Along the Border

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Twilight on the Mekong Delta
Twilight on the Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Travel, unlike most other aspects of normal life, feeds expectation. We treat unfamiliar destinations with a mixture of trepidation and eagerness for what they will bring to our humdrum lives, bad or good, in a way that we wouldn’t consider when, say, catching the 07.58 to Carlisle or joining a string of commuter traffic into work.

Some, like me, prepare too carefully for all eventualities and, sad to say, enjoy a successful trip as much for the fact that the plans worked out as for the location itself and the experiences involved. Others travel in blissful ignorance, almost daring a destination, or the journey, to throw at them what it can, if they weren’t so unconscious of the consequences of their decisions, or the lack of them or, for that matter, where they actually are.

But all travellers revel most in taking on opportunities for doing something different; even more the opportunities for doing something unexpected and different. When expectation has less time to kick in, the rewards can be that much greater. We enjoy least of all the mundane; not so much the day-to-day existences of other cultures – that’s the point of travel after all – but the lack of distraction that allows us to drift back into our own everyday lives. One of the other joys of travel is that the transition from one to the other can be swift.

And so we arrived in Chau Doc, the last town in the Mekong Delta before Vietnamese water turns into Cambodian water, cold, insect-bitten and dazed from ten hours on the deck of a riverboat, gazing out at an endless and slow-moving vista of brown liquid and reeds, interrupted only by rafts of water hyacinths and other flotsam and the occasional boat or canoe.

The last few hours had been the worst, as twilight approached and a headwind blew up, forcing sweaters on and driving a storm of insects into our faces. The boat had been designed to maximise the number of seats on deck, minimising competition for spaces outside, which meant rows of small plastic chairs and hard wooden benches. But at this time of the evening the struggle was for the limited spaces in the cabin, above the engine and behind the crewhand who stood passively at the wheel. I had briefly investigated it but decided I preferred the elements rather than the dark fug of huddled young travellers inside.

So eventually, after about an hour, I found my body contorting with the cold and my face fixed into a rictus, mouth determinedly closed and eyes just narrow slits against the steady onslaught of insects, scanning the horizon for the lights of our destination. And in that trance-like state, broken only by some alarmingly large insects with painfully hard shells, I drifted into workaday thoughts of jobs about the house, salary and bills.

Once in Chau Doc the crewhand, mistaking the mood of his passengers and perhaps just trying to make up for the misery of the last few hours, decided we should be rewarded by a slow tour of the town’s outskirts while we were still on the boat. Some alarmed glances were shared between my neighbours on deck but no-one had the energy to question what was happening and at least the wind had dropped as we twisted and turned through the canals and between the floating homes of the watery settlement.

Chau Doc
Chau Doc

Chau Doc, being a border town, had a bustle about it that had evaded the last fifty or sixty kilometres of waterway, though that wasn’t saying very much. The local Cham population, one of the ethnic minorities assimilated by the Vietnamese in their conquest of the country during the middle ages, exploited the advantages of their geographical location through cross-border trade. Many of them also specialised in a form of fish-farming, nurturing catfish that swam in nets beneath houses that floated on oil drums, anchored to the river floor.

The river cruise by night, with the opportunity to peer into the lit interiors of the waterborne shops and houses (actually, there was little distinction between them as nearly all small enterprises in Vietnam are family-run) would have been interesting in other circumstances. In the atmospheric glow of single bulbs or candles a series of still lives was presented to us. Families cooked, ate, played cards, relaxed in conversation or carried out their ablutions, oblivious to the prying tourists gliding by. And beneath them, one could only imagine the cauldron of fish ready to bring the black water to the boil at the toss of a scrap of food.

But my cold, contorted limbs made this opportunity at best a distraction from the desperate need to move about and stretch myself. Around every canal corner I looked longingly for the lights and crowds that would signify the centre of the town and the dock on which we might disembark. And then, exiting from a particularly dark row of warehouses, I realised that the boat had rejoined the main waterway on which it had entered and within a hundred metres or so, drew alongside a concrete pier on which a new challenge awaited.

The dockside was swarming with local people ready to tout for business in their hotels and restaurants, their shapes silhouetted by the lights of the town behind. Even before the boat tied up a cacophony of Vietnamese and pidgin-English rose up and, as my eyes became acclimatised to the glare of the lights, a moving wall of writhing arms extended to help us, and our rucksacks, onto land and then whisk both away before negotiations on price could be settled with anyone else.

I had already earmarked accommodation in the town, though not booked it, and experience told me to head for that, asking for directions once we were away from the melée. Climbing onto the dock and pushing my way politely but firmly through the crowd, I also calculated that it would easier to find other decent rooms once in the town, if my first preference was full. The trick was to keep walking, as quickly as possible, until even the most ardent tout realised that the odds of his securing customers for the night were better among the travellers still getting off the boat and standing around the dock than in chasing down this couple with a goal already in mind.

It was late by the time we sat down to eat. With a room successfully found, washed and changed and after a short walk to get our bearings, it was with a sense of relief, but little appetite, that I stared at the menu. The town centre was essentially one long avenue bordered by the river and docks on the one hand and warehouses on the other. Its streets and arteries were lined with food stalls, some of which were beginning to close, but there were still crowds of people on them and a good deal of traffic, with its associated noise. At a packed noodle bar, with my back to the street, I ordered a beer and gazed into the darkened square of trestle tables and awnings in the middle distance, making out a few people lying on or squatting amongst them. We were obviously beside a market.

Slowly I could feel my back and neck tightening, the after-effects of their tautness earlier in the day and, eventually, after the first beer, a throbbing pain moved up the back of my skull and encircled my temples. It must have been my efforts to stretch my back and extend my neck that attracted his attention.

I suddenly felt two hands clasp and start to massage my shoulders. The sensation was more pleasurable than shocking and, as I turned to see what was happening, Jill’s smile told me it was nothing to worry about. A small, stocky man with a round, clean-shaven face and a crewcut smiled back at me, his eyes narrowing and his expression denoting that I was – literally – in safe hands. He said nothing on the – correct – assumption that I would want him to carry on.

“How much?” I said, indicating as much with a thumb and forefinger I could barely be bothered to raise. “One dollar”, he answered, and I simply turned and allowed him to continue. The massage moved up the base of my neck, where his thumbs squeezed taught muscles and then a tender skull, before culminating in a gentle tapping of the back of my head with his fingers, and then the sides of his palms held together as though he was praying vigorously at my back. The motion gently soothed my brain but my resistance to it must also have loosened the neck muscles and, by the time he was finished, I was in a state of deep relaxation.

Paying my masseur I asked him if he knew of anyone with motorbikes to carry us on the next stage of the journey to Ha Tien, on the south coast. Yes, he said after a few seconds, and indicated that he would have to fetch a contact and bring him back to us. By the time we finished eating our friend had returned with his on the back of a motorbike and we negotiated terms.

The majority of travellers to Chau Doc are passing through on their way into Cambodia, or from there back towards Saigon, so our request was not straightforward. The negotiations began with the prices suggested for local itineraries in our two-year old guidebook – well out of date in Vietnam’s fast-changing economy – and was countered with the objection that the driver and his friend would have to return a long distance without a fare, thus requiring at least double the money. Halving the difference to bring things back to reality I was then promised a number of attractions that could be visited along the route, which increased the fare one again. Halving the difference between this fare and my second offer seemed acceptable, the drivers knowing that their tip would fill the gap.

The next morning dawned warm and sunny and we made an early start despite the rigours of the day before. We breakfasted in the market that had been shut the previous night and returned to our room to find our driver, another friend and two motorbikes parked outside, on time and ready to depart. Our rucksacks were wedged neatly between the drivers’ legs and we each took positions on the back of our respective bikes, hands behind our backs holding the saddle brace. It was all very efficient and, within minutes, we were off along the border.
The trip to Ha Tien took another nine or ten hours, the majority of it on unmade roads, dirt tracks and canal banks. It was as exhilarating and memorable as it was uncomfortable.

Tri-ton
Tri-ton

Mid-morning brought us into Tri-ton, a pleasant roadside settlement that had developed around a Khmer pagoda, distinguished by its multi-tiered roofs, brightly coloured tiles and dragon motifs. The Khmers were another ethnic minority – so far as Vietnam was concerned – which straddled the border with Cambodia. Like the Cham, their presence here was also due in part to the ancient colonisation of even older empires by the Viet people. But a more recent influx had arrived as escapees from the genocidal practices of the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

These events were brought home to us at the next destination, reached by driving off the main highway onto mud paths that ran along the tops of levees dividing a network of paddy fields. Eventually, as the flat and featureless river plain gave way to flanking hills of lush, tropical forest, we reached the settlement of Ba Chuc, its ragged collection of wooden houses strewn either side of a red-dirt road and, just beyond, an unexpected, ornate square that I first took to be another pagoda.

The square did indeed have a temple associated with it, and what appeared to be accommodation for a small community of Buddhist monks. There was also a large hall, apparently designed for theatrical displays or conferences, the inevitable row of food stalls and even a souvenir stall. But the focus of the venue, mounted on a small flight of white limestone steps and under a gaudy pink roof in the centre of the square, was a memorial to what has become known as Vietnam’s ‘Killing Fields’.

During April 1978, a series of cross-border raids carried out by the Khmer Rouge resulted in the death of over 3,000 people in this area. The incident, and many others like it around the same time, contributed to Vietnam’s invasion of its neighbour before the end of the year.

Ba Chuc Memorial
Ba Chuc Memorial

The glass-encased centre of the memorial housed hundreds, possibly thousands, of gaping skulls piled on top of each other on three wooden shelves around eight sides. Each pile was accompanied only by a sign in Vietnamese and English denoting the genders and approximate ages of the people whose skulls had been collected here, although to the casual visitor it was difficult to distinguish one from another. The shock came not so much from the sight of human skulls as from the realisation of the collective death toll that they represented.

Suitably sobered, we climbed back onto our motorbikes and bounced out of town back towards the main highway. On the way another short detour brought us to Tup Duc, a series of limestone hills pockmarked with caves which the Viet Cong had used as stores, training camps and general hiding places during the American War.

Known as ‘Two Million Dollar Hill’ to signify the huge scale of the ordnance which the US forces had dropped onto the site in the later stages of the war, mostly to little military effect, the area was now a nature park, albeit with salutary reminders of its previous function to be found in the mannequinned reconstructions of war scenes in some of the larger caves and the badges and slogans of Viet Cong units painted onto the cliffs outside. A local guide, a boy of about twelve or thirteen, took us round the warren of paths and caves that permeated the site, deliberately getting us lost – it seemed to me – both to accentuate the labyrinthine nature of the place and to emphasise the value of his assistance before bringing us back safely to the entrance.

Tup Duc / Two Million Dollar Hill
Tuc Dup / Two Million Dollar Hill

By now it was late afternoon and time to make up the hours spent in visiting these attractions, if they could be called such. We returned to and then crossed the main highway and spent most of the rest of the journey driving along the levees that ran parallel with the rivers and canals that formed the border. At regular intervals we passed through villages and hamlets that straddled the canal bank, scattering pigs and chickens as we went and throwing dust over the rice that lay drying by the roadside.

In quieter moments, however, I could make out Cambodian sentry towers at regular intervals to my right and, nearing Ha Tien, was able to enjoy the sight of the sun tumbling to the west, its rays sparkling in the waters of adjacent paddy fields and its fierce light creating silhouettes of buffaloes pulling ploughs through the mud, the matchstick workers trudging behind and their attendant storks, herons and egrets.

In Ha Tien we asked to be dropped in the centre of town to find accommodation, but not before paying our companions – and their well-deserved tip – and sitting with them for a while to digest the day’s itinerary over a beer. Once again we had reached our destination by twilight, mud-spattered, tired and sore but this time regretting the fact that the journey had to end.

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