A few years ago, I wrote about coming upon the Tigris River and feeling as if I had achieved some sort of life goal. I remembered Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels, my first travel, adventure, photographic account of the explorer’s world. I remembered the Fertile Crescent and the establishment of agricultural societies. All that fascinated me.
Yesterday I visited the Mekong River and recalled a far different inducement to remember: the PT sailors, the ambushes, the gunboat battles, the protests at home, Kent State, the knee that left me unfit to serve, all of that. The sight of the river is a singular example of the ambivalence someone like me feels here. I am almost embarrassed, perhaps ashamed, that not a single Vietnamese has betrayed anything but friendly acknowledgment to me, not standing in the War Remnants Museum before pictures of the diabolically horrid disabilities imposed by Agent Orange, not by the two veteran Viet Cong at whose house near the Cu Chi tunnels we enjoyed a delicious lunch this afternoon. The Viet Cong officers and the pair of veterans in our group shook hands warmly and had their picture taken, shoulder to shoulder. Comrades in arms.
And so, on this pictorial day on the Mekong, the pictures may strike you as neutral or friendly; they may awaken memories you’d rather not encounter today; they may invite you to assess how much time has passed since the end of the war and what that passage means.
We drove two hours southeast of Saigon, stopping along the way at a rest area whose accommodations we hadn’t considered. In a nation of scooters, how can a driver pull over and take a ten minute nap if he hasn’t got a sedan with a reclining seat.? The answer:
Our first view of the Mekong came from a tall bridge:
Climbing aboard the river at the tourist dock is far too easy. We traveled by sampan, and to get to the sampan, we hiked through a jungle village. This was no slog; rather, we were always on a concrete path that negotiated the swamps, pits, and snaky parts for us. We were in greater danger from motor bikes than from wild things.
The tributary runs into the Mekong about two miles down stream. This portion of the river is 30 miles or so from the delta, yet the river is already miles wide, littered with islands, refreshed every second by the scores of rivulets that speed into the main current at every turn. Still, the tributary itself–though rapid enough–is a thoroughly quiet, serene, shaded, calming place. Here:
Maybe a fork in the river is a good place to take a break.We’ll return with the invention of the Coconut Religion and other river experiences in A Day on the Mekong II.