As I wrote in a previous post, one of the ways I would practice my Vietnamese was by going online to gay forums, and chatting with local guys. Sometimes, if I met someone nice and we really hit it off, I would choose my next domestic trip to where they lived. What better way to experience a place than with a local guide?
One time I met a wonderful guy that goes by the nickname Pin, who lives in the capital of the Mekong Delta region of the country, in a town named Can Tho. Can Tho was a place that was never really on my radar and I had never met anyone that had been there. None of my foreign friends had ever thought of visiting and most of my Vietnamese friends were of the opinion that it was a backwater, rural town that was not worth their time. But I decided that I would give it a shot. I booked a ticket and a hotel, and told my friend that I would be coming down.
At 1,200 plus Km away, the flight from Hanoi to Can Tho is one of the longest domestic flights in Vietnam. I arrived in Can Tho with pretty low expectations thanks to the poor opinions of my friends that had never been there. As it turns out, my friends could not have been more wrong.
The center of Can Tho is a fairly developed, small modern city. There are shops, food stalls, and a local market. But what was really interesting about Can Tho, was the rural river life that existed in and around the city. My friend arranged to have a local boat guide take us down river and show us a part of Vietnam that I never saw before. We woke up before the sun, and joined our friendly guide on her boat to head down river.
As we headed down the river, I saw a world that many in the west may think died out a long time ago, a world that for many, only ever existed in movies and in history books. I got to see an entire community of people that live in, and from the river. They make their living from the river and they make their homes on the river. In the west, when one talks of a fishing town, they mean a town, were many of the locals go out to fish, and leave the town behind. In Can Tho the whole town exists in the water and a whole system has developed to support this lifestyle. There are boats that float around selling hot coffee, or noodle soups. There is a whole floating market, selling produce to the fishermen and their families. Everything that a town would usually have on land, exists here on the river.
After we finished visiting the market, we headed further down river. It was there that I saw things that truly amazed me. Along the river, there were rows of homes, that looked as if they were made out of scarp pieces of wood and metal, barely able to remain standing in the water, or on the shore. These houses often serve as homes for three or more generations, and the river is their only real source for water. I saw people that basically have little to nothing. But what surprised me the most is how happy most of them seemed to be. I saw kids playing and laughing, families spending time together smiling, people doing house hold chores. And almost every one we passed, smiled and waved at the boat with the giant foreigner passing by. I had never felt so humbled as when I saw these people that had so little and yet were so happy.
At one point, I got to speak with one of the locals about how life here was different than anywhere that I have ever lived. During our conversation, I asked them, “if tomorrow you woke up with $100,000, what would you do?” They answered, “I would make my family’s home bigger so there would be more room for everyone, and maybe take a trip to Ho Chi Minh City”. I know that if someone asked me that question, I would tell them that I would go on some trip somewhere, or think of something else big and expensive to do. But the mind set of the people I spoke to, is much more local oriented, with much more modest expectations and dreams. I was quite moved when talking with the locals.
It is a shame that more people do not take the time to visit this gem at the very southern tip of Vietnam. It was one of the most interesting and unique places that I have ever visited. Beyond that, everyone I met was friendly, kind and excited to talk to the foreigner. Of course there was more to Can Tho than just the river life, but that will have to wait for another post.