails, rats, rice and papaya that were sold in a murky labyrinth of stalls and tight alleyways where women squatted above the ground next to their scales shouting and haggling over the tidy piles of fruit, meat, fish, vegetables herbs and eggs spread out before them.
Continuing south through the quite back roads that connected these villages and towns life was simple. Homes were open fronted single storey dwellings of palm thatch and wood. Young boys fished with canes in ponds in front of their homes only breaking their concentration to wave as I passed. Fishermen slept in hammocks at the back of their boats moored to the river bank and impossibly pretty girls, upright in silky white pyjamas rode past on bicycles their wide smiles and calls of ‘Hello’ What’s your name?’ followed by fits of giggles. Teams of elderly women worked patiently with their fingers on fishing nets or piles of garlic and racks of small fish dried in the midday sun their scent mixing with incense sticks that burned on the small alters in front of homes and shops.
Away from the cities and after five nights on the road I was now determined to camp. My first few nights had been spent sweating under loud fans in cheap, squalid hotel rooms and I was sure camping would be preferable. I had heard sleeping was illegal in Vietnam but trying my luck, as the sun went down and a soft buttery light was cast over the palms and rice paddies outside the town of Duyen Hau, I pulled over in a small village and began to enquire if I could sling my hammock between a couple of trees on the side of the road. There didn’t seem top be a problem. A small crowd of intrigued locals gathered to see me pitch camp, I put up my hammock under a neat poncho shelter and then a little man broke through the crowd. Topless, chest puffed out in self-importance, he faced up to me and ordered me out of the village. His loud barks and firm hand signals insured he meant business and after a small stand off, and much to my disappointment and those around me I packed up and moved on down the road. Moment’s later couple on a moped pulled along side. They asked me to follow them and turning off the road I was led down raised narrow tracks that ran above a patchwork of paddy fields. Over a small arched bridge we arriving at a thatched hut sat in front of a stagnant pond where half a dozen children peered up from where they were playing in the dirt.
Ushered inside a tiny puppy relieved itself on the earth floor and a plump duck with an ugly red head pecked at the dirt. A low wooden bed sat against one wall and on the other pots and pans hung on lattice of thin beams. On the bed an elderly man in light blue shorts sat calmly, one leg folded under his skinny frame. Introduced he smiled to reveal a couple of gold capped teeth and after his wife wiped a wooden table I was given a seat and a small bowl of warm tea.
Soon dark the extended family had all gathered to have a look at the man with the bicycle who was sitting under the naked light bulb that hung from the thatched roof. At least 15 people lived here and as the man on the moped explained I was staying the night, a heated argument amongst the older members of the family developed. The intensity of the debate convinced me I wasn’t able to stay but it was not because I was unwelcome.
After several more bowls of tea, the man on the moped asked for my passport. Somewhat reluctantly, I handed it over and followed him outside. The night air was warm and filled with a chorus of geckos, toads and conversations from other houses and ordered onto the back of the moped we took off at great speed into the darkness. Further across paddy fields that reflected the moonlight and through a complicated network of muddy trails my mind began losing rational. Why would he want to take my passport and me all this way into the middle of nowhere?
Pulling to a sudden stop at concrete building I hadn’t seen until it was in front of me I followed the man inside. The clay floor and dark walls absorbed any light but out of the darkness man pulled himself from his hammock to reveal himself in the soft glow of a kerosene lamp on a table. Topless and wearing a pair of deep green military trousers with a star on his belt buckle he pulled on a white shirt and led us both into another room. A harsh florescent strip bulb flickered to life to reveal a gilt frame portrait of Ho Chi Min that gazed calmly from a wall above a metal desk. Taking my passport the man skimmed through the pages. The two men spoke to each other sharply. It didn’t sound positive and after this brief exchange I was led out of the house back on the moped and back into the darkness.
Relieved to be returned to my bicycle it was explained, mostly in shaking hand signals that I could not stay. I was to eat and leave. My lack of Vietnamese meant I had no idea why but I had to assume I it was against the law to let foreigners to sleep in a house without the correct proper paperwork and this kind family were clearly worried about the consequences. Immediately offered food the ladies of the family went to work and a large bowl of rice was put in front of me along with a simple salad of Chinese radish dressed with rice vinegar, duck livers sautéed in garlic and fish sauce and a slimy ducks head hacked off at the neck complete with tongue, eyes and flabby skin. Not sure how to go about a ducks head with chopsticks I picked it up in my fingers and not really knowing what to expect sucked at the back of its neck, my mouth filled with sweet sticky juices. After twenty minutes of sucking at my ducks head I wasn’t sure if I had even begun to eat it but it was getting late I got up to leave. I pushed my bike away from the house and just as I turned into the darkness the man from the moped caught up with me pointing at an overgrown area of palm trees and plastic bags a few hundred yards away from the track. Gesturing I should sleep there I had my hammock up in minutes and before the sun came up I was gone.
From brilliant blue to vivid pink the sunrise over the delta was spectacular. The bull toads and lizards that sang through the night were silenced by the dawn and replaced by the gentle sounds of small villages waking up. Bicycles rattled over bumpy paths, children muttered to each other on the way to school and a few early birds walked amongst the houses and huts selling banana fritters from wicker trays balanced on shoulders. The main road the was bathed in a gentle light and out of palms and banana plants that hung over the roadside children appeared in silhouette pushing bicycles and clutching school bags. Some rode in groups gossiping and chatting, others walked alone. ‘Hello! Hello!’ Greeted by the sweet calls and wide smiles of these children, immaculate in their white uniforms and red neck scarves the Mekong Delta was absolutely magical. Small thatched shelters on the side of the road readied Phß and banh mi for the morning trade and taking my breakfast for one precious hour there was not a moped to be heard. I am not a person to stand in the way of change and progress but I was left wondering what a beautifully peaceful place Vietnam must have been before the advent of the Honda Dream.
Enjoying the morning over a simple bowl of tripe Phß loaded with fresh herbs and chilli, I then took off down a 12 km russet track where I followed a few other a bicycles and a couple of mopeds onto small a wooden ferry. I paid my thousand Dong and was taken over a small canal towards a broken down jetty that protruded from the dirt road that continued on the other side. Beyond a couple of old women selling sweet smelling fruit, dense mangroves with their strange spider like roots flanked the roadside and hundreds of crabs ran for the cover of their sandy holes as I pedalled past. Beyond the mangrove a handful of tired fishing boats were tied up at a concrete dock, where the fierce mid-morning heat was salty and full of the rich stench of rotting fish. Passing one of these dilapidated boats I was called over by the crew.
There was little space onboard the boat tethered to the dock and clumsy I clambered aboard feeling heavy and oversized compared to the slight frames and supple limbs of the crew of teenagers squatting in the shade of the small open sided cabin. A radio scratched a tune that was almost familiar, nets were picked over and repaired and a well used aluminium pot puffed steam from under its buckled lid. The smell of gasoline was over powering, but made to feel welcome I was quickly given a cloudy beaker of iced coffee and the five-man crew and I all sat smiling at each other, all pleased to be away from the morning heat. Questions were asked, I didn’t know the answers to, but after various attempts at pronunciation they knew my name Tom, I was 31, English and travelling by bicycle. To move the conversation along my phrase book came out of hiding, but after the flicking of pages and failed pronunciations, I put it away. It felt more natural to enjoy each other’s company in silence and the six of us sat smiling, nodding. and sucking at the bottom of our coffees for some time.
In time I was offered food and an aluminium pan full of mud-encrusted snails and a single magnificent conch with a golden striped shell and an orange flabby muscle like an overgrown sex organ were put onto boil. I accepted the invitation and the silence continued. If amongst men there are a few universal languages, food is certainly one and I think fishing must be another and while lunch was in the pot I brought out my fishing rod. As fishermen I was sure my fine telescopic rod of shiny graphite would interest them and unfolding it like a magic wand and attaching my reel the crew looked on in wonder. My Tupperware box of lures and worms were quickly passed amongst the crew, their faces an assortment of delight and curiosity at the collection of lurid rubbers and jigs found in a tackle shop in South London. After some Vietnamese debate, mostly involving shouting, the crew were unanimous that a small glow in the dark yellow worm would work best in the muddy waters of the river and with my line cast the rod was past from fishermen to fishermen with no results, until lunch was ready.
Prizing the conch and snails from their shells with a short knife, the rubbery white flesh from inside was and sliced on a plank. The captain busily mixed a dip of fish sauce, sugar, chilli, salt and tamarind and grinding it into a smooth paste in a soup bowl with a crude wooden pestle, we sat on deck in a small circle picking at the meaty flesh with chopsticks and dipping them in the sauce. The flesh of the snails was chewy and saline while the tender meat of the conch was soft and sweet, but dipped into the tamarind sauce they were both transformed. A sticky sweetness was joined by the powerful tang of tamarind that was balanced with the salty smoky flavour of fish sauce. The subtle chilli joined the party late but its flavour lingered in my mouth until I took my next piece of conch. The captain had created a masterpiece of flavours and sitting on the wooden deck of his boat, bobbing on the Mekong I was aware that this was a very special meal indeed. A change of lure after lunch and with my line barley wet I was reeling in my first catches of the trip. My great excitement was almost matched by a crew, who spend all day doing this for a living, and after a well-matched fight a six-inch Mekong catfish was gasping and flipping on deck. As Mekong lunches go this would take some beating and full of a fisherman’s pride I packed up my rod and went my way to the rivers mouth.
Seven kilometres down the track it came to an end. Above an unimpressive brick arch a Vietnamese flag tried to fly in a lazy breeze and in bold letters underneath it told me I had arrived at Ba Dong Beach Resort. There was little resort to be seen. A pair of overweight soldiers in green fatigues sucked at fizzy drinks in the shelter of a sunshade and the ‘dug dug dug’ of the fishing boats that worked up and down the coast in silhouette could be heard softly above the weak surf that lapped at the brown muddy beach. I had arrived at the Mouth of the Mekong, and this is where my journey would begin. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but travel by bicycle rarely is, and taking of my sandals I dipped my toes in the warm water of the South China Sea and tried to imagine what this river looked like where it began its life dripping from a glacier high on the Tibetan plateaux some 4500 km away in Tibet. There was only one way to find out.