11 January 2014

Cần Thờ and the Mekong Delta

Friday, January 10; Day 40 in-country

We (friend and Cần Thơ native Mimi and I) boarded an early-morning bus from HCMC to Cần Thơ and the Mekong Delta. Mimi is an elementary school teacher in HCMC whose school recently closed. Her new job starts after Chinese New Year, so she has the month of January off. She was, therefore, available to show me her home town from a local's perspective, so I jumped at the opportunity.

One of two Westerners on the filled-to-capacity 45-seat motorcoach, I got to experience a large screen presentation of a Vietnamese variety show and a sitcom. The reminded me of "The Carol Burnett Show" and the campy "Three's Company" with the soundtracks scrambled and the volume turned way up. Fortunately, there was a speaker on/off button above my seat, so I was able to reduce the apparent volume. I'm very thankful it wasn't karaoke. 

We arrived in Cần Thơ after a four-hour ride (120,000 VND; ~US$6), and took a taxi to the Phú Uy Hotel. I checked in and rested for an hour while Mimi went home to pick up her scooter. Ninety minutes later she took me on an interesting tour of her city, followed by a very good Vietnamese seafood dinner of steamed clams, grilled fresh prawns, and oysters reminscient of Oysters Rockefeller without the bacon. We were serenaded from a distance by spurts of music interspersed with much talking. Since I was completely clueless as to the message conveyed and my back was to the performers, I listened to the tones and inflections of their voices. 

I noticed, as I had in previous similar situations, that there were a number of instances where, had the voices been speaking a Western language, I would have thought the performer (or at least his character) was either very angry or batshit crazy. Since it was in Vietnamese, I guessed that he was simply speaking dramaticly. It's hard to describe and I wish I could give you an audio clip, but I just now thought of that, so we're SOL. 

Since Mimi was right across the table and her English is quite good, I decided to ask her about it. My theory as presented to her: English is a language in which we convey meaning by words. We use tone and inflection to designate a question, emotion, emphasis, and even disbelief. For example, remember how your Mom's tone and inflection changed from the first time she called you for dinner to the third.... or the fourth. I'll bet the volume increased just a bit, too.

In Vietnamese, as I 'understand' it, uses tones to differentiate words that to the Western ear, sound the same. To do this, they use many different versions of what we might say are the same letter. For example: 
   a) "Bà" is used to address an older person. It is spoken with a downward inflection on the à.
   b) "Ba" is their word for the number three. It is spoken with a flat tone.
To the untrained (my) ear, the difference is virtually indistinguishable and the only help is context.

Therefore, I continued, when I heard the male performer speak in what sounded to me like an angry voice, he was just talking. Without anger. In fact, I was told that what he said was funny. They use volume to emphasize because tone is already in use.


Of the many cultural differences I experience daily, volume and omnipresent cigarettes are the two that are the hardest for me to assimilate. It seems that many things here operate at a standard high (I'm guessing 90+ decibels) sound level: vehicle horns, TV, traffic, and even conversations. Music seems best enjoyed at 150+ dB. Much louder and it would peel paint... Re cigarettes, don't get me started! The world's only legal product that when used exactly as directed is guaranteed to kill you, is so much a part of the male culture that without any visible advertising by tobacco companies, my unscientific observation is that 85+% of Vietnamese men smoke. I am, consequently, constantly changing seats in restaurants and sometimes even ducking clouds of poison gas as I walk down the street. This percentage seems higher in Hà Nôi than Sâi Gòn.

The cigarette smoke is probably the only thing keeping me from listing my house for sale, selling or giving away most of my worldly possessions, and moving here. That and the legal restrictions on motorcycle engine displacement... 

In many ways, Cần Thơ looks like many other Vietnamese cities of its size. One huge positive difference is that the Mekong River runs through it and planners left a number of large, open, public access spaces via which residents and visitors have access to the scenic river. The Mekong is a WIDE river. It's been years since I've seen the Ohio or Mississippi Rivers, though I remember then as less wide than this... and it's definitely wider than the Columbia at Portland, Oregon.

We used one of the parks to get to the boat dock where we caught our tour boat to the famous floating village. Since Mimi had arranged for our exclusive use of the boat, we were able to enjoy the ride with plenty of elbow room and the luxury of ours being the only voices heard... 

a quiet ride, not counting the diesel engine mid-boat that was soon tuned out. A perfect early-morning boat ride--if I'd thought to offer the captain a big tip at the beginning, payable at the end for not smoking the whole f*cking way... :)

This is Mimi

These are a few of the boats she could have chosen

I think she picked the one best-suited to me and she hardly knew me...

The ride downriver made for some interesting sightseeing

About 30-minutes downstream from our starting point, we slowed and entered the floating village--dozens of boats involved in buying and selling, mostly on a wholesale scale. Each selling boat's occupants specialized in one, maybe two, items: cabbages; onions, potatoes, or another root vegetable; melons; squash; bananas and so on. Buyers' boats would pull along side, inspect the produce, agree on a price, and transfer the purchased items by hand, often one-by-one. Since I did not observe each item being weighed, my guess is that individually-transferred items (e.g. melons) were sold by the piece. Large sacks of root vegetables were weighed prior to transfer and sold by the kilo.

There were even food vendors

And a floating convenience store:

The photos would, of course, be brighter without the hazy winter overcast... and an overall floating market phot would be possible from a bigger boat. If pigs had wings, they could fly...

I was especially intrigued, as I often him in this country, by the ingenuity of the local peoples and their ability to adapt what they have to get to do what they need.

This is the throttle controll for our tour boat

This is the engine from one of the bigger boats we saw this day. The shaft at left drives the propeller...

as seen here (the Captain was lowering the propeller into the water as I took the shot)

Upon our return to dry land, I checked out of the hotel and we had an early lunch at a nice place where, again, I was the only Westerner. I forgot to write down the name, so I will email Mimi and post it here when I hear back from her. 

The final stop was to be at a fruit grove, but when Mimi told me they also have a small zoo there, with animals in cages, I told her that I preferred not to go. She expressed a bit of surprise until I told her that in my mind zoos are simply prisons for animals.  I explained that I think they are abominable because the animals have done nothing to merit their life sentence of complete deprivation of freedom.

This ray of sunshine took an earlier bus that was only about half full

and arrived back in Ho Chi Minh City in time for an early dinner.

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