Wednesday, January 23, 2013


A Buddhist shrine has a revered place in the home
My Vietnamese translator Nga has invited me to her parent’s house for a memorial service, so I’m off to see the real life in the Mekong Delta, in a remote village. As I leave Can Tho town, on the back of a motorbike, we pass a few army installations and a naval base. Some of these used to be inhabited by the US military during the war. One of my older cousins served in the US Army here then, and I wonder which of these bases was his. He hardly left Can Tho though, except by aircraft. I’ve been seeing more of the Mekong Delta in one week (from ground level at least,) then my cousin was probably able to see in a year.

After a long rainy trip with a few wrong turns, we turn off the paved road onto narrow dirt roads. I can see why this territory was so difficult  for the US military to patrol years ago. This road isn't even wide enough for jeeps. Nga's village is so remote, it didn't see any action during the war. Now I understand why I couldn’t come in a taxi, as no vehicles larger than motorbikes can reach here.

Finally, we arrive at Nga's village, a small delta community of only 300 people. I size up the delta home where I’ll be spending the night, a simple white house with exterior pillars. The décor within has a woman’s touch. Furnishings are simple, and like most delta houses, there are no glass windows, or screening, fresh air flows throughout. Unfortunately, so do mosquitos. Malaria is still a problem in the delta, as can be seen from the mosquito nets hanging over all of the beds. I’m hoping I won’t get bitten while I’m here.

Reaching up from the floor, stains over a foot high mark the bottom of every wall in the house. “Years ago, it flood,” Nga informs me. The whole Mekong Delta is prone to flooding, so all the electrical outlets in the house are three feet off the floor. Since this home is made of brick and concrete, it will survive repeated floods, as opposed to the other delta houses made of wood or thatch.

Many delta homes still cook with charcoal
I’m introduced to Nga’s mother and relatives, and they make me feel right at home. Soon I’m feeling more relaxed. Since I’m far away from the hustle and bustle of Saigon,  the calm and quiet country life of the delta is rubbing off on me. Tomorrow is a busy day, and the family has a big memorial service planned. Nga shows me my bed, and I turn in early. After I tuck in the mosquito netting, I lay and listen to the buzzing and humming of the delta’s insects. It makes an appropriate lullaby, as I drift off to sleep.

The next morning I awaken to a busy house, as the family prepares for the memorial service visitors. Entering the kitchen, I find the women of the house busily cooking for the coming guests. Even though electricity arrived in the village a few years ago, Nga’s family still does all their cooking on a wood burning stove. Plumbing isn’t common yet either, as I see from the old farm style water pump out back.

In the living room atop a dresser, the family has a Buddhist shrine common to  Vietnamese homes. There are offerings left for departed spirits, including fruit and cups of tea. A bowl and urn are for burning incense. The most recent addition to the altar, is a photo of the departed family patriarch. Today’s memorial service is for Nga’s father, who died a month ago after a long illness at the age of 73.

The service isn’t starting for a couple of hours. Since I’m feeling rather useless around the house, I depart for a walk around the village. Heading along a canal in front of the house, I pass piers and wooden boats on the banks below. Some of these small boats are used for fishing, which was the former occupation of Nga’s father.
Children at recess at lively Mekong Delta school

Walking along the dirt path, I reach a recently built primary school. For many years, there was no school in Nga’s village at all. “I only go to school for four year, because of war,” Nga once told me. “I wanted go more.” With so much  conflict in the delta back then, the education of children suffered. The new village school is nothing fancy, but well attended. It’s recess time, and the children are outside playing in the dirt yard. Most of them have on blue and white uniforms, and play barefoot. A few of them see me passing, and they run to the fence. “Hello! Hello!” they call to me. My return hello brings giggles from the smiling students.
Rice paddies in the dry season. White monuments at left mark family graves.

I continue on the path leading out of the village, and soon I’m surrounded by green rice paddies. Off in the distance local farmers work their fertile land, which is the real treasure here. The Mekong Delta is well known for its bountiful rice crop. As rice is the staple food for the whole country, the delta is Vietnam’s giant rice bowl. In most of the country, Vietnam’s farmers take in two rice crops a year. Here in the delta, farmers get three. Vietnam is a major rice exporter these days. Since Vietnam returned to a market economy, the standard of living in the delta has improved over the years. Delta farmers earned enough profits to build better homes for their families. While some of Nga’s neighbors still live in corrugated metal shacks, more live in modern brick and cement houses with tiled rooftops. Thatched roof homes are now only a memory.
Canals run through the village

Having walked for a while, I decide I’d better turn back before I get lost. I arrive back at the house, and preparations are almost ready for the mourners to arrive. I look for Nga, and find her talking away on her cell phone. Even in this remote delta village, they still have cell phone coverage way out here. Cell phones are common in this remote delta community. This is amazing, considering that electricity arrived in this village only five years ago. Up to then they were still using oil lamps. Today there are plenty of poor rural Vietnamese families who don’t own a car, don’t own an electric stove, and don’t have hot water. But they own a mobile phone.

Stepping outside in the yard, workmen put the final touches on her fathers crypt. In rural Vietnam, it’s fairly common to bury relatives on family land, as they feel closer to their departed loved ones. Nga’s family isn’t rich by western standards, but this crypt is far more elaborate than those common to western cemeteries. The crypt’s shape follows the outline of a coffin, but the exterior design is more artistic than I’ve seen anywhere. Covered in painted tiles of various sizes, which are painted in pastel colors. Dragons are painted along the sides, with lotus flowers on top. As I watch the workmen install the finishing plaque which has not only the dates of his birth and death, but also has a photo of Nga’s father. 

I wonder why Americans never had this tradition. A photo of the dearly departed would add a more personal touch to any headstone. 

The mourners begin arriving, and Nga’s sister stays busy making iced coffee for everyone in the tree covered yard. The visitors include family, friends and neighbors. Since Nga’s father died on a Tuesday, they will host a gathering like this here at the house every Tuesday, for two months after his death.

As they walk in, they leave their conical hats near the gate, with their belongings placed inside. Most don brown Buddhist prayer robes, and many family members wear white headbands. Then everyone gathers at a table made into a temporary altar in the front yard. 

Prayers for the departed
Tablecloths and plastic sheeting are spread across the ground. They all remove their sandals, and step onto the groundcloths. Each takes incense between their praying hands, and the prayers begin. Incense fills the air. Since there isn’t a monk present, one attendee recites a prayer for all to hear. Then in unison, everyone does a series of standing bows, then kneeling bows, going all the way to the ground. 

With the prayers for the departed completed, they eat a light lunch. The mourners depart, and a new group arrives, and the whole process is repeated. I’m surprised to see that there are three waves of visitors, and the praying and eating continues well into the afternoon. With the last mourner’s arrival, more than 100 people have come to pay their respects today. With so many mourners coming, I tell Nga her father must have been a very popular man. Nga says that he was loved by many, but there's also another reason for the high turnout. 
Most of the community wear brown robes for this somber occasion
“It’s boring in the Mekong Delta,” she says. Apparently there are few social activities in these remote farming villages, so this service is the social highlight of the week. With the service over, the older men take seats at a table to eat. As they chat and socialize, I can see many of them are missing teeth. A few have ridden bicycles for four hours to come pay their respects, so they’re not in a hurry to leave. As I walk by the table, one of them takes me by the arm, and stands up next to me. Using his hand, he compares our height difference. I’m a full head taller than he is. I crouch down to match his height, and say to him, "Cam Sao" (no problem!) The whole table erupts in laughter.

Nga translates for me, and I’m told that I’m the first foreigner they’ve seen in this village in 20 years. I also learn that some of these men were Viet Cong in the war. I try to get some of them to talk about those years, but understandably, they turn quiet. One of them changes the subject, and says something that makes all the men laugh again. Once again everyone is at ease. I ask Nga what he said, and she replies, “he say you very handsome.”

Nga’s tiny CD player is playing Buddhist chant in the background, and some older villagers pick it up to examine it. They look at it very carefully, peering at all sides of it. I realize that they’ve never seen a music player like this before. If they’ve never seen a portable CD player, they would be truly amazed by an Ipod.

As the day becomes late, the crowd thins, and the mourners depart for home. One older mourner leaving manages to say a few words to me in English: “Thank you. Bye bye.”
The mourners depart for home, many by bicycle.

As he shakes my hand, I can’t help but notice that he’s missing half his right index finger. I’m guessing that he lost it in a farming accident, but I’m mistaken. Nga explains to me that the loss of his finger was intentional. “He cut it off,” she said, “so he don’t have to go in army.” Then Nga made the motion of a trigger finger, the finger that he no longer has. I'm shocked, and Nga tells me her uncle wasn’t the only visitor here today, that had gone to extremes to avoid the military.

“You see the man with the eye?” she asks. I nod yes, remembering another older guest who had a very milky looking eye. Back then, he had himself purposely blinded in that eye, also to avoid the draft. “If you go (went) in the army, you die,” she explained of the war years.

There were no easy paths for young Vietnamese men back in those days. I recall that back in America, there were also many young men who refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Their path was far different; American draft dodgers went to Canada. In this village, they cut off their trigger finger, or lost half their sight to avoid the draft. In Vietnam, draft dodging was done through self-mutilation.

Finally the last visitor departs. He mounts his bike, waves to me, then turns to peddle away down the dirt path. He has a long trip ahead of him. He’s wearing traditional clothes, and as I watch him ride away deeper into the Mekong Delta, I think he looks rather timeless, like a scene from decades long gone. As he rides off into the distance, I can’t remember if he was one of the former Viet Cong, or not. Then again, it doesn’t really matter anymore.