Mekong King: Rowing Down the Up Escalator – Mekong Delta, Asia

What follows are journal entries from the first six days of my trip down the Mekong Delta – a journey that was ill-conceived, poorly planned and (true to that formula), worked out perfectly.

My Mekong Journal

Day One
My plan was to buy a boat, food and clean water, row down the Mekong Delta from the Cambodia-Vietnam border, all the way to Ho-Chi-Minh City. I voiced my plan at dinner – had hesitated to talk about it outloud because I thought it might sound ridiculous. It did. Dinner partners, Rudolpho and Ann, who have lived in Vietnam, got a big laugh and weren't exactly encouraging about my prospects.

Katrin, my girlfriend, passed on the Mekong trip in favor of a week at a Buddhist Monastery. It was suggested at dinner that her decision proved she was already wiser than me – imagine how many leaps and bounds beyond me she'd be after her time with the monks.

Day Two
I flew to Phnom Penh, Cambodia – met a couple on the plane and had this exchange at takeoff.

"I am planning on buying a small boat and taking it down the Mekong Delta alone," I said.

Laughter.

It was a one-hour flight form Bangkok. The wife (who was sitting next to me) eventually suspended her disbelief over my ability to forge the largest river in Asia. We settled into a good conversation ranging on all sorts of subjects. The husband, on the other hand,, was still chortling about me and my boat when the plane landed. With sympathy in their eyes, they drove me to the waterfront in Phnom Penh and asked that I keep them updated on my disaster trip.

I pointed to a raft and told someone I wanted to buy it. A few things wrong with this. First, the raft I pointed to was actually a mobile fish farm, and second, the river moves so slowly there that even I could see it would take me a month to reach the Vietnam border.

I took a speed boat to Chau Doc, the first town of note on the Vietnamese side of the border. There I ate clay-pot fish, walked a little through downtown, played with some kids who wanted to practice their English and went to bed.

Day Three
I bought a boat. It was old, worn and ratty. By my estimation, I paid the price of an old, worn and ratty boat, plus 40% mark-up. It was about seven feet long with a platform to row from on the back. These small skiffs are traditional for short-canal transport, usually used by women to ferry people from one side of a canal to the other. Even for an eternal optimist like myself, travelling a hundred miles in my boat was a bold prospect – the baling pan showed far too many signs of overuse to leave me comfortable.

I used a translator to negotiate the boat sale. The price stood at $100.00 U.S. and never moved, unusual in SE Asia. When I asked why the price wasn't flexible, the translator told me that the woman selling the boat thought I was either crazy or eager to drown – neither of which led to a good bargaining position. I was satisfied by this answer and paid up. On the upside, I brought joy to the entire village: never had laughter echoed across the Mekong like it did when I divulged my plan. The consensus was that I'd never make it a day, and certainly not out of Chau Doc. The hotel desk clerk said he'd hold a room for me. I must not have inspired a lot of confidence throughout the nautical community.

I bought enough bananas for a week, rope, a knife, a few candles, bait for fishing (I had nothing to cook any prospective fish with) and some cookies – overprepared. I hopped in my boat, which was already carrying six inches of river water for my backpack to soak in. I set off – spinning softly up river.

Upriver was the first major shock of the expedition. I was heading upriver with no idea why. I went with the flow (so to speak) looking for a canal to take me toward the big river. After four hours of paddling (I haven't learned to do the upright rowing with the oars yet, and the paddle that I used was about as effective as a pool cue), I found a canal. Sitting and paddling like Meriwether Lewis was painfully slow going, and that was with the current, which was bringing me back toward Cambodia.

There was plenty to see, though, bridges for crossing over made of single bamboo poles and the slanting stilt houses. It was wonderful scenery, men fishing or swimming across the river with their water buffaloes. I created quite a scene for the villagers too. They would get up and follow me down the river bank, until finally they would tire of waiting for me to make forward progress, yell "HELLO" five or six times (as is the custom here), and go home.

While I paddled along, I took a minute to name my boat. Boats should be named for women. I thought to name mine for Katrin or my mother, but realized this wouldn't be flattery for either. I settled on The Duchess of Bilgewater, finding that to be a better fit.

At dark my little canal met a big section of river and I arrived at a floating village. Pulling in to ask for directions, I was offered a bed at the home of a fishfarmer and his wife. We communicated by pointing to translated phrases from a guidebook. When I showed them "How do I get to Sa Dec" (a city 100 miles down river), the fishfarmer looked at me bewildered, and finally called my attention to the Vietnamese word for car. I laughed. He pointed again and kept a very straight face.

We had a nice dinner, fish and rice with tea. The Mekong rice is better than other rice, but I was hesitant to eat too much because it didn't seem like they were overflowing with excess. I did pass cookies around for desert. They arranged a bed mat for me aligned so that I was facing various religious shrines, but still wouldn't roll into the hole that occupied half of their floor (this is where the fish are raised). I slept well considering the waves sloshing up from passing cargo boats and the fear of waking up to see my own little boat sunk.

Day Four
I woke up 10 minutes before sunrise. It was one of the nicest sunrises I'd ever seen – red and purple in the sky with the river bank slowly softening and coming into focus. The village sprung to life right away – the river is characterized as being sleepy, but the people are not.

My hosts would not accept money, they emphatically refused. Using a map the size of a cocktail napkin, I asked "Which direction to Sa Dec" and they indicated Chau Doc, I asked again with the same result. I pointed in the opposite direction of Chau Doc and said "Sa Dec?" rhetorically and the man gave a half nod. That was good enough for me, I launched my boat (after baling the water that had collected). I was back on the road (water) again.

I paddled the canals all day and I created bigger stirs as I got further from places visited by tourists. When I landed, the people touched, pinched and petted me. They said, "Hello" and I replied, "Thank you," in Vietnamese. They constantly called to me from shore, the older women wanting to see if I could row in the traditional style. I still can't.

There were huge fishing nets lowered by a lever arm, an ingenious invention. A man crossed the river by zip line. This river is life to the canal people: they boil and drink the water, bathe in it, fish from it and use it to irrigate their crops. Never have I seen people so connected to their environment.

Late afternoon I found I wasn't making much progress. Night was falling – good time for a breakthrough – a motorboat passed. I got the idea to hitch a ride. I threw them a rope, they towed me as far as they were heading. They enjoyed the novelty of it, and I was grateful for the lift. With the tow came invitations aboard. I shared cookies and they shared rice and dried fish. For a man with no food of substance on board, I ate quite well. When I trust things to work out, they usually do. The crews benefited too. They pointed me out to all passers showing them what the tide brought in, eliciting a lot of wide-eyed laughter.

I had two more lifts and made it to a small town. I was convinced no tourist had ever visited there before. I was gawked at like Heidi Klum making the scene at the municipal pool. I was bought beers. I tried to clarify the town I was in. It wasn't on any map or guidebook, but it was situated 90 kilometers north of Sa Dec and 110 north of Vinh Long – a crushing blow to my optimism. I hoped sleep would recharge it.

Day Five
Oh the spectacle I made! I was a giant here – white, tall and blond haired in these non-tourist places. Two men watched from a foot away while I wrote my sister a birthday email. That morning two young kids were waiting outside the hotel to inspect me. Last night a drunken man insisted on trying to get into my room until the hotel staff, understood from the firm arms distance I was keeping, that my personal visiting hours were over. Yesterday when I docked my boat (I am flattering it to keep calling it that), no less than twenty people gathered to offer opinions they believed were either funny or helpful. Not speaking the language, I couldn't tell.

Anyone needing attention, stop-traffic attention, should forget the diet, the botox and the tae-bo. Go to the unvisited reaches of the Mekong. This morning on my walk, I turned around and saw the whole bustling street behind me frozen and gawking. Truly, it was like a Capra movie – everyone leaning to look at me.

The whole scenario was foreign for me too! What do you think? The cone-shaped hats obviously had some utility but I couldn't figure it out. The girls wore starched white school uniforms that ran down to their ankles. They offered fertilized chicken embryo as snacks. Don't ask what meat I ate last night. I had all the conveniences of air conditioning, a hot bath, two king-sized beds (oddly the beds were huge with satin sheets and pillowcases but no mattress – a mere quarter inch of cushion between me and a board) – all this for only six dollars, I slept till 7:30 – equivalent to sleeping till 4:00 p.m. in America. The latest I had slept in Vietnam prior to that was about 4:45 a.m.

I sent an email to two Vietnamese friends back in the States asking them to translate the following sentence for me. "Hello, I am a traveler who has purchased a boat in Chau Doc. I am trying to get to Sa Dec, which may be impossible. Would you be interested in trading my boat for a used bicycle?" That was where my head was that morning. I didn't hear back from them by noon, so I went to the dock to collect my boat.

A woman had switched her oars with mine, but upon my arrival and peer pressure from neighbors, she gave me my oars back. I enjoyed my celebrity on the docks, was swarmed by people at a small cafe where we all laughed over my general situation, and then I waved my goodbyes and paddled out toward the big water. It took me an hour to get into the middle of the river, but once I got there, I felt great.

The river was in front of me, the scenery on either side was classic – fruit orchards, ramshackle houses, rice fields being plowed by water buffaloes. I took advantage and took it easy for an hour or so. I swam, ate a few bannanas, and taught myself the upright rowing style. I wanted to see if I could get it – not a breeze at first. It's a lot like self propelled surfing. Once you have it, it feels more natural that back face rowing. And when I went, I glided.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted salvation in the form of a 200-foot long barge that rested flat on the water. I turned my boat and started sprinting to cut it off. I rowed like a maniac. I caught the rhythm – pull, down turn wrists, push, glide. It was a mile away, behind me and to my right, but gaining fast, I set a line and went hard. With a football field between us, my legs were shaking and my arms were on fire. I had to keep the pace, big boats don't turn their engines off to help small boats. I would have to cross its line.

I kept on at a frantic pace – pull, down turn wrists, push, glide – I came to it, just as the barge was crossing the spot. Another 10 seconds and the chance would have been missed. I held out my tow line. They took it and me aboard. There was plenty of shock when they found out what I was up to, a number of pokes to the ribs, things they wanted to show me – general fascination.

I asked where they were heading – Ho Chi Minh City! I could ride with them straight down to Sa Dec and put off there. And their boat? There wasn't anything more comfortable. I could sit on the side, my feet in the water. I couldn't hear the motor, it was so deep in the belly of the barge, it was peaceful. I read Huck Finn and watched the sun set over the Mekong.

Everything glowed red – the sky and the water with a strip of green trees separating them. It was perfect. Once the sun was down, the crew invited me to eat with them. We tried to communicate, but couldn't get beyond a few shared words. At night the mosquitos feasted on the buffet, the mites took a shot at cleanup, the flies hurried in for dessert and the fleas licked the plate. At about midnight I was forced to interrupt their party, I felt the barge stop. The captain motioned that the barge was grounded in shallow water.

I understood. The Mekong is tidal. It's that big. That's why my initial efforts downstream took me upstream and why I felt like I was climbing the down escalator so often. The barge was stuck and stayed stuck for twelve hours. My curiousity satisfied, I let the mosquitos have another go at me and scratched myself to sleep.

Day Six
At 5:00 a.m., I hopped up to check on my boat, The Duchess. She was sunk, her nose still tied to the barge and poking an inch out of the water. A rescue mission ensued. We tied ropes to the her back and pulled her up on the anchor hoist of the barge. I baled the water and began repairing. A few planks were lost as was my water and my knife. I used the last of my putty for patchwork and nailed some of the front planks to the back so that I could stand and row. My luggage was taken into the barge cabin as an afterthought in the middle of a scratching fit. It was, therefore, safe.

Still stuck, I swam and lazed away the morning. I dove off the roof of the barge, read and sometimes slept. At some point one of the barge crewman gave me a dig in the ribs to talk to me in Vietnamese for a few minutes before he was reminded that I didn't speak the language. At 3:00 p.m., the barge motored up and we headed on toward Sa Dec. Three hours later a storm came.

Not all people have witnessed a storm on the water. Now that I have, I'm in no rush for another. It was truly wild. Lightning struck, thunder smacked with no lag between the two. I was baling The Duchess constantly. My choices were to yawl off now, try to make shore mid-storm and be warm in an hour, or skip Sa Dec for Vinh Long, following the storm down the river, yawl off in two hours when guest houses would be closing and people would be heading to bed.

I started rowing, amid the lightning and thunder. Everything got soaked, including me. For the first time in awhile, I was scared of a desicion that had grown out of my own boldness. I made it to shore eventually, washed up at a small dock where I was warmly welcomed by a family who were out from the rain, huddled under a tin roof, not expecting to see an American rowing a traditional Vietnamese canal boat up to their little shop. They promised to keep The Duchess safe for the night, gave me a ride into town where I stayed at a huge, empty, war-era hotel.

This piece is excerpted from a year of travel around the globe

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