The Mekong Delta Blues

    Travellers, come and drop in and see me,
    The Mekong Delta, land of fruit of variety
    What you've lost will be made up for.
    Come and you'll be welcomed heartily.

    - - - Brochure from Vietnamese tour company

Part I.
"Your head," he says, "is a heavy head, and you have a hard time relaxing."

"He means there are many things in your head, there is a lot going on inside it," Tam explains. "It is all filled up inside, maybe with thoughts." Maybe. One can hope.

"And you have tension in your back," he continues. "When you get up in the morning your heels might hurt." For the last 10 minutes we've sat casually chatting as he's taken the pulses - - - three of them - - - in my left wrist: stomach, heart, kidneys. "You might get up to the bathroom too much at night," he continues, "but your heart is strong."

Tam and I are talking with the local pharmacist whom we happened to meet here, sitting on a low platform, inside Quan Thanh De Pagoda in the Mekong Delta city of Long Xuyen, Vietnam. It's a disconcerting conversation because he seems to know the most intimate details of my life yet I've never laid eyes on the man.

"I usually get up only once at night," I say defensively. "Sometimes not at all." He shrugs, purses his lips, raises his black eyebrows.

When we entered the temple, the pharmacist was dispensing herbal remedies out of a paper sack to a very old woman. I walked over to see what he was doing. Tam joined us after a short prayer at the altar, incense held over her head as she bowed, and so did a small curious girl dressed in purple pants and shirt. The old woman asked if I had any illness, and the pharmacist took my wrist, positioning his three middle fingers on it as if he were finding a note on a flute. The little girl in purple stared at me and raised her hand to my chin.

"I have a shop in town," the pharmacist says. "But this old woman has bad arthritis in her back and hands, so it is easier for her if I meet her here." The old woman smiles with betel nut teeth the color of pomegranate, touches my hand and squeezes my forearm several times as if testing a melon. The girl strokes my beard, giggles and says something to Tam. "She thinks you would make a good photograph," Tam explains. I look at the girl, make a goofy face and she laughs again.

I've gotten used to all the touching, even fond of it. Everywhere we go in the Mekong Delta people greet me, laugh when they hear me speak, ask how tall I am, touch my hands, my arms, my hair. It's all friendly, playful, actually rather pleasant. "They think you're from Mars," Tam says. This far from home, constantly being touched and given reassuring pats on the back, having my hand shaken, being smiled at, and waved to is a soothing remedy for the sporadic pulse of vagabond loneliness.

But I'm not really alone. Tam, my guide and translator, and Jim, our driver, accompany me most everywhere. A couple of days ago they picked me up when I arrived by ship from Singapore in Ho Chi Minh City, the less melodic, though no less evocative, new name for Saigon - - - new since what Tam refers to as "The Liberation." Both natives and foreign visitors use the names interchangeably.

That first day Vietnam overtakes me. As soon as I step ashore it conquers me. The place is rich, vivid, happening now, not later; the life is loud, lush and unpartitioned, the culture multi-layered, multi-coded. Wherever you go, you're surrounded. Always. A marriage to the left, a funeral to the right (crimson and red coffins sail past on the river), a vendor of five-snake wine straight ahead, nearby firecrackers crackle to launch a new boat, its prow freshly painted with black and white cross-eyes, five men on one groaning Honda approach quickly from the rear, the killing of a pig here, children having a water fight there. And then it rains, the clouds break, and the sun explodes over a pond, shines on a blue water buffalo on the other shore with a woman reclining on its back, asleep. I can't take it in fast enough, can't make adequate notes; photographs can't possibly do it justice, because they freeze movement; everything's moving here. To really get it, you'd have to have some kind of real-time, total-immersion motion picture camera that produced spherical movies you could climb inside of. But even that wouldn't do it. You'd have to be able to reproduce the climate, the smells. Finally, you must give in, surrender, relax, "go with it," as they say, which, as luck would have it, is what I'm worst at.

For hours (indeed, days), on either side of the highway, we pass glowing green rice paddies; an endless plain of chartreuse neon plush with rangy, swaying hedges of coco palms, and with raised white tombs scattered over the fields. "The ancestors," Tam explains, "are buried on the property to watch over and protect it." Rice is harvested twice a year; when the stalks turn yellow it's ready. "It's been a very good harvest, very big," Tam says, pointing out the yellow hulled grain laid out along the highway to dry in the sun.

The roadsides are paved with carpets of rice. Men and women rake it, sweep it; children walk arm in arm through it, scuffling the wet grains, turning them to the sun with their small bare feet. The sky is the color of cement. Though it's 85 degrees, it's the rainy season, and when the clouds burst everyone rushes to cover the drying rice with big blue plastic tarps. We pass three men lifting a huge shrieking pig tied to a pole out of a small motorbike-pickup. "The rice is like money," Tam tells me. "If the person needs a pig or a boat or whatever, they pay with bags of rice." After driving past it and over it for miles and miles, I'm craving rice. I want big mouthfuls of it.

In My Tho we hire a boat to take us across the great river, the Mekong, also known as Cuulong (Nine Dragons) by the Vietnamese. The Mekong, like the Mississippi or the Amazon, or the Rio de la Plata, which meets the Atlantic Ocean at Buenos Aires, is great in its massive, swift, gently undulating flatness. Sometimes, around dusk or dawn, it seems without current. With the possible exception of an Arctic ice plain, or an especially windless day in the doldrums, there is no other flatness on earth quite like it. The Mekong River Delta, recipient of centuries worth of rich alluvial soil, is one of the earth's most productive rice-growing areas. But our first stop, Tan Long Island, is covered with longan orchards. Tam calls it Unicorn Island.

"There are four islands around here. They are named after the four miraculous animals," she says, "dragon, turtle, phoenix, unicorn."

"All but one of the beasts are mythological."

"Why do you say that?" Tam asks me.

Along Tan Long's banks we pass men up to their necks in the caramel water, repairing the submerged split bamboo fences of shrimp traps. Boats go by loaded with coconut hulls, bananas. Two boys in a small canoe hold one side of a fishnet while their mother, walking chest deep in the river, holds the other side. Water hyacinths bounce on our wake. "They keep the hyacinths in the canals," Tam tells me, "so the shrimp can't get out." We dock at a small wooden pier, clamber ashore, and find a narrow, stone walkway that takes us through Tan Long's garden interior of orchards, hibiscus, bougainvillea, dragon fruit, succulents.

Every now and then we pass a house, each porch outfitted with a noisy, short-haired dog with a head like a fox, and a low-slung hammock holding a sleeping baby. When the sprinkling rain turns to downpour we simply walk through the open door of a nearby home. The young children stare and smile and their mother brings us tea and a bowl of fruit - - - longan, mangosteen, rambutan. The dog stops barking, distracted by a flea running toward his tail. We sit down around the table, mostly silent, watching the rain. At this point I've been on Vietnamese soil for less than four hours and the difference between the tempo of my life and that of the people I'm sitting with is awkwardly apparent.

I gulp my tea, get up, walk around the room, look at the photo portraits of the family ancestors that hang above a small altar. I sit down, pick up a longan, wonder what we're going to do next. And what, by the way, are we doing now? "Sometimes," Tam says in answer to my unasked question, "we like to sit for awhile." And so we sit for awhile, because it is, after all, one of the most peaceful, pleasant, beautiful and dry spots anyone could hope for.

The fruit of the longan tree is slightly smaller than a ping-pong ball, with a tough skin and a large seed in the middle surrounded by refreshing, translucent pulp that tastes something like honeydew melon only not as sweet. I'm not sure what to do with my first longan, not certain how to open it, so I hold it just below table level and squeeze it between my thumb and forefinger. We're a serene, unself-conscious bunch (except me), the children playing around our feet, the dog on the porch, the rain spattering the mud. Occasionally someone says something in the music of the Vietnamese language; more tea is poured; the dog barks at a falling leaf.

And then, KERSPLAT! I squeeze the longan so hard it explodes all over the front of my shirt turning me into something Jackson Pollock might have produced if he'd done his work in tropical fruit on cotton T-shirts. The laughter and the rain subside at about the same time. We thank our hostess and head back to our boat. As we walk I try unsuccessfully to wipe my shirt clean. The way to get at the meat of the longan, I'm later instructed, is to gently bite through the skin and then suck out the pulp.

--- Douglas Cruickshank
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