I lay motionless in the wooden bed watching the giant praying mantis try to free itself from the webbing of the pink mosquito net. The drone of the electric fan in the room drowning the voices of the people outside. I could feel movement as the last remaining minutes of daylight passing through the small cracks of the shack gets blocked by bodies shuffling here and there. In the back of my head I was trying to convince myself that everything would be alright. Why wouldn’t it be, this trip was supposed to be one of those great Family Holiday Deals in Vietnam, you know, fun for the whole family.
I didn’t think much of it as we were separated earlier that day from the rest of the group. Most of the tourists opted for the usual hotel accommodation whereas I insisted on the “home stay”option, feeling like a VIP, since i paid extra for the option, not thinking that the lives of my other companions would also be put at stake! Excitement was even heightened as we boarded the small motorized sampan that will take us to the exclusive and fabulous villas.
The first five minutes of the ride gave us a quick whiff of the river culture that dominated the lives of the Vietnamese people. I felt like Osmosis Jones tunneling through the veins of the Vietnamese culture as I watched them bathe, fish, wash and defecate in the river that serves as its lifeblood – a complex circulatory system at work. But excitement slowly turned to fear as the river became narrower and the houses along the river banks were replaced by dense patches of palm trees and mangroves.
I felt my hair grew longer, my chest developed two huge lumps, and my lips started to tingle from what seemed like a permanent pout. My rubber slippers were replaced by hiking boots as my shorts started to shrink until it was barely enough to cover my crotch. I could feel a wedgie but soon realized that it was from the red thong. My hips were heavy and as I reached down I felt a 45 caliber semi automatic strapped to each side – I was Lara Croft – and it made me feel better! I was ready for whatever adventure would come our way.
After about 30 minutes, which seemed like an eternity of hallucination to mask the fear, the sampan slowed and prepared to dock to a makeshift station, literally a concrete slab protruding from the river bank. I was the last one to alight as i had to keep watch over the perimeter, hands placed on my sides, ready to draw my 45’s (the Mekong river must’ve some hallucinogenic properties or could be the fumes I inhaled from the diesel engine of the sampan). We arrived at our destination.
The house was across the dock separated by a narrow gravel road only big enough for motorcycles. It wasn’t so bad, but it wasn’t the Cayman Islands either. We entered a normal looking concrete house and my apprehensions started to subside a little, as my breasts started to look normal and I was back to my old self again. We entered the gate and was greeted by Thao’s family, the guy who captained the sampan, and our host. The customary hi’s and hello’s were exchanged followed by sign languages directing us to our villas located at the back of the house. Thank goodness, for a moment there I thought we were all sleeping together in the same house, huddled in one large straw mat!
As for the villas, they were beautifully appointed, light and breezy, studio-type rustic accommodations with a view of the bay, made from indigenous materials accentuated by floral interiors with a touch of minimalism. But as the effects of the diesel fumes started to wear off, I realized that there is only word to describe the villa – SHACK – and it was facing the swamp! Unfazed, I tried to look at the bright side of this trip … ahhh …. uh-mm …. ehrr…. In the middle of thinking about the bright side of the trip my mind got tired that I had to lie in bed.
There I was lying in bed, contemplating, as my mind started to play tricks on me again with sounds of Huey helicopters and Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” when I was brought back to reality by my partner holding a glass of Vietnamese iced coffee, which in this part of the world they only call iced coffee or as the locals say cà phê sữa đá, now that’s a pleasantly, bright surprise! As our host prepared dinner we chatted with Tom, a fellow traveler who also wanted to experience the home stay option. Tom is Vietnamese from Hanoi and was traveling to Ho Chi Minh in preparation for setting up his own adventure travel packages. He is a gift because he can communicate in English as well as Vietnamese, Chinese and Khmer.
After a few minutes our host, Thao, motioned us to the outdoor table set up where dinner was served. It was a modest dinner, spring rolls, rice paper, vegetables, rice noodles, and the piece-de-resistance – steamed elephant ear fish freshly caught from the Mekong. Thao and Tom showed us how to eat the rice paper. They loaded it with vegetables, rice noodle and a bit of the steamed fish, sprinkled a bit of fish sauce with crushed chilies, rolled it up and voila – fresh spring rolls. Thao brought out rice wine and offered us all a shot. Other drinks like waster, sodas and beers were also offered at a reasonable price. The rice wine is a welcomed addition considering where the fish came from. We didn’t want to offend our host and one can never be too careful about what they eat or drink in unfamiliar places. Alcohol should do good in cleansing the toxins off whatever we have eaten.
We chatted a bit with our host after dinner as he served tea. After a few minutes we all made our excuses and proceeded to get ready for bed.
The shower and toilet is another adventure. They were communal and located about 10 steps away from our villa. There were 2 showers and 2 toilets shared among occupants of 7 shacks. Luckily we were the only guests that night, 4 of us, my partner’s mom and aunt, my partner and myself, and Tom. The path from the shacks leading to the toilets were lit with 5 watt incandescent bulbs to add to the mood. There was hot water that flowed ever so slowly it took 2 hours for each of us to get rid of the day’s dirt. By the time we were all finished showering there was nothing else to do but sleep. Lulled by the sound of crickets and occasional barks of dogs, thankful for the day’s adventure, we snoozed in anticipation of the rendezvous along the Mekong the next day.
TO BE CONTINUED – Lara Croft Meets James Bond on the Mekong Floating Market.
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