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Up and down the Mekong Delta

 

For anyone captivated by the idea a tropical river cruise, a trip on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta doesn’t disappoint. On board the vintage, wooden-sided Bassac II, I was channelling Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen.

The Mekong Delta, end point of the 4,500-kilometre-long river that has its source in the mountains of Tibet, is known as Vietnam’s rice bowl. The Mekong here is called Song Cuu Long, the River of Nine Dragons, for its many branches on the vast delta. The two main tributaries, watery highways for serious freight transportation, are the Hau Giang (Lower River) or Bassac River, and the Tien Giang or Upper River. My daughter Jenny and I elected to take the day cruise up to Can Tho and back down on the Bassac, boarding at Cai Be, a bustling port that’s a four-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City.

The delta is a populous part of the country, both on and off the water. We grew used to the sounds of karaoke voices pumping out from villages behind a wall of thick jungle greenery as we steamed upstream over lush outgrowths of water lilies. In the towns on the delta, people inhabit stilted houses on the river banks, or they ply their wares at floating markets, as tourist cameras flash. Thirsty? You can order up a fresh coconut cut and served by the lady who poles her launch between larger craft offering onions, potatoes, greens, fish, meat, whatever. The floating merchants live on their boats too.

Our guide Anh took us ashore to walk a short path into a village where homes were surrounded with pens for pigs, ducks and chickens. Fruits cultivated here include bananas, jack fruit, mangoes, papaya and much more. Along the way we learned how Vietnamese growers in the south can get three harvests of rice out of the huge paddies that cover the delta. It’s women’s work, we heard, as Anh pulled no punches about life in the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Women here in the south also raise the children and keep house.

Throughout Vietnam these days, it’s Mammon over Marx. Despite a roaring economy, with annual GDP growth of more than 6 percent, the average citizen must work very hard to make ends meet. There are no government pensions, no medicare and those who wish proper health care and education for their children must pay for it, sometimes in bribes to insure proper care in hospital. The hoarded-up (prior to Tet celebrations) huge statue of Ho Chi Minh in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City became a symbol of how far this communist state has strayed from the ideals established by its first leader. Ho Chi Minh, who served as president of North Vietnam from 1945 to 1969, died before his country achieved victory in the American War and reunification of the north and south parts of the country, which didn’t happen until July 2, 1976.

Amid the buzz of construction and commerce – universal in Vietnam – there is room for peace and prayer in some spectacular temples on the delta. Most unusual for this part of the world is in the Cao Dai temple in Cai Be. Decorated in an Eastern rococo style, the Cao Dai temple is dedicated to a religion unique to Vietnam. A fusion of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, Cao Dai also displays elements of Christianity and Islam. Its monks and nuns all wear white and the most prominent symbol is a single eye, signifying an all-seeing divine power or God.

In Can Tho, a city with a population of 1.52 million, three outstanding temples are evidence of  the return of religion to the centre of life in a country where the communist government once banned all religious observance. The biggest and most typical of Vietnam is Pitu Kohsa Rangsay Pagoda, a massive edifice featuring huge statues of the Buddha and four levels of worship. On the top floor, the carved wooden monks, gathered as if attending the last supper, add a human touch.

A helpful young monk took us on a brief tour of the Khmer pagoda called Pitu Kohsa Rangsay, radiant in its gold leaf covering. The abbot invited us to rest, drink tea and invited questions on the practice of Theravada Buddhism, practised mainly in Cambodia. He delineated the major differences between different strands of Buddhism practised in southeast Asia. Their objectives don’t differ and when followers from different countries meet as a group, he said, “we converse in Pali, the language of the Buddha.”

Our last stop in Can Thu before reboarding Bassac II was the Chinese Ong Temple, facing the Mekong and easily identified by the Chinese characters and iconography decorating its front. Inside, disciples keep incense burning around the clock and tend to altars to different deities and local heroes. The temple was built in the 19th century for worship of Kuan Kung, a deity associated with intelligence, honesty, confidence, virtue and faithfulness. Many offerings were piled up in front of the Goddess of Fortune and the Kul-Am Buddha.

Getting There: to book a Bassac tour, go to http://www.travelvietnam.com

Photos from top left, clockwise: a Bassac touring boat, Cao Dai temple, incense in the Ong temple, a monk and law student at Pitu Kohsa Rangsay temple, a merchant hawks her wares near Can Tho

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Three days in Hanoi

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In a city of contrasts, a tourist visiting Hanoi can in the space of a few hours experience the sacred and the crassly commercial, the high anxiety of negotiating anarchic traffic and the splendid tranquility of a walk around an inner-city lake.

On this second visit to the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, having already taken in the mandatory sights of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum, the Imperial Citadel and historic sites such as the Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners of war, I got dropped off at the tiny, perfect Den Ngoc Son temple across a picturesque bridge in Hoan Kiem Lake, just south of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Amid the bustling preparations for the lunar new year, Tet, to come, visitors and worshippers flock to this legendary location. In the 15th century, Lê Lói, who became emperor and founder of the Lê dynasty, was on this lake when he received the magic sword, Heaven’s Will, from the Golden Turtle god, Kim Qui. Thus did Vietnam gain independence from China. Later Lê Lói returned the sword to the turtle god, giving Hoan Kiem its name, which means “Lake of the Returned Sword.”

Next stop is the Temple of Literature, not exactly what an English major might expect, but a complex of courtyards, monuments and temples dedicated to Confucian teachings and scholars. Explanatory panels in the central courtyard present archival documents and photographs of the French occupation of the city, which started in 1873. Within 12 years, the Concession was complete and the ancient capital, first established by the invading Chinese army in the seventh century as the Red River fort, was a mirror image of a 19th-century French capital. Vietnam, forever conquered and then repelling invaders including the Chinese, the French and the Americans, or ruled over by authoritarian royal families, presents a perfect case study in the nature of power.

The Women’s Museum, on a main street in the Hoan Kiem district, earns its reputation as the best museum in the city. Outstandingly curated displays on four floors, take us through centuries of female influence from marriage and family, to women’s participation in war and revolution, to the development of women’s fashions. Most inspiring is the history of Vietnamese women’s involvement in combat from 1945 to 1975. A typical heroine is Kan Lich, who directed a female guerilla force against American troops at 18 and was honoured in 1968 as a Hero of the Nation for participating in 49 battles and bringing down an American Dakota plane.

Beyond the centre of Hanoi and well worth the short taxi ride is the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, where detailed reconstructions of minority habitats and customs give the visitor a very clear picture of the Vietnamese population. Fifty-three ethnic minorities, divided into five main groups, make up the contemporary population of Vietnam. The majority, Viet or Kinh peoples, account for 87 percent of the 95.5 million population (as of 2017). The arts and crafts and traditional lifestyles of minorities such as the Red Dao or the Black Hmong are all on display here, but are best appreciated with a visit to their homelands, mostly in mountainous regions of the country.

Strolling through the old quarter of Hanoi in January you’ll quickly get a taste of what a huge occasion Tet is. The coming Year of the Pig, will be very lucky for those born in such a year, and as you wind your way through busy, narrow streets some of them specializing in the sale of silver, silk, stationery or flowers, you can feel part of the celebrations. And after a day of dodging scooters and cars on the streets of Hanoi, no better place for a final stop than at Body and Soul spa, where I experienced the best massage ever.

From top: Den Ngoc Son temple; Temple of Literature; Yao family relic, Museum of Ethnology; Kan Lich, Women’s Museum

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