An Unforgettable Journey in Chau Doc, Vietnam
Boats appear like spirits through the mist, their bows painted with Buddha eyes to guide them through the velvety morning haze that coats the Mekong River like a gauze curtain between us and the jungle.
The humidity hangs on us like a drooping blanket and whenever our boat slows, swarms of insects invade every bodily orifice In a shoreline eddy, I watch a boil of catfish compete for breakfast, and the sunrise, filtered through a thousand coal fires, blurs all the edges, as though we are sailing through an Impressionist painting.
On this, our third day of chugging northward from Saigon, our tiny boat pulls into Chau Doc, the northernmost outpost in Vietnam before the Cambodian border.
During the time known locally as the “American” war, this little village was a United States Special Forces base charged with operating heavily armed river patrol boats. Although I did not fight in that war, I am the age to have done so and I am apprehensive that the locals may view me as a returning soldier, chasing memories or maybe ghosts. With my wife, Irene, on this trip, I am even more paranoid.
In the large suburban centers such as Hanoi and Saigon, I have been well received as a wealthy tourist adding to the economy, but here in this speck of a jungle hamlet, I have no such expectations. Chau Doc had once been the eye of the storm.
How do these people treat former enemies? Until I know, I shall keep a low profile. This is only a stop on our way into Cambodia. My wife and I will slip over the border in the morning, and then disappear into the jungle, here only for a night of rest and a hot meal.
As our boat docks at the Hotel Victoria, the grandeur of the French colonial past stands in stark contrast to the recent neon and glass offerings of modern developers who have moved into the south like so many post-war carpetbaggers. Today’s Saigon could be any city in Asia, but Chau Doc is still Indochina.
A beautiful young woman in traditional au-dai shuffles down to greet us with an ice-cold glass of water tinged with lime and places a lei of flowers around our necks as she kisses our cheeks. I am embarrassed by my stench after a day under the relentless river sun. She must notice my smell but pretends not to.
A uniformed doorman snaps to attention as our sweaty entourage passes inside between two sandstone deities whose job is to prevent bad joss from following us inside.
Our hostess guides us to the registration desk, where two immaculately groomed Khmer bow and greet us in accented English. The opulence of this aging hotel only accentuates the extreme poverty of the masses directly outside its polished doors. It is a reminder of the colonial past, on its way to becoming a crumbling ruin, just as foreign dominance over invaded indigenous peoples has always failed in the long run.
Inside our room, geckos dot the walls like refrigerator magnets, a constant reminder that this is Southeast Asia. I turn on the ceiling fan and watch them scurry as I step onto the balcony into the blast furnace heat of the afternoon.
The sun is a swirling orange ball that steals my vision for a moment. Then I begin to see silhouettes of the churning mass on the streets. This village is alive and moving as I would only expect to see in a much larger city.
Directly below us is a contingent of resident beggars, detritus of the war with my country, legless and armless men forced to rely on the pity of a trickle of tourists passing through this remote village. These are the men who should hate me.
A sea of bicycles fills the street, and the smell of trash, sunbaked fish and unwashed bodies reminds me I am separated from this life only by the chance of birth. For me, third-world travel has always been the finest antidote to the arrogance of American materialism.
The local rickshaw drivers spot me and begin to congregate below my balcony, yelling up offers of cheap rides and more intimate offers if I desire them. Looking left and right, I see there are only vacant balconies and realize we may be the only white people for many miles; the hotel appears to be empty except for us. Irene joins me outside and this rare spectacle is now attracting a crowd. We step back inside and Irene asks, why not go out and see what happens? At the moment, she feels more adventurous than I do.
Riding Into Enemy Territory
Downstairs in the lobby, two ancient and rumpled Frenchmen play backgammon under a veil of Galois smoke. Their essence is unmistakable, former masters who have lost everything, victims of regime change, barflies who live off a small pension, who can no longer afford to return home and after decades in the jungle are too native to want to. The “March or Die” tattoo on one’s hand labels him an ex-paramilitary, if not a legionnaire. In Bangkok such men are usually expatriate American soldiers, but here in Vietnam, they are mostly French descendants of plantation owners or aging ex-paras.
No sooner are we on the dirt street than we are mobbed, not just by rickshaw drivers but by the general populace. In this part of town, many of the people are rather well dressed, but there is also a fair number of tattered poor among them, though no beggars. The beggars keep their station outside the hotel, lurking in the shadows, while not one person in this crowd asks for money. These people are curious, pushing inward as if proximity will reveal hidden secrets. One man asks in English, “Soldier?” When I say no, he seems disappointed. The women are fascinated by Irene. They touch her hair and tug at her clothes. She smiles politely and they break into a group giggle that shows off a collective lack of teeth. A small band of women from a northern hill tribe, identified by their beetle nut-stained lips, stare at Irene with open-mouthed amazement. Obviously not many Westerners have preceded us here.
We smile and bow, making our way to the nearest rickshaw. As the driver assists Irene onto the high seat, I see he has gained great face as her choice.
Since I am large, I decide to take a separate rickshaw hoping to not overburden these wiry little men with my occidental girth. By local standards, I am a giant and quite used to gathering attention in these remote places. My white hair only adds to the mystique. There is much laughter as this tiny man attempts to help lift me up onto his ride. I pretend to struggle and the crowd eats it up.
As my driver strains to peddle a weight he is unaccustomed to, people begin to close in and touch my clothing. Most of them say, “Hello” in accented English that tells me this is the only word of the language they know, yet it is said in a sincerely friendly manner. We are surrounded now and the crowd begins to move with us in one collective mass.
Our tiny convoy picks up speed and Irene turns to take a picture of me. This seems very funny to our followers who are jogging along behind us now. They begin to laugh and clap their hands. We are suddenly minor celebrities and everyone is having a good time. The drivers turn up a side street, taking us out of the central area and into private residences where word has preceded us, and I notice folks coming out of their houses as we approach.
We have become a parade with people lining the street, all waving and yelling “Hello” as we pass. Many stick out a hand for a quick shake or simply to touch mine as we glide by.
Several barking dogs have joined us adding to the carnival atmosphere and many young children run alongside, yelling and laughing, high-fiving as we pass, then race forward to do so again and again. One young boy streaks ahead like a scout, repeatedly yelling, “Mericans!”
Elders laugh from toothless mouths and wave from their porch chairs. Some young women hide their faces behind a hand with a giggle as I pass, while most of the men stare openly at Irene. We are both a diversion and a curiosity, and most surely the biggest event to hit this neighborhood in some time.
We weave in and out of dark muddy streets, tasting of rural life that most visitors will never see. Stone and plaster houses stand side by side with cardboard shacks. In the fading light, candles and an occasional gas lantern begin to cast eerie shadows. The smell of grease, fish, and sweat lingers on the air, and I take it all in with a pilgrim’s gratitude.
One little pig is almost run over by our tires and he scurries into the tall grass squealing in terror to the delight of our groupies. A small boy tosses a piece of sugar cane onto my lap and stands waving as I disappear from his life. My driver is covered with sweat from his labor and I can see the tendons of his back straining under his wet Ho Chi Minh T-shirt. Hauling me through this heat is a major task, yet he repeatedly turns to flash a beetle nut-stained smile at me, happy to be part of the spectacle. I turn to see Irene’s driver, a cigarette dangling from his ear to ear smile, waving as if he himself were responsible for all this entertainment.
As the sun begins to sink, fingers of smoke from hundreds of charcoal fires probe the air, blurring the light and turning the swirling sun ball a red reminiscent of Van Gogh that makes me think of the bombs that once fell on this now peaceful hamlet. Though I am innocent of such things I feel a deep sense of guilt at what my country once did to these people. They have gone beyond that war, but I do not seem to be able to do so.
Our ride lasts about an hour and it has taken us into areas I would not choose to go on my own, yet while on this rickshaw I have felt not only safe, but happy. I have completely left the modern world behind and become the pure traveler, welcomed into strangers’ lives because that is the code of the road. If I ever was an enemy, I have now become a friend. We pass each other in the twilight, leaving only the briefest of memories, yet connected by that thread forever.
It is moments like this that keep pulling me back to the road less traveled, moments that at the time seem insignificant, but in the fog of hindsight take on great importance as the point of connection between peoples whose paths would normally never cross. This ride has filled my soul with frozen moments that will reside there until death.
Arriving back at the hotel, we bow to our drivers and I pay them three times their asking price. This amounts to a couple dollars but gives both them, and us, great face.
There is sporadic applause as Irene and I wave goodbye and disappear into our other world that is beyond the dreams of most of the people we have just encountered.
Up in our room I peek through the curtains and see an animated crowd below discussing the evening’s events. I feel good to have given these people a story that will grow larger with each retelling.
In rural villages such as this, storytelling has long been a valued art. I have now passed from a mere traveler into a story, and by doing so, I will leave part of myself here when I go.
The thought makes me smile.
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James Michael Dorsey is a contributing editor at Transitions Abroad and a frequent contributor to the Christian Science Monitor. He has written for Colliers, the Los Angeles Times, BBC Wildlife, and Perceptive Travel. His stories have appeared in ten anthologies. His latest book is Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a former director of the Adventurers Club.
You can journey to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia on GeoEx’s Heart of Indochina tour.