Delightful SE Asia – Mekong Delta
Viet girl friend and I check into the rotten best hotel in town. At the reception, dual pricing also applies for mixed east-west couples. Welcome to Sa Dec, the former capital of rural Dong Thap province in southern Vietnam's lush green water soaked Mekong delta.
First we need a motorbike. We want to cruise Phuong's home province for some days, visit her friends and family, enjoy "the best sticky rice in the world" (Phuong), see some famous flower nurseries, explore hidden palm tree alleys and those lovely lost Mekong delta villages in the midst of rice fields, jungle and orchards…
Right today we are going to visit Phuong's friend Miss Tai, who is currently staying with her parents in some remote village. Thus, we need the Ong-Daaaa (Honda), as they call motorcycles here. Even more, Phuong needs a nap after the very early start in Sai Gon. "Pothole, I need sleep a little. You can find Ong-Daa already?"
Viet girl friend gently snoozing away, I depart to find Ong-Daaaa. There are no commercial rentals out there, you just talk to receptionists, motorcycle taxis, fishing boat owners, motorcycle shops etc. etc., swinging your phrase book, hoping for some basic English.
I get some offers ok, but I want Ong-Daaaa with mirrors. Reader, if you thought Thai traffic is difficult – it is ridiculously tame compared to southern Vietnam. The Mekong delta is so much more populated, and the drivers are so much more eager to switch incarnation. Longing to know just who will ram us from behind, I want a motorcycle with mirrors. Some motorcycles there have no mirrors at all; I also see many drivers with mirrors turned inside, so that they are useless – maybe those drivers just can't stand to see the horror in the back?
Finally, in the aromatic harbour area, there is a fisherman willing to rent out his Ong-Daaaa which boasts a complete set of two mirrors! I do a test trip into town. The machine seems fine, even light and turn signals do work – but soon the mirrors are swinging in every direction. I don't see how to fix this, so I roar back to Mr. Fisherman. "Ong-Daaaa OK", I go, but I point to the dangling mirrors. He looks at the mirrors with anger, like "Sorry foreigner, that these stupid mediocre mirrors are disturbing your valued visit to our poor country." He finds some screw-wrench in the remote corners of his shack. I am happy that the problem can be solved easily. He works on the mirrors – then has both mirrors in his hands – next thing mirrors are flying into the dirt, broken! He beams at me: "No problem, eh?!"
Viet girl friend and I roar out of Sa Dec town, on a well-maintained but mirrorless Honda, towards the outer districts, towards Miss Tai's place. It will be another fine backcountry day, oh how I love these day trips into southern Vietnam's relatively prosperous and absolutely friendly Mekong delta. Adventure! Phuong, sitting in the back, holds on to me and cuddles close as we zoom along on a very reasonable provincial road. I know she enjoys this situation deeply: Me, "her man", taking us somewhere, seemingly everything under control, while she enjoys our "team spirit" – and screams "STOPPP!!!" whenever a roadside stall has some bizarre Mekong delta fruit on offer.
Phuong is holding her face close to mine, we enjoy intimacy and cooling wind simultanously."Xin loi for no mirrors on this Ong-Daaaa", I talk back to her. "Why sorry", she asks me cheek to cheek – "mirrors no need."
Viet girl friend knows the way, she says. Didn't she have a lengthy telephone talk on this topic with Miss Tai? Phuong: "I can tell you every palm tree all the way to her house!" I had suggested buying a cheap map from the hotel reception, but "map no need". And yes, for ten straight minutes on the main provincial road, we have no problems of course. Then villages, junctions and crossroads appear – and my clever girl friend has no clue where to turn… "Her description not clear!"
Viet girl friend makes me stop at some kind of roadside workshop. Five tiny black oil covered men work on heaps of huge strange black oil covered machines. In this environment, my beautiful cultivated girl friend looks like an angel gracing a garbage dump. She has this heartbreaking smile on her when asking strangers for directions, I guess she is the highlight of the day in that sweatshop.
Only now, the oily workers notice the westerner on the Honda. Now that's something! I am invited into garbage headquarters. Everybody is sitting down on baby-sized plastic stools, we sip good chaa Vietnam (local tea). Some talk seems to go about their occupation. Then, girl friend lectures them about us, I guess, as their looks go back and forth between her and me. Lots of supporting smiles, cups lifted towards us, cheers, have one more please…
After only 30 minutes, all news seems to be exchanged, and Phuong even claims to know the way to Miss Tai's. Five smiling black oily men waving us "Xin Chao, Xin Chao" as we zoom on. Girl friend cuddles close on the motorbike. "What are they doing in that workshop", I ask. "Don't know", she replies quite annoyed – boring question. "But what did you talk with them all the time", I inquire. Girl friend shrugs: "Forget already."
Viet girl friend asks me to stop at a big roadside market. It had been agreed with Miss Tai that we will bring some food for lunch which we will enjoy at her place.
Phuong decides I have to sit down at some fruit juice stall while she will find the ingridients for a hearty Viet style lunch. I happily obey, ask her to buy something really special (with my money anyway), wipe off 2000 ccm of sweat and settle with a good sinh to cam, freshly squeezed orange juice. Three toothless fruit juice ladies are watching me with utmost interest. Maybe I am the first westerner out there. After only 50 minutes, Phuong returns with a big bursting plastic bag. A lot of unbeknownst bizarre oversized overchlorophylled Mekong delta veggies stick out on the top. For me it looks very tasty, but I am not sure if this is "something special" for Miss Tai and family?
Now Phuong sits down for her own orange juice when suddenly – the plastic bag starts to shriek and to wobble! It is almost walking over the ground! I spray my sinh to cam all over the plastic table – what is this?!? The toothless fruit juice ladies are laughing themselves away. Phuong explains: "You tell me to buy food special. So I buy duck. But they only have live duck!" Reader, it is true: Under heaps of veggies, deep down in the plastic bag, my dear girl friend Phuong has stuffed two live ducks!
"You cannot carry live ducks under a ton of veggies like that", I demand in shock. She gives a simultaneous translation to the fruit juice ladies, and everybody has a good laugh. "Ducks are people, too", I scream. The market people roll on the floor.
The plastic bag wobbles and croaks. I burst with empathy. Phuong checks her watch: "We go?"
Viet girl friend and I are doing pothole research on some red dirt ox-cart track. We have left the well-paved main road behind and steer into the outbacks of real rural Mekong Vietnam. Finding Miss Tai or not, this is good fun anyway, amidst palm-trees, ultra-green rice fields and picturesque villages.
Lunchtime. I am hungry, yes, but… While our Ong-Daaaa has no mirrors, it does sport a very convenient shopping bag hook, and on that hook there hangs a plastic bag full of veggies, plus two more passengers at the bottom… haven't heard them croaking lately… Are they just taking a nap? Are they hungry, too? Just wait a little, my feathered friends.
Out of nothing, we bump into Miss Tai, who is just crossing the road, coming back from a neighbor. There is her house! Smallish – but concrete, not wood. Big welcome from her parents who are friendly, but quite ceremonial. Tai's mother jumps onto a rusty chinese bicycle and pedals off – escaping? Her father seems to have a motorcycle garage, but he is not eager to swing screwdrivers now. He gestures me to the main wooden couch with no cushions. Ice water, tea and fruit appear, Phuong and Tai chat away. The usual range of kids is standing in the door, watching the white man, i have no idea who belongs to the family or not and to which degree. Mother comes pedaling back on her bicycle – she bought coke and fanta for me!
Viet girl friend blends in with Miss Tai's family in no time. I know she has never been to this house, she has never seen Miss Tai's parents, but all the ladies seem so familiar, Phuong walks around everywhere like at home, she handles the kitchen like her own, this looks just like one busy family. There is no distance. This also applies for all the neighbor kids who stand in the wide open door: they can come in if they want to, and some do, to touch my strange white skin with a giggle. I suggest i could cut some veggies or something too, but i am rejected. I am a man, so I have to sit down with Miss Tai's father and watch TV. Of course.
Viet girl friend reappears from the kitchen to shove one more fruit plate under my face. I whisper: "What about the ducks…?" "Mother kill ducks now", i learn, "you want see?" Ahm, ui… no need, dear… "But i want see", she smiles and floats off into the backyard on the rear side. Phuong and Tai don't want to kill the ducks themselves, but they happily watch Tai's mother doing the deed. I don't follow her, as i have never been into spectator sports anyway. While throats are cut and ducks die in the backyard, i take some snapshots with the kids out front. They proudly pose for the lens, but a two-year old one starts crying about the flashlight or maybe about the westerner. Everybody is laughing about the crying baby.
Viet girl friend is coming back from the kitchen – not with some duck and veggies lunch, but with just another fruit plate for me. I am still being parked with Miss Tai's father in front of the TV. There are promising smells around the house, but no lunch is turning up. Them ducks might have been old hags or what, why do they take so long in the pot? Phuong smiles conspiratorially and says: "Sorry, ducks ready soon… but… i already ate the very delicious piece… " What "delicious piece" is she talking about? She twinkles at me to excuse her personal infirmity – "sorry, Pothole… one duck i ate the heart already".
Viet girl friend and the other ladies finally turn up with dishes after dishes of duck meat, soup, cooked veggies, salad, rice, soy sprouts, plus obligatory bowls for nuoc mam (fish sauce) and chili sauce. The hungry sweating honoured guest from far away Old Europe gets the most treasured piece that's still in the pots: With her best ceremonial face, Miss Tai's mother places in my personal bowl – a duck's head.
Viet girl friend almost died with shock! May I tell you? She, who had just watched the execution of two ducks for culinary reasons, she who can take a palm-sized spider off the wall with bare hands just to hold it into her terrified western boy friend's face – she has seen the most terrible: About 0,5 centimeters long, a cute shock-green worm comes creeping out of the salad and over the table, forming elegant Gaussian curves whilst proceeding. Phuong and Tai run off in sheer horror! Ha, them girls! Miss Tai's parents look mortified, not about the worm but about the girls' behaviour. But there is a gentleman on the table – me! Pothole, the fearless knight in shining armour, takes the worm and sends it on a ballistic trip out through the open door; there the worm receives a happy welcome by a starving chicken roaming the front yard. The girls dare to reclaim their seats. "Uh, terrible terrible", they shudder – and scoop some more cubics of dark brown duck blood pudding into their soup bowls.
Viet girl friend takes care. She is so attentive. For me on that delightful lunch in outer Dong Thap province, she is the quintessential Asian girl friend – the quintessential Asian girl friend from a healthy background, that is.
Should my supplies of duck, duck blood pudding, veggies, salad, soup, fish sauce or chili sauce run short, Phuong'd offer more to me. If my glass runs out of water or ice, Phuong'd pour more.
I am having lunch in a very different culture, with friendly yet strange people. Phuong knows how much I want to comply with any rules or customs – but that I have my personal limits, too. So, with just the slightest excusatory smile for our hosts, she replaces my chopsticks with western style fork and knife. For the more difficult fruits and veggies, she shows me how to eat them, what to eat at all and what to leave on the plate; she smiles with almost unnoticeable amusement about her food ignorant "big baby". She knows I enjoy this deeply, but I might feel insecure too, so she sends some supporting vibes, and I feel better.
All this is done in the most inobtrusive way, of course. Asians like it light and easy. If I don't want more, that's fine, too. I never feel directed or something. Not by Miss Tai's family and not by Phuong. You just know she knows about your state of mind, and she offers support. Great.
Anyway, like most decent Asians, she is not making a big fuss of her partner in public. No touching, no siding just with me. I like it that way. Actually, mostly she is chatting away with Miss Tai and family, telling jokes from her own family, sending warm smiles to the kids on the open door, removing duck bones and empty bowls within nanoseconds, generally lighting up the whole house with her presence. Everything about her seems so effortless and easy, so pleasant, done with humour and grace, you cannot stop to fancy how she might do as your wife back in Old Europe… how she might do as your kids' mother… oh, she'd be gorgeous… did I mention her beautiful face, hair, body? …and sure, she will learn how to properly choose better ducks, I believe in her. You cannot stop to feel those words she is craving to hear from you – anh yeu em, I love you…
Viet girl friend is a gem, but Miss Tai comes second. After a whopping lunch and some siesta, she suggests a trip into the outbacks. We switch to bicycles, as the trails are to small for Ong-Daaaa. We arrive at Miss Tai's uncle. In all the chaotic bush behind his shack, you wouldn't notice that this is: "A fruit garden!" But with Miss Tai as your machete swinging guide, you just have to open your eyes, and strange delicious fruit is dangling everywhere right into your mouth. Lazily we lounge in hammocks in the cool shade, dipping pieces of strange fruit into spicy chili salt, there is even a breeze from the nearby river. Life couldn't be more delightful.
Tiny polite feminine Miss Tai, she can cut a coconut like I open a letter. She suggests I try to cut one too, but I don't feel suicidal today.
The three of us hop into a canoe and cruise upriver. Now that is a lost world on its own. The river's edge is covered with walls of bush. On the river, we meet boats full of bananas, coconuts and smiles for us. On a bridge, there are kids playing with kites and two school girls float across in the traditional white silken ao dai dress. All this is soaked in warm afternoon light. It is paradise.
Miss Tai is sitting on the prow, paddling us against the stream. She wants to see me paddling. After about three strokes the stupid westerner rams the boat into the river bank, right into one of those local palm trees that prefer to grow right out of the water. The girls are laughing at me, but at least we can harvest some fruit from the very tree I managed to hit.
Back to solid ground, we say hello to Miss Tai's grandmother in yet another shack. This old lady looks very serious. She is 85 now. Heck, she has survived French colonialisation, the so-called American war, stiff soviet-style communism plus famine after 1975, then the doi moi liberalisation and economical take-off in the nineties… She doesn't smile, she doesn't talk to me, only when we set off, back to Miss Tai's parents, I hear her "Bon jour, monsieur".
Viet girl friend suggests we drive back to town. 5.30 p.m.! We really should take the dirt track with the last daylight. The asphalted main road later on can be done in black night. We just want to bump off, waving "Xin Chao Bon Jour Byebye" to Miss Tai, her family, to dozens of neighbors and kids, we are already in first gear, when Miss Tai screams "WAIT!!" Her mother runs to our motorbike, bows slightly, and with a ceremonial look she shovels a ton of oranges into my bag.
Viet girl friend cuddles close. On that very reasonable provincial road, we are zooming back to town. Starry starry Mekong night! The air is warm, the road is smooth, zillions of frogs are croaking in the fields. We had a most wonderful day, good people, good food, good landscape, in true rural southern Vietnam. And the most wonderful girl in the world is nestling to me on our mirrorless Ong-Daaaa. With every fiber I feel warmth inside and out.
"You hungry?" Cheek to cheek, Phuong asks her question. We cruise at a good speed: this time, there are just very few kids, unlit bicycles, pigs, cows, cats, chicken, dogs, buffaloes, coconuts or even potholes on the road. Phuong starts to twirl my nipples.
"No I am not hungry", I state back to her, as I am still full of Viet cooking and fruit. From her voice two octaves below usual pitch, I already know what she's up to anyway. Her fingers walk down my body as I try to anticipate a frog caravan in the Ong-Daaaa light. Yes, now I receive her usual pinch in my belly. (Heck, I am NOT fat, why is she always doing this?!)
"But I hungry." She fingers around my body. This girl! She had been a shy provincial flower, ever so decent and decidedly a "good girl". But after we had had some coffees and dinners, even public walks on the riverside, it was perfectly clear to her that of course I would marry her. We would have "two sweet kids" (her dream), live here or there no matter where. Definitely no plans or promises had been made, but after all this innocent dating she clearly knew we were bound for marriage. So pre-marital sex had not been a problem to her – actually, one surprising evening curious Phuong had tricked me into her separate hotel room, demanding at gunpoint to learn everything boy and girl could do on a king size bed. And from the keen, but shy beginner who would completely cover herself right afterwards, she had turned into a tremendous lover, who surpassed with action, compassion and innovation all the sophisticated western ladies that crossed my tracks before.
"I hungry." Her fingers have reached my jeans. Her long brown delicate sensitive fingers with just one ring missing, they are moulding me like checking some fruit. Starry night! I wonder if I should open the zipper, but empathetic Phuong takes care of that. Crazy girl, squeezing her driver to delirium in the middle of the road! I could rape her here on the spot, right between the frogs.
"I hungry – I want banana!" One more squeeze. Phuong! No objections permitted. Safeguarded by a million stars and frogs, in a warm Mekong delta night, on their mirrorless but well maintained Ong-Daaaa, a hot and happy east-west couple roars back to their rotten best hotel in town.