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Posts Tagged ‘Mekong Delta’

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Our guide was named Anh. Like Anne, but a long a. Ah. Ah-n. She had the look of a backpacker. At first. When I took in the rucksack and light jacket, I thought maybe she was a trekker who’d landed her dream job. Tour guide on a medium-sized wooden boat, fits about 20 passengers, floating up and down the Mekong Delta.

But first impressions are deceiving. Anh was from Hanoi originally, now living in Can Tho. She wore thick flesh-colored socks with sandals. A face mask and a traditional Vietnamese hat to keep the sun off her skin. In Vietnam, the women want to remain as fair-skinned as possible. Stark contrast to the Norwegians who shared the boat with us. The two women in that group tied silk scarves over their bathing suits and sat in the hot sun until the silk turned dark with sweat and their skin a sort of freckled orange-brown.

My friend Marcia says that eventually, given enough time, we will all evolve to look like one another. Vietnamese women will get lighter; fair-skinned Norwegians will turn a crispy brown. We’ll all go after the universal beauty ideal. Add a KFC on every corner of every city in the world and Wham-o!, we’re all the same.

Until then, I will enjoy our differences. And prawns with attached heads, which we had for lunch. And cuttle fish, passion fruit, rice. Meals on the Bassac II are gourmet. How it turned out to be just me and the girls plus a Norwegian family of four—I don’t understand. This is the best boat ever, the best crew. The captain is the same one who steered the boat the last time I was on it, and both times he masterfully navigated our vessel through narrow passages where barges carrying silt dredged from the bottom of the river came within a foot of boats that are floating fish farms. And us.

As we gawked at other people’s lives, all while eating steak and fish for lunch or sipping Tiger beer, I imagined we were a nuisance on this commercial waterway. The Vietnamese float by with all their worldly possessions contained in boats only slightly larger than canoes. And yet, they are so tolerant, even nice to us as we float by in all our laid-back luxury.

The crew of Bassac II recognized me when I boarded, and I reminded them that I said I’d return and bring my girls next time. Dee was enamored by the boat immediately, the cool of the cabin and its smell of hibiscus and lemongrass. She wandered around the boat as if under a spell, that slow walk from this end of the deck to that one, all the while tracing her hand along the deep brown wooden railings. The place suited her internal clock, slow and content to not do much.

Em explored every corner of the boat she had access to, bouncing a few minutes around the upper deck, then a few more on the deck below. “Mom, I’m going to check out the front of the boat,” she informed before shooting off again. She waited impatiently for hours, unable to just rest, before we finally boarded the canoe and made our way to a village along one of the canals.

Not being from Can Tho, Anh didn’t know the off-the-beaten-path spots where you could find a temple that wasn’t officially on the tour. Nor did she have the same sense of adventure that prompted our last tour guide to stop in at a Cao Dai temple while making our way back to the boat from the village.

But that was fine. Anh was calm and friendly, and she loved the girls. She spent a generous amount of time in the floating market, took us to a cottage factory that produced soy sauce and salt, and let us sit for almost an hour eating exotic fruits while she showed the girls how to make jewelry and animals out of palm leaves.

When I asked her if she liked her job, she smiled, shrugged her shoulders, and then looked out in the distance. “I miss my children,” she said, “when I come overnight for the tours.” Believe me, I wanted to say, I can relate. Instead I looked over at my own girls and said, “Bring them with you one day, Anh—they’ll never forget it.”

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Mother Mudra, pen and ink on graph paper, doodle
© 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.




“Would you like to see a special temple?” our guide asks as she holds out her hand to help us off the canoe. “Tourists never go there, but I know where it is.”

“Yes, yes,” we nod.

Two brothers from the boat crew and one of their girlfriends have the day off, so they join the Japanese couple and me, plus our guide, on a sight-seeing tour.

It’s still early. We walk single-file on a narrow path past houses where children loll in front of TV sets and women shell nuts. The brriing-brriing of an old-fashioned bell causes us to step off the path in unison to let a bicyclist pass.

Soon we turn on to a dirt road. The ground is moist from last night’s rain. We come upon a bevy of small roosters strutting herky-jerky in individual cages. “Fighting cocks,” our guide says, and we stare somberly as we continue on. Nervous prisoners awaiting execution.

Suddenly there it is before us, a shimmering white pagoda with blue-tipped wings, ready for take-off. We slip through the gate and everything changes, like walking through a mirror into paradise. Our feet float on spongy grass-moss and our hands graze two golden dragons.

A teeny tiny frog catches my eye. I stoop to catch it. The rest of the group peers in to my cupped hands to see what I have, but as soon as I flatten my palm the baby frog leaps toward the sea of green.



            




Thirty-nine days have come and gone since that morning in Cai Be, Vietnam. I’ve tried to find out what temple it was—a name or lineage—to put into context what I experienced there. But every town in Vietnam, it seems, is filled with temples. Finally and with some relief, I give up my search and fall back on the only context I can lend, which is the moment itself.






Our group moves together like a small cloud, individual ions held in a single energy field. We seven are the only people on the temple grounds this Sunday morning. Our guide ceases being a guide—this isn’t a formal stop on the tour—and together we step gingerly from one area to another. We are like children who aren’t sure we’re supposed to be there.

We take turns rubbing the Smiling Buddha’s belly for luck, slip off our shoes and climb the steps to the interior courtyard. Once inside the great temple’s main chamber, we splinter off to explore. I’m drawn to a table with framed photos of men, women, and children. Next to each photo is a hand-written card, and next to the table is a large cabinet, its shelves filled with goods and more cards.

“Those are gifts.” Our guide has come up behind me as I peer at the blue-and-white china and tarnished silver in the cabinet. “The card says these valuables were passed down through the family since the 14th Century, and now the family gives the items to the temple in return for their daughter’s health.”

I turn back to the porcelain, suddenly troubled by the notion that as more tourists come to Vietnam, vandals might some day steal these gifts and sell them for profit. I am sad, and I shuffle, burdened by the thought, to another table, this one covered with hundreds of glass tumblers holding candle wicks in shiny yellow oil. The candles are lit—prayers reflecting like sunlight on a river.






Now it is October in the Rio Grande Valley, a beautiful fall day. My country is in turmoil—our economy imploding and our society exploding, with rage, over the national elections. I am literally and figuratively oceans away from that soft temple, its Smiling Buddha and croaking frogs, the river of light and strength of detachment to material things. I feel far, far away from a belief in miracles and peace.



       




There is a goddess in the Buddhist temple of Cai Be. I don’t know her name, but she wears a wry smile and dons earlobes to her shoulders, reminding us that the Buddha was once a prince whose ears became stretched from the heavy jewels he wore. Even when he gave up a life of luxury, his ears remained long.

Like an apparition, this goddess appears during my final stroll through the temple’s courtyard then again in the flower garden. She holds her right hand next to her heart, palm out, fourth finger touching thumb. She offers the Vitarka Mudra, a Buddhist hand gesture that symbolizes Teaching or Instruction.

At the core of Buddhist Teaching are the Four Noble Truths: 1) life means suffering, 2) the origin of suffering is attachment, 3) the cessation of suffering is attainable, 4) there is a path to the cessation of suffering, which is middle-way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

I think of the parents who carried their precious family treasures to the temple. I can understand that kind of act. People who love others, truly love, will give up anything if it means their loved ones will survive. There are people all across this world and in my country and my life who know that kind of love. They are greater than all the bad, and though I lose this truth when I most need it, it lives even when I forget or stop believing.

The goddess of Cai Be resides in my heart now. She stands before a vast, desolate land whose river runs red and mountains are bare. She wears the colors of new life, green and yellow, but also the color of death, because they are of the same cycle. Above her the sky fills with the promise of renewal. She welcomes all who come to listen and learn. She is a teacher, and she is peace.

Today I can see her.



Buddha Mother, statue in a Buddhist temple in Cai Be,
Vietnam, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.







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Exploring A Canal Series


Chom Chom, eating fruit in a village on the Mekong Delta, August 30, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



Beautiful Boy, child in a village on the Mekong, August 30,
photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



red on blue, red lace over blue shutters in a home on the Mekong, August 30, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



Floating, helm of the canoe as we make our way down a Mekong canal, August 30, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.






Brick Village Series


Lone Boat at Dawn, small boat painted with a face to ward away evil, August 31, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



Morning, man and child on a boat at morning passing the brick village on the Mekong, August 31, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



Brick Village, detail of a building in a village whose homes are constructed of brick, August 31, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



Brick Village, faded blue boat docked on the edge of Mekong’s brick village, August 31, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.






Buddhist Temple Series



Temple Window, looking out the window of a Buddhist temple in Cai Be, August 31, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



Arms, statue in a Buddhist Temple in the city of Cai Be on the Mekong, August 31, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



 

Temple Colors, beautiful colors in a Buddhist Temple in the city of Cai Be, August 31, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.






Big River Series



New Bridge, bridge being constructed near the city of Can Tho, August 30, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



Floating Market, vendors selling produce on the river, August 30, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



Tidy Village, buildings stand out on a crisp morning, August 31, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.






Bassac Boat Series



Bassac Cruise Boat, wooden boat for excursions from two to nine days, August 31, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



Tomato Art, an elegantly presented decoration, August 30, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.






-related to posts Peace On The Mekong and A Picture’s Worth A Thousand Words. Or Is It?

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Mekong Monk, portrait of Cao Dai monk at the Ngoc Son
Quang temple in the Mekong Delta, August 30, 2008,
photos © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.




It is only fitting that I find peace inside a temple on a canal in the Mekong Delta. We’ve gone there on a small canoe while our boat travels further up the river to pick us up later.

An old man dressed in white cotton shift and pants comes out to greet us. He talks to me as if I understand everything he says. He points to a bright blue spiral staircase opposite the temple. I nod and bow slightly, but before I head up the stairs I point to my camera and then to him to ask if I can take his picture.

Yes, yes, he nods enthusiastically. He stands very still and very erect. I snap a shot then turn the viewfinder so he can see himself. He breaks into laughter—he has exactly three teeth—and he points to the camera, looking around to find someone to show.





I noticed as we floated along the Mekong Delta, the children ran to edge of the bank and yelled, “Halo, halo!” They waved, and when I waved back they laughed and did it again. Some of the men and women would nod to acknowledge my nod to them. A sort of “Hello.” We passed so close that I could see their faces, the checked shirts and blue pants that hung from lines on the decks of their boats, their bare feet. I saw them washing or working or lying in hammocks.

But a few of the men we passed didn’t nod back. They kept their mouths shut in a tight line. One man took a stick and banged it on a steel barrel. Another man threw broken bits of brick onto the corrugated tin roof of his boathouse.

I wonder if these men assumed I was American or whether they dislike all foreigners. I don’t blame them in either case. This is the place where American soldiers came and fought, and before that there were others who laid claim to the country.

Tourism is a conquest of a different kind. I feel guilty floating by on a small yet clearly luxurious cruise boat.




The old monk at the Ngoc Son Quang temple points to the frogs jumping on the concrete floor three levels down. He talks excitedly, motioning with his arms. The guide says that when it rains the small channels will fill with water and the frogs will make baby fish. I smile and nod. “Frogs bring good luck,” I say, although no one translates my words.

We climb down the stairs and there on the ground level are a whole host of monks and nuns. The old man grabs me by the arm and leads me to a younger monk who has sad blue eyes and a beautiful face. Again much talking and pointing, and the guide tells me the old monk wants me to take a picture of him and the younger man together. “Yes,” I tell them.

The sun will soon set somewhere behind the clouds and the light is quickly draining from the day. I motion for the old man to move in closer to the younger one. He moves in a couple of inches. “More,” I say. Two more tiny steps. I snap the shot, turn the camera so they both can see themselves. “A-ha-ha-ha-ha!” The old monk laughs and laughs.

They take us inside and soon I am being asked to take a picture of this thing and that thing. They ask me if I like the color. They explain that the women pray on one side and the men on the other. They are generous and eager to share. A neighbor, who has specifically asked to have his picture taken with the Divine Eye tells the guide that he wishes to buy me a drink. We politely decline. We must return to our canoe; the cruise boat is waiting for us.

As the monks walk us to the gate they tell us that in November of every year there is a special ceremony to pray for peace throughout the world. Thousands of people come to the temple.

“Maybe I’ll come back then,” I say. I bow slightly to thank them. They nod to me, “Yes, yes.”





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the eye in you, Divine Eye from a temple, symbol of the Cao Dai religion of south Vietnam, August 30, 2008, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.




I swear to God, there were times when I really did think of Mary of the Grains and thank QuoinMonkey of the Fair for the haiku she sent out to me before I left for the Mekong Delta.

Thank you, Mary. Thank you, QM.

Thank you, God.

First, thank you for getting me through the harrowing three-hour drive on mostly two lanes shared equally by throngs of cars, semi-trucks, tourist buses, tourist vans, motorcycles, bicycles, tricycles carrying baskets and grains and everything else, and even children and chickens on foot. (A three-hour tour, a three-hour tour…the weather started getting rough…) My God. All I could think was, I will never do this again, at least not on a holiday weekend.

Second, once you delivered me safely to the drop-off point at the boat, I began my own little private silent retreat, except better. A beautiful, 24-passenger capacity boat shared by me and a respectful Japanese couple who knew very little English. Three passengers and the crew who took care of us. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Third, dreading the return drive home, I discovered it was only half the distance (the boat made up the other half) and as soon as my driver started speeding off into the mayhem, I leaned forward, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Mr. Chin, no fast, please.” And you know what? He didn’t. (Yes, I will do it again some day, leaving an hour earlier the morning of, so that we’re not nearly so rushed.)

QM, many moments over the weekend I was reminded of life and death, beauty and humanity. More than one of those moments I thought of you and Mary. I truly and really did. Again, thank you.

Oh, and a full description to come. Soon. With photos.

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