Floating upon the Mekong

The Mekong River surges into Vietnam in a muddy race to the South China Sea. The world’s 12th longest river, the Mekong begins as a trickle of snowmelt that winds its way down the Tibetan highlands, passes through Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and crosses the Vietnamese border rushing full steam ahead. But before it reaches the open sea waters, the mighty Mekong slows to a comparative crawl, splinters into smaller finger-like tributaries, and drops millions of pounds of silt each year to form the Mekong Delta.

Arriving at the Delta

It was late evening when our bus pulled to the side of the road. The driver pointed out a foot path and, with broken English and lots of gestures, instructed us and seven other international tourists to walk down to the river, which was obscured both by darkness and by distance. (A few times on this trip I’ve been acutely grateful for a particular item in my pack; in this episode, I was glad to have my headlamp to help Zach and me and our tourist comrades navigate the 500 meters to the boat launch.) There we met our host, who motored us 30 minutes downstream to his home on the banks of the delta’s backwaters. As we moved out onto the water, the sound of traffic grew faint, and in its place a chorus of frogs lifted its collective voice to such a volume that it could be heard over the boat’s motor.

We awoke to scenery that reinforced the stereotype I held of the Vietnamese countryside. Blue smoke curled out of tiny tin chimneys atop thatch houses. A family of ducks searched for their breakfast in the palm-fringed canal. A woman in a conical straw hat paddled past, a pile of coconuts in the bow of her sampan.

Home on the Water

Less than one hundred kilometers south of Saigon, life on the delta is a world away from the smog and skyscrapers of Vietnam’s humming industrial center. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Can Tho’s floating market, where produce buyers and sellers come together every day in a colorful confusion on the river. Sellers advertise their wares–yams, mangos, pinapples, and more–by stringing a sample fruit or vegetable up on a tall pole that can be seen above the throng. Not unlike an American baseball game, concession vendors wind their way through the crowd in smaller, more nimble boats. They exchange greetings with their customers as they hand over steaming bowls of pho.

Many people in rural Vietnam live exclusively on the water. Up the delta from Can Tho, we visited a floating fish farm not far from the Cambodian border. The fish are bred and raised in nets beneath individual huts anchored a mile or so offshore. Our guide explained that each farm requires substantial startup capital, but can bring in money on par with an American middleclass salary once established. All you have to do is 1) live in a floating hut in danger of becoming unmoored whenever the weather turns bad, 2) manually clean and repair the underwater nets each week in 30-foot deep murky water while breathing compressed (and perhaps diesel-tinged) air through a long plastic tube, and 3) inhale stinky rotten fishiness (a smell that almost made me vomit) day in and day out.

If fish farming doesn’t appeal, you might consider rice cultivation. Over three quarters of the Mekong Delta’s 17 million inhabitants work the irrigated rice fields, making Vietnam second only to Thailand in rice production. We visited the farm of a jovial old man and his daughter. After a brief encounter with some pigs, the farmer offered me rice wine. I thought it would be like sake, but instead it was a fireball descending my throat into my stomach, burning my insides in a way I had not thought rice capable. The farmer asked me if I liked it, and laughed good naturedly when I whispered, “It burns!”

The Mekong’s Future

The watery way of life seems more authentically Vietnamese than Saigon’s concrete jungle, but both are the real Vietnam of 2013. With the growth of capitalist industries and influx of Western businesses into urban centers, I wonder how the Mekong and other rural parts of the country will be affected in the coming decade. While I don’t think the traditional way of life will disappear, I’d bet good money there will be a KFC within a mile radius of the floating market come 2023.

We’re (slowly) blogging again

We’ve been back in the U.S. for about a month now, and we apologize for the radio silence for most of that time.

In some ways, the marked decline in our blogging may help to justify the trip. As Alain de Botton says, “The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not.” In other words, you focus on what’s in front of you. So if you want to focus on new things–travel, writing more, reading more, or something else entirely–you may have to go to new places. Now that we’re back in Colorado, we’re mostly back to focusing on the usual, familiar, routine stuff–bills, work, groceries, dog–which is nice for a change.

We are also dealing with a total shock–the sudden loss of our incredible friend and mentor, former State Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon. He died last Sunday of a heart attack at age 63. We miss him dearly and always will. Ken officiated at our wedding, and years before that he was actually a big part of the reason that I first traveled internationally: I’d been thinking for quite a while about taking time off to travel in Guatemala, and he said, “Stop thinking about it and make it happen.” If it weren’t for him, I might still be thinking about it.

Despite the mundane and the heartbreaking, we still have more travel notes and photos we’d like to share, so we’ll be doing that in the coming weeks. Because we may be posting a bit less frequently than we were while traveling, the best ways to keep up are via the email list (sign up at the bottom of this page) or by following us on Facebook (Zach and Betsy) or on Twitter.

Photo of the Day for December 1

A woman lays out rice noodle sheets to dry in an open air factory near the Mekong Delta, Vietnam (October 25)

Within this one room, we saw the rice noodle's entire production process from beginning to end: the cooking of the paste, the slathering onto sheets, the drying (shown here), and then the cutting into fine ribbons. Pho'nomenal!

The Photo of the Day series is mostly about the people we see and meet in the places we visit. As neat as some of these places are, they're empty without the people who live and work nearby.

 

The Cu Chi tunnels of Vietnam

Vietnam then and now

In downtown Saigon, a statue of the revolutionary Communist leader Ho Chi Minh surveys a plaza with Hugo Boss and Ermenegildo Zegna stores in the background

Since we began thinking about our visit to Vietnam, it has been strange to examine our guidebook’s maps and see place names still rich with emotional resonance from the Vietnam War. Saigon. The Mekong Delta. Danang. Dien Bien Phu. Hanoi.

In a very different context, American military commanders pored over maps and focused on the very same places. For American pilots shot down over north Vietnam, Hanoi and its famous “Hilton” POW camp were a million miles away. We could take a bus there overnight.

Vietnam today has come a long way since the war-torn days of the 1960s and 70s. In the heart of Saigon, Communist monuments dominate large plazas that today are ringed by high-end retail stores. Although the country’s economy has not grown nearly as fast as some of its neighbors, signs of Vietnam’s rising prosperity are everywhere.

President Diem’s desk in the basement of the presidential palace has been left the way it looked in the early 1970s, with war maps on the office walls

But reminders of the war are also commonplace. Here the Vietnam War is known as the “American War,” and the government takes great pains in museums to highlight American atrocities. There is no mention that hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese troops also fought the Viet Cong, or of the many atrocities committed by the Viet Cong against uncooperative villagers, the ARVN, and American forces.

But actually being in Vietnam didn’t so much alter my sense of who was on the right side of what in decades past. It just reinforced in very palpable terms that war is hell, for all sides. Nothing drove that home more clearly than our visit to the Cu Chi tunnels.

The Cu Chi Tunnels

The tunnels at Cu Chi sit at the southern end of the long and winding Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main route used by forces in the north to smuggle men, arms, and supplies to the south.

A narrow tunnel entrance, which, when fitted with its wooden cover under a few leaves, is nearly invisible

Dug in the waning years of French colonialism, the tunnels were expanded and developed as the American military presence intensified. They served as nearly complete underground villages and included hiding spaces, living areas, hospitals, and storage areas for supplies and weapons caches.

The tunnels at Cu Chi extend an incredible 150 miles in all and range from the northern edge of Saigon all the way to Cambodia. The first level sits about 12 feet below ground and tends to house kitchens, storage areas, and meeting rooms. Deeper are areas that served as bomb shelters. Throughout, the tunnels are hot, damp, and poorly ventilated. They were nearly always badly illuminated (if at all) and at all times inhabitants had to contend with a variety of insects and snakes.

Most of the passageways were carved to allow only a small-framed Vietnamese adult through. As our guide explained, “US soldiers look like Rambos, so cannot get in. So now rebuild for European size.” One of the tunnels has indeed been widened so that tourists can squeeze through. And as cramped as it was, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the hellish tunnel in Lalibela.

Close by but invisible to us, a shooting range for tourists was concealed by the trees. As the jungle reverberated with the sounds of intermittent rifle fire, it was remarkably easy–in fact it seemed the obvious thing to do–to imagine being in the same spot decades ago, a 31 year-old American trudging through an alien environment, surrounded by an unseen enemy that could be anywhere. Instead of flip flops and a t-shirt, wearing a soldier’s combat boots and heavy fatigues in the oppressive heat. And instead of 31, what if I were 18 or 19?

A wider tunnel entrance

The mere existence of the tunnels at Cu Chi makes abundantly clear the hot, muddy misery of war for both sides. For the US forces, fighting against people who could take indefinite refuge underground and who were indistinguishable from the local population seems an impossible and nerve-destroying task. For the Viet Cong, living in pitch black dankness for days or weeks demonstrated their resolve but also the extent to which they were horribly outgunned and could only hope to win a battle fought on their terms.

Early on in the guerrilla war against the French, Ho Chi Minh is reputed to have told his adversaries something along the lines of “You will kill 10 of our men, and we will kill one of yours, and in the end it will be you who tire of it.” This attrition ratio and ultimate outcome was proved true, first for France and then America, but for the individual Viet Cong soldier it underlines the grim disposability of the Communist fighters.

As a friend and fellow world traveler recently commented on our blog, “What we see with our own eyes is ‘clearer,’ ‘more concrete’ than what you could read in history books.” Although I read a lot about the Vietnam War growing up, nothing could have brought it home like actually being there.

 

Miles and miles

Hi there! We're back after a bit of a jet-lag-and-Thanksgiving hiatus.

I've crunched some numbers and just posted our final update to the Trip Stats page. All told, we traveled about 47,000 miles, an average of 267 miles per day. Out of necessity on a trip spanning three continents and 11 foreign countries, about 75 percent of our distance traveled was in the air. We had 26 takeoffs (and the same number of landings), with flights as short as about 30 minutes and as long as 15 hours. Our favorite airline was either Qatar Airlines or LAN out of South America; our least favorite was Ethiopian Airlines, no contest.

The vast majority of the remaining distance was on buses and in cars. Counting our domestic driving, we will have driven over 10,000 miles, enough to drive from New York to San Francisco to New York to San Francisco to Denver.

Throughout the trip, we walked an average of about two miles per day, though there were many days we didn't have occasion to walk at all, so our walking days were usually longer than two miles. For whatever reason, we didn't ride any bicycles or saddle up any horses.

We estimate we stayed in about 50 hotels. The most expensive one was maybe $60 per night, while the cheapest was closer to $6. The average was probably around $30 per night.

We pressed the shutter button on our Sony Alpha A55 camera about 8,000 times, though we only kept about half (~4,500) of the total photos and videos we took. That's about 45 per day, 25 of which we figured were worth keeping.

We had a total of 2,400 unique visitors to our blog, which (counting this one) has 139 posts. That's a little less than one per day, though there's still more blog content on its way.

For us, all those numbers add up to one (1) very epic trip.

 

Heading home

As this post hits the blog, we should be wheels up from Bangkok’s international airport on our way back to the United States. Eight hours later, we’ll arrive in Doha for a short layover and then what promises to be a delightful little 15 hour jaunt to Chicago.

For the last few weeks, we’ve been resting up and relaxing in Phuket, Thailand, which was a very welcome break from being on the move every few days since June 1.

I am ashamed to even look at when we last updated the Trip Stats page, but we’ll get the current figures on the blog once we get to the U.S. I’ll bet we’ve covered over 50,000 miles.

It’s hard to sum up how we feel right now, except to say that any attempt at emotional summary would probably just yield a long list of contradictions.

But one thing is clear: we’re very much looking forward to coming home.

And don’t you worry your pretty little head–our adventure is coming to a close, but The Furniture Insists will soldier on.

In the weeks to come, we plan to share more posts from Vietnam, more Photos of the Day, as well as and some more thematic musings on topics we traced for the length of the trip.

 

Photo of the Day for November 23

A teacher and her husband pose for a photo before heading out into the rain, Saigon, Vietnam (October 19)

We waited out a torrential downpour sheltered by a storefront and found ourselves next to this woman and her husband. She struck up a conversation and explained that she is currently an English teacher at a local high school. She used to teach French, but English is much more popular now. Like a lot of the Vietnamese people we met, she has family in the United States. As the rain trailed off, they donned their ponchos, got on their motorbike, and went on their way.

The Photo of the Day series is mostly about the people we see and meet in the places we visit. As neat as some of these places are, they're empty without the people who live and work nearby.

 

Photo of the Day for November 22

A coconut vendor in Saigon, Vietnam (October 21)

As I think is obvious from this guy's smile, he had a warmth and energy that was contagious. I encountered him on a street corner on my way to the popular and controversial War Remnants Museum, and when he discovered where I was headed, he cheerfully suggested alternate directions (two blocks over, then two blocks up, rather than first going up and then over), which I accepted.

The Photo of the Day series is mostly about the people we see and meet in the places we visit. As neat as some of these places are, they're empty without the people who live and work nearby.

 

Photo of the Day for November 21

Window washers slowly work their way down a skyscraper in Saigon, Vietnam (October 23)

Saigon is definitely motorbikes, and it is also skyscrapers, at least downtown. We eschewed the more touristy Pham Ngu Lau strip, which is known as the backpacker hangout, and instead stayed just a few blocks from the riverfront, around the corner from the Saigon Opera House.

The Photo of the Day series is mostly about the people we see and meet in the places we visit. As neat as some of these places are, they're empty without the people who live and work nearby.

 

Photo of the Day for November 20

A woman bags snacks behind trays of fried insects at a street cart on the road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia (October 16)

We saw a lot of insects for sale in various creative preparations during our time in Cambodia and Vietnam.

And to answer the inevitable question… No, we did not.

A decision about which I now, in truth, do feel just the faintest tinge of regret. Very faint, fainter than a delicate tarsus scraping softly against your esophagus.

The Photo of the Day series is mostly about the people we see and meet in the places we visit. As neat as some of these places are, they're empty without the people who live and work nearby.