Meandering the Mekong Delta

This is the fifth in a series of posts running throughout 2015 about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is all about escaping the city of Saigon with its teaching commitments and exploring the countryside on weekends.

I took a number of trips out of the city while I was teaching in Ho Chi Minh City in 2008. Some of these were organised by colleagues and friends, some were organised by me, some were large group affairs and some were solo adventures. Being young, full of energy and in love with my little 125cc motorcycle I felt in control of my own destiny: when the weekend would roll around, if I didn’t have any commitments I would pick a town on the map and ride there. I loved the freedom of being independent in a foreign country and I loved discovering South Vietnam.

I read a steady diet of the classic literature while I was teaching in Vietnam: some fiction, a few tomes of general history and many works focused on particular elements of the American and French wars. In doing so I worked up a thorough knowledge of Vietnam’s geography – some of which is forgotten to me now – but at the time I could always find something interesting, some historical note, about the many small towns and landmarks that I visited in the flat and dusty Mekong Delta. It made me feel connected to the country in a different kind of way to just teaching. I was experiencing the history.

Books I read in-between lessons and trips included Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Tom Mangold’s The Tunnels of Cu Chi, David Chandler’s History of Cambodia, Don Oberdorfer’s Tet!, Roger Warner’s Shooting at the Moon, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, John Clark Pratt’s Vietnam Voices, Christopher Robbins’ The Ravens, Milton Osborne’s The Mekong and Sihanouk and many, many more. Some of these books would prove invaluable sources and follow me through the Master’s degree in Asian Studies I later completed in Canberra.

Of the motorcycle trips in the Delta a few stand out in particular. One was a bit of a mess due to poor planning; an English teacher named Tom had decided he wanted to accompany me across the north of the delta to a wetlands area named Tram Chim. He was eighteen years old and didn’t have much experience riding motorcycles, but he wanted to blow the city (Tom lived in Pham Ngu Lao, the touristy, backpacker district of Saigon – an exhausting place at the best of times, even back then) and wasn’t daunted by the long ride. I encouraged his enthusiasm. He went out and rented a banged up old Honda Wave for the weekend.

Due to various reasons now hazy we didn’t make it to Tram Chim until about midnight on the Friday. There were roadworks, stops for ice creams, a wrong turn or two. When we finally arrived the small town was in hibernation; it consisted of rows of small, dark concrete houses and a conspicuous radio or electricity tower shooting out of a mostly tiled open space – a park? We knocked on a few doors and tried to find accommodation to no avail, so we camped out in the town square. It was possibly the least comfortable night’s sleep I’ve ever had – open air, bare concrete park benches and a pack of feral dogs for company.

To top it off, at 6AM Government directives blasted across the park from loudspeakers unknown. We woke up. People stared. We were vagrants, yes.

The following day we vagabonds got bogged, sunburned and bedraggled. But hey, at least we got out of the city.

I took another trip soon after with my roommate, a solid Welshman with a penchant for putting ketchup on his pizza. He rode pillion on my bike and we set our sights on Rung Tram, a swamp historically important in the American war. It was a lovely patch of water and earth; quiet, cool, green and peaceful. A charming middle-aged man paddled us around the mangrove swamps pointing out which ponds were natural and which were made by American bombs – we promptly forgot which was which as they all looked the same to us. There were odd frogs and fish and not another tourist in site.

I took another nice ride towards the end of my tenure at the Marketing University – a long, twisting trip right across the delta from east to west. Starting in Saigon I ended at Ha Tien by way of Rach Gia and Sa Dec. It was a long journey and I got to Ha Tien at about 3AM. I found a hotel but its doors were shut – thankfully the owners heard the sound of my motorbike engine and got up to let me in. Ha Tien was a nice market town but its surrounds were the main attraction. At the northwestern coast of the delta the land turns from muddy silt and flat paddocks to a more rambling, beach-like atmosphere. There are rock outcrops, Theravada Buddhist temples, Khmer Khrom monks and attractive water for swimming in.

I enjoyed exploring the area but had significant difficulty sleeping the next night – I wanted to get a hotel by the beach, like so many of Vung Tau’s offerings, but struggled to find anything. Towards nightfall I came across some kind of campground but the packs of dogs there wouldn’t let me get off my motorcycle, let alone have a beachside nap. They chased me right around the park and along the beach, nipping at my heels and generally being a nuisance. There was no blood drawn – something I was perennially worried about being an Australian (we don’t have rabies and are trained to assume every bite overseas is potential death) – but they sure were annoying.

In the end I stayed a second night at the same hotel in Ha Tien and headed back the following day via Ba Chuc. This was an odd place. I hadn’t yet been to Cambodia and thus had not witnessed the various collections of skulls etc. associated with the Khmer Rouge regime there. This meant that the memorial to the cross-border incursions of that area in Ba Chuc were quite shocking to me. There was a pagoda with hundreds of skulls there, victims of Khmer Rouge forces who ran over the border and murdered random Vietnamese civilians after the relationship between the two countries soured. These incursions were one factor in Vietnam’s eventual invasion of the country and the end of the Pol Pot era.

This entry has gone on long enough. In the next installment I will cover some other trips I took while teaching in Saigon, including to Cat Tien National Park, Can Gio and Da Lat.