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Day 4, Cai Be and Sa Dec


The Mekong is a busy river, and few were the times during our trip when other ships or boats couldn’t be seen. Even at night, there were always other vessels out on the water. Unless you live or work right along a major waterway like the Mississippi, it’s difficult to understand just how important the river is. It’s infrastructure, it’s a natural resource, and for many Vietnamese, it’s also a home.
The Cai Be district of the Mekong Delta and its principal town, Sa Dec, bring this importance into relief. Our visit to this area was conducted entirely aboard a sampan that docked with our anchored ship and brought us to various places ashore. During our time in this region, supplies for the ship arrived by sampan, as did a troupe of traditional singers who came by night from somewhere ashore — in heavy rain, while the ship was underway — and left the same way. Apparently if you want to be an entertainer in rural Vietnam, you’d best be a passable river sailor as well.

Boats in the Mekong Delta come in all sizes, from the big tugs, barges, and dredgers that move sand and silt for concrete and fertilizer, to the little 12′ sampans that serve as everyday transportation. One thing almost all of the traditional designs have in common, though, is a long, thin, shallow form factor, and, painted in red on their upturned prows, eyes. Explanations for the painted eyes range from a harking back to when there were crocodiles in the river (the crocs are now gone due to hunting), to a folk belief that the eyes can help the boat see its way home, to another folk belief that a boat with eyes gains a sort of life force, making it faster and more vigorous. How seriously anyone takes these beliefs is hard to say, but the people of the Delta do keep no shortage of customs that we’d deem superstitious (snake blood moonshine, anyone?).

Our sampan had an inboard engine and forward steering wheel, but typical work sampans have a tiller mounted directly to an unenclosed engine block, which in turn sprouts a drive shaft housing that ends in a perpendicular propeller. It’s a design that looks strikingly odd and jury rigged, until you realize that almost everyone’s boat is like this. Part of this is improvisation with limited resources, but it’s also a practical design, a natural evolution of the long poles or sculling oars that would have been used to propel these boats before the advent of engines. The engine/tiller is operated from a standing position, the boaters maneuvering with them much as they would with an oar. The unenclosed engine block probably both helps with cooling and makes maintenance easier. I was surprised by how little rust most sported; the boaters must keep them well greased.

Sa Dec, the main provincial town of the Cai Be district, has been gifted by the river with dense banks of clay, and as such does a brisk commerce in bricks. But Sa Dec’s many brick factories owe their existence not just to the clay, but to another local resource — the delta’s innumerable rice farms. The big, conical brick kilns in factories lining the river banks use abundant, locally available rice husks for fuel. Bricks produced by this relatively low-tech method take 55-60 days to fire, and another 10 to cool. It takes about 150 tons of husks to bake a batch.

Rice husks fuel local cottage industries, too, such as the salt boiling and candy making shops we saw in one of the nearby villages. Any industry where a slow burning, low heat fire works uses the husks. At about $6/ton, the fuel to get them where they’re needed often costs more than the husks themselves.

Provincial Vietnamese are about as family-oriented a people as you’ll find anywhere. Even workshops and factories have small shrines. In the Sa Dec brick factory we visited, the tombs of the factory’s founders are actually in the factory, behind a stack of cement bags and other supplies! If the factory owner wants his father’s counsel on an important business deal, or if he’s just having a rough day, he can walk over and talk to his tomb.

The willingness to make sacrifices for family goes beyond funereal tradition, and may seem even important now that Vietnam’s two child rule has begun to reduce family sizes, which up until recently were quite large. Vietnam is starting to have the same male/female imbalance problem as China, made worse by illegal matchmakers who go to the villages trying to find brides for Chinese and Taiwanese bachelors.

Our guide, Thinh, though, was the youngest of ten. He was the only one in his family to finish high school and go to Unversityi. About 40% of his family’s rice harvest went to supporting him at school in Saigon, while the rest of the country, living in the Delta, lived off the remainder.

We finished our visit with a walk through the Sa Dec street market to the home of Huynh Thuy Le, the eponymous paramour of Marguerite Duras’ novella, The Lover. Amid the constant flow of foot and motorbike traffic, I spotted a kid wearing an old American GI helmet yo ride his scooter. The Vietnamese draw on some protein sources westerners would turn their noses up at, from frogs (even the Frenchman in our group cringed at the sight of these being skinned alive), to river fish (being killed and gutted right there; the air was redolent), to rats (which, skinned, look like small birds until you get a closer look).

I was a bit embarrassed by some of the faces pulled by my traveling companions in the market. It’d be rather like if you were trying to shop at the supermarket and a group of foreigners were pointing and making disgusted faces at the stuff in your cart. You’d like to think travel industry people would have better etiquette, but so it goes… And to be fair, they weren’t warned.

The house of Huynh Thuy Le wasn’t what I envisioned from Duras’ novella. I suppose I’d expected something bigger, situated on a hill. Chinese, mostly from Fuxing, were a large minority in colonial Indochina — politically weak, but wealthy. The house is in the style of Fuxing province. I can’t say it looked like a comfortable place to live, but the collection of antiques was interesting. The large family shrine at the center overwhelms the space, making me wonder if Le’s indiscretions had anything to do with the oppressiveness of his father’s home.

After the Communist victory, the house was confiscated by the government — the fate of many Chinese merchants’ homes under the new regime. For a time, it was a governor’s house, then later a police station. Now it’s a tourist attraction. If you visit, read Duras’ book first. It’s worth reading, and I’m not sure the house is all that interesting if you haven’t.

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