We sat low in a wooden sampan between water coconut trees that crowded in on us as we glided down the narrow, silty canal. Our boatman’s oar dipped in and out of the water, birds chattered like monkeys among the fronds and roosters crowed to each other as if warning those ahead of our intrusion.
I posted a 10-sec video on Instagram and a friend back home likened it to Apocalypse Now. Apt comparison that I was surprised hadn’t occurred to me since a lot of the tourist experience in Vietnam revolves around discussing the War.
The day we spent in the Mekong Delta, though, was a break from war talk as we focused on the life of the coconut farmer and the red tilapia or catfish fisherman. Earlier that morning, before rowing down the canal, we’d driven a few hours south of Ho Chi Minh City to take a half hour motor boat ride on one of the nine river tributaries that meet in the delta.
Fishing nets are strung up onto posts, and little tiki huts along the banks serve as additional traps. Our guide told us they were chicken traps but when I exclaimed, “Chicken traps!” D quietly repeated that the man was “checking. the. traps.”
Our pilot cut the motor as we approached a lone fisherman anchored in the river, and called out to him in Vietnamese. The guy grinned and pulled a green net bag out of the water, twice the size of the ones our moms used to take shopping. We put down our coconut-water-in-a-coconut drink to congratulate him on his catch of a single squilla, which looks like a spindly lobster or a gargantuan shrimp. After reading up, I’m not entirely sure squilla live in the Mekong, so there’s a good chance I once again misheard the guide, or that fisherman kept one as a pet that he showed off to tourists.
Our destination was a coconut farm and we clambered off the boat onto a springy pile of coconut husks. As we watched, a worker impaled a young green coconut onto a comically large spear sticking straight up from the ground and with a few quick twists, tossed the husk on one pile and the coconut core on the other. That is step one of many in the mostly manual process of this farm. The hairy coconuts go to a group of women who further strip them of fibre and pass them on to stages which might include draining the coconut water or pressing the meat for milk or oil. The fibre gets spun into rope and the husks are used to help grow orchids. The leaves and wood of coconut trees (palm trees are different) are dried and used as fuel. It’s nose to tail coconut tree production.
After the coconut farm, we bumped along a track in the back of an open-framed cattle cart to a local house for fresh mango, pineapple, pomelo and banana, then took the Apocalypse Now canal ride to another house. There, the owner prepared a multi-course lunch of noodle soup, flaky spring rolls, do-it-yourself rice paper rolls with flesh pulled from a whole baked fish, rice and noodle dishes and finished with mini bananas (called bananas here) before returning to the city.
Heading back to Ho Chi Minh City is to leave the peace and hospitality of the Mekong behind and pick up talk of the War. Although I’ve purposely stayed away from discussing it here (our short time as tourists in no way qualifies me to understand its complexities), it was fascinating to hear the varied local perspectives as we moved from north to south. What everyone agreed on, however, is that Ho Chi Minh City is still called Saigon although the reasons might range from expediency (it is shorter than the official name) to minor political rebellion. Even that is layered: a newspaper headline the day of our Mekong trip was “Thief from Saigon caught by Ho Chi Minh police.”