The river washed away the humidity of the wet-season. A soft breeze drifted over the water, granting some relief from the heat. Our little wooden boat putted further and further upstream as a wall of green closed around us. Civilisation seemed far away.
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad described the Congo as “a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.” The same can be said of the Mekong. Rising in China, it flows through six countries before blossoming into the Mekong Delta, a web of waterways in southern Vietnam covering some 60,000 square kilometres.
Our boat soon left the main waterway behind, and we entered that mesh of intersecting waterways. Yesterday I had been in Hoi An; now I had lost all sense of direction, and wondered how our driver would ever find where we were headed, let alone the way back. Each little ‘water road’ looked the same. Local houses opened straight onto the water, kids splashed amongst the mangroves, and women did their washing on the banks, piles of bright clothes beside them or stretched on poles to dry. Wooden boats lay drawn up amongst the mangroves or tied to a hidden jetty. Not a car was to be heard. Fishing nets were strung through the water, or hung on trees, drying.
The waterways became ever more narrow. Aside from the occasional glimpse of a house or a mooring, the known world seemed forgotten. A maze of tiny water-alleys opened off on either side of the river, and the heat of the day closed down around us. The only sounds were of the river lapping lazily against the boat, the buzz of dragon-flies or the splash of a walking fish. Masses of hyacinths adorned the riverbanks, and the vegetation smothered old houses and forgotten boat sheds. Kingfishers darted amongst the greenery. At times the water was so shallow the river bed was easily visible – hence the long, narrow boats with their shallow draft.
In the middle of nowhere our boat pulled into the bank to some forgotten stairs. At their top stood a house built of the most beautiful dark wood, with the front room, full of intricate carvings, dedicated to the family ancestors. The family had prepared lunch for us. (Some places offer overnight stays; apparently the fireflies are spectacular once darkness falls.)
Sitting on a large open verandah to catch the breezes, our meal began with deep fried elephant fish, served upright and held in place with chopsticks. Despite the forbidding appearance, the flesh had a very delicate flavour. Our host quickly shredded the fish with chopsticks, and used it to make rice paper rolls. Next came prawns, pork with rice, then a platter of fresh fruit.
As the others snoozed in some hammocks I went for a short stroll. Following a winding dirt path a stone’s throw from the river, I often couldn’t see the water through the deep undergrowth. A turn in the path, and I was lost to view; it’s easy to understand how people wander into the jungle never to be seen again.
Later we headed further upstream, only this time in a tiny boat rowed by a lady who, much like a gondolier, stood at the back wielding two oars. As we drifted along the heavens opened, and a tropical shower left us drenched within a few minutes. It just as quickly passed, and soon we sat steaming in the heat.
We returned to our main boat and so cruised onto Can Tho. Later that evening we caught a boat from the hotel into town (a five minute ride in darkness). Bobbing lights marked where other boats lay on the expanse of black water. A tropical storm rolled in as we dined on a balcony overlooking the Mekong, and I watched the black clouds billowing over the horizon. Soon sheets of lightening filled the sky. I never found Kurtz, but even as we sipped on cocktails part of me remained in the wilderness, deep in a Vietnamese heart of darkness.
The Literary Traveller: In Heart of Darkness, Conrad described the Congo as “a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.” The same can be said of the Mekong. Reading Heart of Darkness while cruising this network of waterways, it is easy to understand how the rules and decorums of the 'civilised' world become increasing irrelevant the further you travel along the river. To stay on the river overnight and listen to the sounds of the jungle, is to hear the primeval world which so intrigued Marlow, and captured the mind and soul of Kurtz.
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