I am thoroughly convinced we will fall. I look down at the murky waters to my left and to my right, and then I grip the back handle tighter. I would like to believe that two months in Asia has made me a competent motorbike passenger, but my trust wavers. My apprehension – or rather prediction that I will soon be swimming – stems from a few unique conditions: I’m carrying two backpacks; we are going over a three-foot wide bridge without railings; and the Vietnamese driver is avidly texting God-knows-who (LET’S HOPE IT IS SOMEONE IMPORTANT, MAYBE THE PRESIDENT).
Our pace slows as we reach the peak of the bridge; he revs the engine. The sudden burst of speed brings us close to the edge; he drops his hand holding the phone just in time to straighten the handlebars. We survive the bridge, and he is able to finish typing his message as we navigate the remaining dirt paths leading to the guesthouse. With a newfound trust in his ability to text and drive, I am able to tear my eyes from his phone and soak in the new surroundings: the Mekong Delta.
For the past couple weeks, I have been able to align my travels with those of my friend Jacob, a Vanderbilt alumnus currently teaching English in China, and a few of his fellow teachers. After meeting in Bangkok, we traveled overland through Thailand and Cambodia. Today, we crossed into Vietnam, arriving first in Ho Chi Minh City by bus.
Even though we only spent a few hours there before catching another bus to Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta, we left with a very clear first impression: motorbikes. Droves of bikes zoomed in and around the few cars on the road, easily dominating transportation around the city. The bikes seemed to outnumber cars more than ten to one – a much clearer majority than in Thailand, Cambodia or India, particularly for a large city. After this glimpse of transportation preference, I should not have been surprised when the owners of the guesthouse collected Brian, Jacob, and me from the ferry on motorcycles.
Our night in the Delta is quiet and delicious – the guesthouse is somewhat appropriately labeled as a homestay and includes a most delightful dinner cooked by the women in the family. When we can eat no more, we lounge on hammocks, peering out into the quiet shadows of this steamy jungle, this ‘biological treasure trove’ pleading to be explored in the morning. After a long day of bus travel and border crossings, we sleep soundly in the cradle of village life.
In the morning, I am pulled out of bed by the wafting aroma of baguettes and Vietnamese coffee – both rare in Asia but wonderfully commonplace (and delicious) here courtesy of French imperialism. Our breakfast in crowned by candied coconut and other sweets, as today is the start of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Unfortunately, this also means that locals will be inside with their families instead of at the usual floating market we had anticipated. We shake off our disappointment and decide to explore the region by foot.
As we wander through the delta, following the meandering waters, my thoughts drift to my father. I have willingly and enthusiastically traveled to the country that he did everything to avoid. A trip to Vietnam was his worst nightmare at my age. Had he not been successful, he might have traversed these same paths (and, given the statistics, I might not have been born). I carry a camera over my shoulder; he would have carried a gun. I am greeted by smiles; he would have received bullets.
I find myself drifting to the past, to this very town on this very day 45 years ago. Villagers and Southern forces had found respite in the Lunar New Year holiday, believing there to be a ceasefire across the nation. The ceasefire proved the perfect ruse for coordinated surprise attacks by the Vietcong in over 100 Vietnamese towns and cities – a campaign collectively known as the Tet Offensive. It proved a tipping point in the American psyche, shocking both the government and the public, which had been led to believe the Communist forces incapable of launching such a massive effort.
I am suddenly brought back to the present – Brian and Jacob are calling my name. Consumed in my own thoughts, I had fallen behind them. As I shift back into reality, I realize they are no longer on the dirt path – they have been ushered into a Vietnamese home. I am beckoned to join. Nothing could be more of a contrast to my 1968 imaginings than the eager and smiling faces unexpectedly welcoming us into their home.
We spend the next three hours with this family, being dragged around to see everything in their house, their garden, their neighbor’s house, etc. We are motioned to photograph everything and everyone. We cook with them; we eat with them. We try to communicate with them. We don’t speak Vietnamese; they don’t speak English.
But a smile goes a long way.