Day 4, Cai Be and Sa Dec
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.
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.
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).
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.