WHEN IT COMES TO WATERWAYS, THE MEKONG IS A WHOPPER! It starts as a creek somewhere in China, and by the time it reaches Cambodia/Vietnam, it has trickled, dribbled, surged and roared more than 4000km. Called the ‘Mother of all Rivers’, the Mekong is home to countless millions of families who rely on it for food, work, transport, and the gentle waves that rock them to sleep at night …
Water. We take it for granted, don’t we? Turn on a kitchen tap, flick a shower-lever, fill a bath, flush a toilet – no big deal. But for zillions of Asians, water means everything. They’re born on the water, grow up on the water, work on the water, and die on the water. We passed this floating village: houses teetering on stilts along the water’s edge … women greeting each other from skinny wooden rafts … men fishing with bamboo poles and nets … kids paddling around in aluminium basins, helloing us ‘round-eyes’ and posing for our cameras. A glorious, watery shambles!
2. TO MARKET, TO MARKET …
It’s in the countryside of Vietnam more than the cities that you see things you never see back home. A wizened old man ploughing knee-deep mud with plodding water-buffalos. His toothless wife on a rusty ‘moped’, herding tidal-waves of noisy ducks. Giggling girls scooping water from one ditch into another with homemade buckets-on-poles. Squabbling boys pulling handcarts piled high with dung. This farmer taking pigs to market passed us on the road to can’t-remember-where – pedalling shyly past on his three-wheeled ‘cyclo’. His pigs slept like babies, resigned I guess to what lay ahead …
3. RICE-PADDY EYES
She was down low in the rice-paddy, squatting on her heels like only Orientals can do, her face shielded from the hot sun by a straw coolie-hat. I couldn’t see what her hands were doing in the damp soil, but I’ve no doubt it was what her mother, grandmother and generations of Vietnamese women before her had done. It was her eyes that got to me. And I couldn’t help wondering what stories lay behind them? Happy stories, hopefully, of better times. But sad stories too, no doubt, of a time when war ripped her homeland apart.
4. MEKONG MONK
Day 3 of our week-long cruise on the Mekong saw us tying up beside a steep clay bank, and being helped up the slope by hordes of happy kids who showered us with tiny gifts and flowers. We then climbed onto ox-carts for a bone-shaking ride through the riverside town of Kampong Tralach to a centuries-old pagoda. A bespectacled Buddhist holy-man was on hand to give us all a cheerful blessing – then it was back on the ox-carts, with much giggling and guffawing, for the return trip to our boat. Unforgettable fun? You bet!
5. CIGAR ANYONE?
You haven’t experienced the real Indochina until you’ve fought your way around a crowded farmers’ market. Stalls groan under the weight of live poultry, twitching fish, slabs of meat, unidentifiable fruit’n’veges, frogs, snails, and other delicacies. Housewives poke at produce and argue price. Husbands carry chooks and ducks on poles slung across their shoulders. Kids play around your legs and mothers breastfeed babies. Old ladies snore in their chairs and old men nod hello. Talk about photogenic! And my favourite pic? The lady with a cigar, who didn’t look thrilled to see me!
The most harrowing campaign of the Vietnam War was one fought between Viet Cong guerrillas and US soldiers inside 300 kilometres of secret tunnels. And, if you enjoy feeling claustrophobic, you can still crawl around in those freaky tunnels today. Our cheerful guide led us along overgrown tracks and asked us to spot the tunnel-entrance – which we couldn’t. He then rummaged amongst the leaves, lifted up a hidden trapdoor, dropped down into the tiny hole, replaced the door … and vanished! He popped back up minutes later, grinning from ear-to-ear, and invited us to go down. Spooky? For sure!
7. GIRL IN A RED HAT
There’s magic in the air when kids sing, no matter the language. And on an island in the Mekong Delta, this lovely young thing in a red hat sang for us, accompanied (on some strange stringed instrument) by her father. We’d arrived in rickety canoes, handled some tame snakes, watched locals making sugar-cane candy, and enjoyed a delicious fruit-banquet! We’d come from a world this girl had never seen – and it was sad to leave. But we weren’t going back empty-handed. We were going back with memories: stories, songs, and faces of a beautiful land.