The Mekong River: Calling into Question the Germ Theory of Disease
On our journey along cost of the South China Sea, it's now the first day of Tet. About a week earlier, families made their offerings to the Kitchen God asking for a good report to the Heavenly Emperor. The message is to be delivered by a giant carp which transforms itself into a dragon on the way to heaven, Almost 80% of Vietnamese practice ancestor worship and make regular offerings to their ancestors at family shrines in the middle of their homes. (On sampans and junks where space is more limited, the altar is usually in one corner of the small living quarters.) Also before the start of Tet, Vietnamese visit the graves of their ancestors to invite them to the New Year's celebrations.
On the first day of Tet offerings of food are made and paper money, paper cars, boats and planes are burned so that the ancestors have means and money for the journey and can travel home in style for the holiday. Husbands and wives traditionally spend this day visiting their parents and in-laws. On the second day of Tet, by tradition, former teachers are visited and on the third, friends.
To assure homeless ghosts (people whose burial sites are unknown) are not forgotten, salt and rice are scattered outside homes for them. Funerary customs vary in the north and south of the country. In the north the dead are buried in cheap coffins in the rice fields or back yards. After three or four years when the flesh has decayed leaving only bones, their remains are reburied in family tombs. In the south, elaborate and expensive lacquered coffins costing as much as $2,000 are used and the dead are buried just once, and not disinterred and moved.
At the conclusion of the three-day holiday families clean up and repair the family tombs, return home to welcome back the kitchen god, make an offering to the Heavenly Emperor. The ancestors are encouraged to return to their resting places with the understanding that they will be welcome again the following year.
We're going to spend this day on the Mekong.
South and West of Saigon (despite its official name -- Ho Chi Minh City -- natives regularly call this by its original name, Saigon) -- is the Mekong Delta, the place where the Mekong river which begins in the Tibetan Plateau splits into nine main channels and many creeks. Ten percent of the area of Vietnam is found in this flat landscape, used to transport people and goods, catch and farm fish and irrigate the rice fields and fruit orchards found along its banks, Twenty-five million people consider this delta home.
The Mekong is almost 3,000 miles long. Its mouth is the South China Sea and it runs through China's Yunnan Province, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
At least in this part of the River, its terminus before joining the Sea, it is rather an open sewer, filled with garbage that smells and festers in the heat. On its banks are sorry shacks housing people who use this fetid water for washing themselves, their eating utensils, their clothes and their homes. We are assured that for cooking and drinking they have potable water but no water pipes were evident from our vantage point. All we saw was the periodic lowering of buckets which were lifted upward into the houses. This calls into serious question the germ theory of disease.
We travel for about 2 hours by road to an elegant new resort (Mekong Riverside Resort) at Cai Be, one of the nine channels of the river, for lunch, which includes a choice of western and Vietnamese food, including these puffed bread treats.
The river in front of the resort is choked with water hyacinths, but we push off in a private long boat to explore the river and some nearby canals.
At the river are more sampans which hold families, crude bamboo contraptions for aquaculture and some fruit trees on the banks.
Families here do have some modern appliances -- television antennas and satellite dishes are evident -- also some small appliances but most of these apparently are provided by children who have more lucrative city positions.
As a developing country, Vietnam's exports are mostly agricultural -- here, mostly rice, coffee and tobacco -- which yield little money and its imports are more expensive manufactured goods.
The canals off the river are shallow, muddy and the banks lined with snakes. Higher up on the banks are houses -- mostly rude shacks but occasionally well built larger homes as well -- narrow concrete bridges on which pedestrians and bikers cross over from canal to canal and small roadways for walking .
Boats, used for fishing and transport, some looking too rotted to function also line the shores. Crude shops and cafes are found every now and then. We stop at a small establishment along the river which houses a variety of craftsmen and hawks a number of local products.
One of the local treats is puffed rice which is covered with sweet syrup, cut and wrapped. We watch the confectioner fan a fire fed by rice husks underneath a metal sand filled pot. When the sand is hot enough, the rice is poured in. After it pops the pot's contents are emptied over a sieve and the puffed rice is coated with syrup.
If you've ever eaten Thai or Vietnamese food you are surely acquainted with edible rice paper. It is commercially available in Asian grocery stores though I am sure that paper is machine made. Here is how it is traditional made: rice is ground and mixed with water, a piece of cloth is stretched over a pot of boiling water . On top of the cloth a thin layer of the rice mixture is spread. Once it sets, it is carefully lifted off the cloth and placed on a bamboo tray to dry in the sun.
A bit further upriver at Sa Dec is the house of Huynh Thuy Le,Marguerite Dura's Chinese lover The Lover but we don't go there -- it's been a full day and there's still a two hour drive back to the ship .