I love rivers. Traveling along a river allows me to witness vignettes of life without disrupting it. Sometimes I feel as if I'm in the middle of my very own National Geographic special. Several years ago I sailed down the Nile for six days on a traditional boat, a felucca. Life along the Nile is timeless; it has changed little since biblical times. A man in a flowing djellabah flicks a switch on the rump of a grain-laden donkey to prod him toward some unseen destination, much the same as his father and his father before him. Egypt is timeless, caught in an earlier era when it was the center of the world.
After my Nile trip, I was unprepared for the Mekong River. The delta area is a hive of activity. Vietnam is not stuck in the past--everyone is determinedly moving forward. Yes, there are some indelible scenes that have changed little through the generations, but mostly I had a sense of progress. I savored my bucolic glimpses of the past because I know Vietnam is changing. Bikes will become motor bikes to be replaced by cars; a ferry will be replaced by a bridge; all irrigation will be automated--the area is rushing, rushing into the future, not wallowing in the past. And of course, there is the noise, honking horns and the tuk-tuk of motor boats; and everywhere, everyone and everything is in perpetual motion.
In the midst of this whirlwind activity, just a short boat ride from Vinh Long, is Binh Hoa Phuoc Island. The boat ride to this island paradise is full of photo opportunities; red-eyed boats piled impossibly high with rice move downriver, a "long-tail" filled with produce putts by on its way to the local market, a lady in a conical hat stands in the aft of a boat effortlessly rowing with the current.
As we turned off the main river into one of the many canals that lace the delta island, I sensed the difference. The closeness of the tropical growth along the shore brings quietness, a feeling of relaxation and a sense of being protected. It is as if we took a deep sigh and decided to slow down and relax.
On shore we visit a beautiful bonsai garden; and, even though it is a popular tourist destination, I feel that we are their long-awaited guests - their only guests. Wandering throughthe garden we discuss the differences between the Japanese-style bonsai featuring miniature trees and the Vietnamese bonsai. Hereare larger, flowering bonsai presented in pairs. The owner greets us with a big smile as he offers hishand in welcome. I just know he and his family have been waiting forus... just us. We are invited into his house for some tea and wine. My husband is offered snake wine that is politely declined as we vividly recall the bottles of wine we have seen with snakes coiled up in the bottom.
A plate of fruit accompanies the wine. In Vietnam we discover a whole new world of fruit: the crimson-skinned dragon fruit, jack fruit and longans from the same family as litchis. All wonderful new taste treats. I add my business card to the hundreds of others under the glass covering the table, amazed that so many people have found this garden paradise.
Lunch is ready. As we cross a very narrow irrigation ditch a lady with a net tries to nab a fish. She gets one - too small. She lets it flop back into the water. Finally she gets just the right one and off it goes to the kitchen. I have a new appreciation for the term "fresh fish."
In the orchard we dine in a gazebo that enhances the feeling that only we know about this hidden getaway. We dine slowly, the food is delicious; there is no need to hurry. The world has come to a standstill, there is just us in the whole world, time is of no importance. Quietly, the dishes are removed and a plate of fruit signals the end of the meal.
Reluctantly we bid farewell, wander down the path past the cactus plants that provide the dragon fruit. We wander through the longan orchard into one of the oldest houses on the island. Once again we are greeted with hospitality. I hesitate to sit on what looks like museum-quality furniture; the rich dark wood is inlaid with iridescent mother-of-pearl. It isn't easy to find room for the tea and fruit that is offered. A Cao Dai family altar is the center of the room. We leave and I notice another guest coming up the path to be welcomed by the owner. I wonder how many others have passed this way, but I have not lost the feeling of being part of a unique experience.
The tide has gone out. Our boat had been moved downstream so we wander along the path that hugs the shore. We pass a home enclosed with a tropical hedge giving it the cozy look of a cottage in the English countryside. The hot afternoon sun filters down through the trees offering some respite from the midday heat. All too soon we are back in the boat and back into the mainstream, literally and figuratively. If only there were more time to explore all the waterways, to visit all the orchards and farms, to just wander the footpaths, to stop and greet people and make new friends.
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