Rolling Down the Mekong
We survived our previous three day moto trip, so you think we would count our lucky stars and move on to safer forms of transport. Hell no! Its the best way to get from A to B, and the world really needs another montage.
DAY 1 – Riding with the “Dragon”
The first order of business was to find ourselves a guide. We wanted to ride from Saigon, through the Mekong Delta to Vietnams’ southern most point. Also, we wanted to see some “cool shit” along the way. Our previous guide, River, knew just the man for the trip; Long, or “Dragon” in Vietnamese.
Long fit the Melong Delta perfectly. He was laid back, sported a leather jacket and pony tail, and drove a bad ass dirt bike. He also had a muppet like voice when speaking English. It was adorable and hilarious all at once.
Cortney and I decided to share a bike this time, so we could take pictures along the way and take turns spotting chickens and water buffalo obstacles. Challenge number one was squeezing our way though the mass of motos that is Saigon. Our skills by now were much improved, but navigating safely through one of the busiest Southeast Asian cities would earn any westerner their “moto badge of honor.” After an hour of salmoning, dodging, braking and inhaling exhaust, we were on our way to the famous Cu Chi tunnels.
During the American-Vietnamese war, the military brass around Saigon were in a desperate search for the southern headquarters of the Viet Cong. The more they searched, the more they were shot at, and the less they found. The US troops were even fired upon from within their own bases. How were these poorly funded and improperly trained fighters surprising and outmaneuvering the mighty Americans? Tunnels. Miles upon miles of tunnels.
The southern Viet Cong built 75 miles of tunnels in the Cu Chi province over a 20 year period. During the worst of the fighting, life inside and around the tunnels was hellish for both sides. Now, forty years later, it’s a popular tourist attraction. Go figure.
Besides some blatant propaganda, the tour of the tunnels is fascinating. Long showed us trap doors behind trees and air vents that were hidden in termite mounds. There were also booby traps, a lot of them. The tour recreates at least 10 different types of traps. They are all horrifically but aptly named; the ankle breaker, chest punch, and even the crotch stick. Most are a variation on a hidden door that sends the unfortunate soldier into a bed of spikes. Sometimes the spikes swing forward, or spin around on a wheel, but all have some evil method of embedding themselves within the victim and inflicting the most amount of pain possible. These devices weren’t meant to kill, they were intended to inflict immense psychological and physical damage on their victims and the soldiers who were next in line on the battlefield.
The highlight (or lowlight if you are claustrophobic) is crawling through one of the original tunnel sections. They warned us that most Americans don’t make it past the entry way because they are too large, mainly in girth. Not wanting to fit the stereotype, Cortney and I sucked in our guts and burrowed our way through.
Even though the tunnels have been widened a bit, they are unbelievably cramped. We could barely shuffle through on our hands and knees. Crawling through the darkness, the tunnels split off left, right, up and down, some penetrating 30 meters into the earth. For years the Viet Cong slept, cooked, fought and died in the subterranean network. We couldn’t help but be amazed at the resilience and perseverance of the fighters.
And that American base that was continually fired upon; it was unknowingly built right on top of an existing tunnel complex.
DAY 2 – Hammock girls
Day one ended with our trio stopping at a town that serves as the gateway to the Mekong Delta. There is only one Mekong river, but when it flows into Vietnam it splits into many different tributaries. The morning of day two began with a trip to an island in the middle of one of those tributaries. The tropical island is on the regular tourist route, but its worth the boat crossing. There is a coconut candy making operation (delicious) snake rice wine (not so delicious) and a cornacopia of indigenous fruits to try. Check out Cortney holding the enormous spikey jack fruit in our pictures.
Already late morning it was time to hit the road, but we had one unusual detour before our ride. On our previous day, Long pointed out several huts on the side of the road with hammocks and tables. Most had different groups of people lazing around, drinking beer and eating rice. Basically, they were rest stops. But a few were a little different. Those huts had scantily clad women in hammocks beckoning us to stop by.
“Those are hammock girls.” Long said. “For about $10 they perform, ummm, special services.”
“Oh really,” we replied in unison. And the obvious follow up question was “Can we meet one of these girls?”
So we did. Long approached several hammock girls, carefully selected a nice looking lady, and we accompanied her inside the hut where she served us… an excellent cup of coffee.
We had several questions about her profession. The mid 20′s girl was extremely cooperative and gave us some insight into her daily life, all of which you will have to ask us over a beer when we return to the states. She did have a funny comment as we left. She mentioned loving Cortneys light skin color and bemoaned her own dark complexion. So it came as a shock to her when we said western women pay a lot of money to try and achieve her perfectly tanned pigmentation. The grass is always greener, especially for a hammock girl in Southern Vietnam.
The rest of the day was spent on motor bike, and we had truly entered the delta. We took all the roads the tourist buses don’t. And for good reason, we crossed countless rickety bridges, drove through the middle of markets and even loaded our bikes onto river ferries. It was an incredible ride, broken only by stops at road side stands for Vietnamese pancakes and cold beer.
Before nightfall we ate a delicious meal at a market. I asked Long about the famous beetle nut that the locals chew. He asked around and found some for us. To the locals surprise, Cortney and I chewed an entire piece. The beetle nut is a natural nut that, when chewed with leaves and some paste, gives an effect that is a cross between chewing tobacco and smoking a small amount of marijuana. Also, the plant tastes bitter and terrible while turning your mouth a rusty red. The locals loved us and said we were the only white folk to actually chew our way through the whole thing. “Awesome,” we exclaimed as or mouths oozed red paste.
DAY 3 – Rice fields forever
Our last day began with a trip to a Vietnamese floating market. While the other tour boats merely viewed the action happening on the river, Long brought us right into it. We ordered sweet iced coffee from the roaming coffee raft, and then breakfast noodles from the noodle barge. All boats specialize in one thing and they advertise that “thing” on top of a long pole over their boat. See a bunch of bananas in the air, that’s the banana boat. So on and so forth.
After a quick transmission fluid change to our valiant vespa, we were on the road again. More bridges, dirt roads, and low jungle scenery. A few highlights include a wooden roller skating rink, an old buddhist temple with giant egrets, and a market that sells rats and snakes. At one point, as we admired a sellers healthy looking rats, Cortney was standing inches from a mesh bag full of highly venomous cobras. Some markets are more dangerous than others.
The other thing we saw, in abundance, were green green rice fields as far as the eye could see. Rice is a way of life and it’s everywhere you look. Every meal is served with rice. Workers transplant sprouts from one field to another. Children ride water buffalos though the muddy harvests. If rice is the energy that keeps Asia moving, then the Mekong Delta is the engine supplying that power.
We arrived in the port town of Rach Gia to watch the sun set over the Gulf of Thailand. What an amazing trip. Thank you Long, thank you people of the Mekong, and thank you deadly cobras; for not killing us along the way.