The Mekong delta, named after the American airline that sponsored the regeneration of the area after the war, is the largest tidal delta in Southern Vietnam.
Mr Kay (“K – A – Y”), our guide, is cheerful and boisterous, with a good command of hilariously idiomatic English.
He describes every aspect of our trip – a concrete wall, a discarded tyre (“roadside accident, very sad”) in great detail. I once saw him walk past a pond and say to no one in particular:
Ah, frogspawn. Two legs, then four. Then tail falls off. Frog!
He’s a marvel.
We’re on one of those bus tours pitted by stops in every restaurant, factory and highway market willing to give Mr Kay a big enough backhander. He’s ballin’.
There’s an angry Vietnamese family (seriously, what’s the problem?), a pleasant looking squall of Australians, and a bunch of young hostel types. They’re the fun ones, we make a gang.
We’re heading down highway 1, or as I’ve taken to calling it, “the gauntlet”. It’s a game – you roll the dice at birth and barrel down the gauntlet in either a 40 foot container truck or a motor scooter.
The prize… well, there’s no prize. In fact, you can only end up in one of a small number of southeast Asian cities, and then you have two problems.
We take a stop and listen to some lively Vietnamese folk music. It’s good. It’s not Aqualung but you can tap your foot to it. The Vietnamese couple seem happy which seems to confuse their children.
I try to engage Mr Kay in conversation but he has to corral the troops:
I am here, where are you?
It’s now obvious to me that Mr Kay really has his shit together. He’s happy with where his chips lie and he knows what’s going on in his life. And the only thing that concerns him is – are you as content as he is? Where are you?
We get back on the bus where it becomes clear that Mr Kay is an expert – a fanatic – on bridges. At first his enthusiasm is encouraging but we’re left wondering if there’s a Mrs Kay knocking around, perhaps putting the finishing touches to a single span river crossing somewhere.
We cross a dozen bridges and he relates the intimate details of each one. I fall asleep. Three days later I realise I know which member of the Australian Cabinet sponsored the Australian Vietnamese Millennium Friendship Bridge but I have forgotten how to drive.
We take a stop and I pass the time by talking to an elderly American couple. I haven’t yet figured out how to ask “lovely country. Have you… been here before?“, so we talk about Hong Kong.
Mr Kay implores us to enjoy time. At first this seems redundant but if you think about it he’s right: we should enjoy time: we should cherish it. I contemplate this for a few minutes and wake up to find the bus is leaving.
It’s never announced that we’re in the delta, but over time the land went away and the water arrived, so I guess this is it.
River people. Wake up early, wash in water, take bricks on boat to China. Very poor.
That night in our homestay I learn that another bus had had a tour of a watermelon field, which gave the others the pleasure of having been there when I learned that watermelons don’t actually grow on trees.
The next day we are rowed up river by old people, which is maybe the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. The gang is starting to realise that I’m enthusiastic about this kind of thing.
We see rice paper and coconut candy being made which makes Mr Kay very happy.
We join the river to see a floating market. Disappointingly, it floats on water.
We upgrade our boat to a larger one with an actual 2-Stoke engine. It leaves a thin stream of diesel in the water behind us. Slowly, out of the clouds, a thought starts to form – maybe we’re making things worse just by being here. Then I see a man fishing with a duckling on the end of a bit of string and the thought goes away.