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Coconuts, Coffee and Close Calls on the Mekong Delta

By David Calleja

“Hurry up, David. It’s nearly 7 o’clock. Long day today. Very wet outside. Wear your elephant condom!” Before I could open my eyes, Dinh, my motorcycle guide who was once an ex-South Vietnamese soldier, had thrown a transparent pink poncho into my face.

I rose from my bed and headed straight for the shower and had enough time for a street wash; a pan full of cold water poured quickly over my body. The humidity turned dripping water into sweat beads.

Today would be my last view of downtown Mŷ Tho. Dinh promised me that I would get a taste of the real Vietnam; the floating market in Can Tho, a place where shoppers haggle with boats stocked with numerous fruits and vegetables. But there were places to see along the way.

Our first stop was a small coconut produce factory in a shed where twenty-six people peeled, grinded, shelled and chopped coconuts for a living. A number of makeshift distillers, knives, chopping boards, and shells were laid out across the floor amongst employees in groups of three or four. No portion of the coconut went to waste. These products, Dinh told me, would be sent to shops throughout the Mekong region, maybe even as far as Saigon.

One employee identifying himself as Trang approached me. “I am fastest worker in factory,” he said proudly, and worked at a frantic pace, shaving the hair off mature coconut shells. His job was to gather enough hair and glue them onto pieces of wood, making household items such as scrubbers and brooms bristles. He was one of the few employees who took a break from his task to practise his English language skills with me.

Later Dinh and I rode by the riverside lined with fruit trees. Everything was sprouting in time for the rainy season; pineapple, orange, mango, papaya, guava and mandarin trees that hung everywhere like decorations. The sight of women in wide-rimmed straw hats wearing traditional brightly coloured silk clothing provided the perfect leeway as we entered the famous the Mekong River’s floating market in Can Tho and hired a boat.

The floating market is famous for boat ladies inviting patrons to purchase fruit, vegetables, earthenware, and ceramics. Unfortunately, we had arrived too late. Traffic flow was restricted to a few boats drifting along the river.

“How do I know who is selling what?” I asked Dinh.

He pointed to the mast. “They show the fruit or vegetable above the flag.” The further upstream Dinh and I travelled, the quieter our environment became. Soon, it seemed as if we had the whole Mekong Delta to ourselves.

Cruising along the river at a leisurely pace, Dinh indicated that we would stop for some ca phe sua nong (hot filtered Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk) at a café by the riverbank. The place was run by a middle-aged couple, whom Dinh knew quite well.

We climbed the rickety ladder to enter the premises to find members of the extended family sitting in a circle, sipping ca phe sua nong. Several young men were chain smoking, playing cards and brooding over their motorcycles in the background. One of the guys, possibly the ringleader, gave me an ominous glance, a sign that I was invading their turf.

Suddenly a toddler darted towards the exit, dodging everyone’s attempts in the room to capture him. Panicking relatives screamed “Wahhhhhhhhhhhh! Stop him!” in Vietnamese. Eventually the young boy was caught by his older brother.

As I slowly sipped my coffee, Dinh and the cafe owner conversed for a few minutes, laughing and pointing in my direction. I could sense they were planning something. Then suddenly the owner called out “Hua,” referring to his only unmarried daughter.

“David, you stay here,” Dinh announced. “The house owner and I have things to talk about.”

“When will you be back?” I retorted.

“When you are the new son-in-law.”

Now I felt embarrassed.

“Tonight we go on boat cruise. You invite Hua. I tell you what to say now,” Dinh added.

He wrote down a sentence in Vietnamese on a piece of paper and then handed it to me. He guaranteed that all I would be doing was asking for her permission to come along.

After looking at the scrap of paper one final time, I took a deep breath.  Hua obviously felt equally uncomfortable, and as a result, I stalled twice after beginning the sentence. Dinh urged me to get on with the job, or he would leave me stranded.

“Hua,” I said, “An duoi em.”

The entire room went silent. Suddenly, as if an earthquake had struck, somebody let out a shriek of laughter, and then everybody else joined in. Hua became flustered and quickly left the scene. I stood there dumbfounded, unaware of what I had just done. What happened? Did I insult her?

Dinh refused to translate the sentence when I asked him to, saying that he would tell me later.  After we had said our goodbyes, with Hua wearing the largest grin of all as she waved to me, Dinh made his confession. “The sentence meant, ‘Hua, you are beautiful and I love you,’” he admitted.

After returning the boat, we made our way to the jetty, only to find ourselves observing a confrontation. Two aggressive middle-aged men were blocking two young women with peroxide hair and low-cut denim skirts. One of them looked to me in desperation as if to say, “Save me, please.”

Unfortunately, I did not know the Vietnamese translation for, “I am sorry, but I left my Superman costume at home today.”

As we headed towards our motorcycle, Dinh told me, “Don’t look back, it’s the best way to live.”

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