Vietnam: The river and a nation reborn

By Nick Redmayne

Travelling from Chau Doc to Ho Chi Minh City, Nick Redmayne encounters an optimistic country.

Ho Chi Minh City at night appears as if blanketed in Christmas lights.
Ho Chi Minh City at night appears as if blanketed in Christmas lights.

On the Bassac river, rafts of water hyacinth float in the midstream current, pursued by rumbling barges and spluttering long-tailed boats vying for open water. Fishermen stand on the prows of their narrow skiffs, casting nets into the late-afternoon breeze, disturbing the reflections of the setting sun.

Close to the Cambodian border in southern Vietnam's Mekong Delta, the Bassac is overlooked by the town of Chau Doc. I'd travelled there earlier in the day by road from the central Mekong Delta district of Can Tho, and I needed to stretch my legs.

Along the town's corniche, paunchy middle-aged men jogged, a children's karate class practised kata to the count and a circle of young men competed to keep a wicker ball airborne to the amusement of a trio of girls.

Following the path as it left the river's course, I entered a market street where densely packed stalls were being tidied away, the throng of shoppers separating to reveal soupy organic pools amid the cardboard and plastic flotsam of a day's trading.

At a modest open-fronted bar, I sat down and ordered a Saigon beer.

A second bottle arrived along with Qan, a wiry and intense cyclo-taxi pedaller.

"I wasn't born here," he told me.

"Born in the country. Something different, not buildings like this."

He pointed at several five- and six-storey blocks.

"I rent a room for me and two kids. In one month, 20 days bad, 10 good. If I earn $250 [about $285] then I have extra money."

It might have sounded like a hard-luck story angling for a beer, but something about Qan's delivery made me hesitate.

"I sometimes carry seven people, like you maybe four ... "

He lit a cigarette and asked my age, surprised when I told him I was almost 46.

"I'm 40, I thought you were the same age."

He was quiet for a while, perhaps contemplating my easy life.

I paid my bill, included a beer for Qan, and left. It was dark now. Behind closed and covered market stalls an old man stood holding court to an assembled group and lit a roll of newspaper.

The group watched as the torch was waved and the flames grew. Suddenly, firecracker snaps erupted from the paper, sending sparks through the gloom. Loud laughter followed.

Farther along, other men sat in rows five deep, their faces lit by a football match on television. Close by, asleep beside his wares, a white-haired trader snored gently - goodnight, Vietnam.

The next day I took a fast boat from my hotel's jetty, bound for Long Xuyen, 64km away, where a car to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) would be waiting. The hotel's smiling manager, Trinh Quang Man, joined me for breakfast.

"I was here to see the last French convoy leave - soldiers giving candies to everyone. Then I saw the first Americans arrive, basketball players, I think. First balls then bombs."

He laughed wryly.

"This country, the French, the Japanese, even British were here, then the Americans, and then 'closed' for 30 years - we've seen a lot."

Man shook my hand warmly and led me down to the waiting boat, waving as I left.

Once the river widened the skipper opened the throttle. Retreating to the aft open deck, I sheltered below the cabin roof and watched the white froth of the wake peak and relax into coffee-coloured water.

Slower barges filled with sand floated dangerously low in the river, cantilevered cabins hanging over sterns inhabited by lolling families, decks patrolled by dogs and chickens.

For a time the shore was described by rows of brick kilns, brown smoke casting a sepia hue across the riverscape. Soon, though, the gaudy gilt and red of a Cao Dai temple emerged, the air clearing quickly to reveal age-old agricultural greens of rice paddies and pastures.

Driving from Long Xuyen to Ho Chi Minh City, I thought how the grins of model workers on billboards of Communist propaganda seemed at odds with the clamour of roadside advertising.

Vietnam's recent changes have allowed for economic growth, but the benefits have not yet extended to the road network. Constant vigilance, heightened by regular doses of tongue-numbing ca phe sua da (iced coffee), were required to maintain an edge over the vans, militant scooter riders, donkey carts and cyclists.

In Ho Chi Minh City, I dumped my bags, hailed a motorcycle taxi and melted into the seething streets of scooters.

I was heading for lunch at The Rex Hotel. At its rooftop bar, one-time haunt of GIs, politicos and war correspondents, I had lofty views over District One. Below, the opera house, Notre Dame cathedral and City Hall were bordered by traffic-clogged thoroughfares, the landmarks spectators to Vietnam's tumultuous recent history.

At street level, writer Graham Greene designated the Hotel Continental the haunt of noisy Americans; but it was here that he stayed when crafting intriguing tales of quiet ones, too.

Risking death by a thousand small motorcycles, I crossed the road and wandered through a side door, finding the hotel almost deserted, staff consumed by preparations for a pharmaceutical conference. How times have changed.

Is Vietnam your average one-party Communist state? Undoubtedly not. The country's new economy has been wholly embraced and in some places such is the free-market transformation that it's easy to mistake images of Ho Chi Minh for those of Colonel Sanders.

The same can't be said of political reforms, but there is a palpable atmosphere of energy and optimism. It's a good time to discover that Vietnam is a country and not a war.

Top tips

Xe om (motorcycle taxis) may have a dubious safety record but they're a way of life in Vietnam, and for short journeys, scooters are the best way to negotiate traffic-clogged city streets. Always agree a fare in advance, wear the helmet provided and hang on.

Ca phe sua da, a combination of ice, high-roast coffee and sweetened condensed milk, may not sound appealing, but drink it in a hammock at a roadside cafe in the Mekong Delta and it's sublime.

To avoid being ripped off by taxi drivers, demand they use the meter. If they refuse, take another cab.

Don't throw money away. Some of the high and low denomination dong notes are similar in colour, so check what you hand over, and examine your change carefully.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers twice daily flights from Auckland to Ho Chi Minh City, via Hong Kong.

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