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Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Mekong Sunset

I'm in Vietnam, in Can Tho, and I'm wearing a shirt that I got in Phnom Penh that reads "Heart of Darkness." It's the name of a popular bar in PP, but something about wearing this shirt in Vietnam makes me feel all Apocalypse Now-y.

I wish I knew how much I would love Vietnam before I made my plans for this trip. I would have spent a lot more time here, with a quick trip to Cambodia, and not the other way around. Yeah, Phnom Penh is an interesting little city, and the temples of Angkor are a wonder to behold; but with a little planning, I could have started in Northern Cambodia (Siem Reap, where the Angkor Temples are), made my way south for a little stop in Phnom Penh, and then made a slow and relaxing tour of the Mekong Delta in 'Nam and cruised into Saigon with time to spare. Now I'm enjoying the hell out of Vietnam, loving all the delicious noodle soups and cheap beer and New Years celebrations; the only problem is, now I'll be getting into Saigon late tomorrow evening, and if I can't find a cheap flight from Saigon to Bangkok, I will be forced to take the slow, grueling, and expensive bus ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh, so I can make my flight to Bangkok from there. This will undoubedtly involve more money for a new Cambodian visa, as well as twenty bucks for the “exit fee” at the PP airport. So a flight from Saigon really is an option; I just hope that I can find a travel agent with good connections and a little pity when I get to Saigon. There are worse fates, sure, but catching a cheap flight and enjoying one more day in Vietnam (and one less day on a damn bus) is always welcome.

I was wandering around Can Tho this afternoon, with four striking young Swedish ladies, and we were ducking in and out of the markets, big open-air butchers and fruit stalls and everything in between, the fish struggling in their tiny prisons and splashing water all over, the smell of fish and pigs and cows being cut and served to order giving the whole place the rotten smell of sweaty gym locker rooms, the street so clogged with walking, moto riding, and New Years costuming that you could barely move. The drum began to beat, slowly and faintly, as a small band of young men, dressed all in red, moved into view, the drum being wheeled on a cart chained to a bike. Out of the crowd burst a giant smiling Buddha, behind him a tall red dragon of a man, costumed boys that floated and danced into each store, the drum beating a steady rhythm, dancing and moving and then they move on, back into the crowd, into the next store; I watched the whole thing as I peeled mandarins, sharing them with the shyly greedy hands of kids on the street. The dance passed us like a wave, we saw it coming slowly, rode the crest of activity and excitement and wonder for a moment, and it passed, crashing into the madness of the market behind.

The Swedes went back to the hotel to get out of the sun, and I walked further along the market streets, to the riverside, where I randomly met Bonnie, a nice Virginian who needed a companion for a sunset boat ride on the Mekong. Why not? I made my way clumsily onto the tiny barrel of a boat - I love water, I love swimming, but when I'm in my clothes and with my camera daring me to get wet, I become a very stupid boarder of boats - sat down next to Bonnie for optimal balance, and we were off. We stopped by a crocodile enclosure to have a look, and then got back on the boat, a slow and gentle cruise through some canals, under a bridge just beginning to be built, and we turned the corner of a large island and there it was, all burning crimson and orange and settling behind the peaceful blue of the sky, and we talked politics and war and America as we shared an orange and watched a slow sunset over the peaceful Mekong.

Today was a great day.

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