Here we are, facing the last kilometres of our 8 months walking trip down the great Mekong river. We need six more days to reach the sea, finding our way through this labyrinthine land of rice fields, canals and lush forests of coconut trees… Six more day to achieve a crazy dream! Are you joining?
Coconuts, bananas… and pigs!
We are a bit emotional when we leave Can Thò and the busy rumour of the floating markets. The city buzz is soon replaced by the sweet green quietness of the countryside, as we move further and further into the labyrinth of the Mekong delta. Our maps are incomplete and a broad emptiness appears in place of the usual markings for roads and paths we are used to trust and follow. Only two main roads are marked down: one in the north and one in the south, both following main branches of the river. But travelling those ways is completely out of the question! Our plan is a bit different. We want to find our way, randomly and on our own, through the countless canals of the Mekong delta which carry along the calm waters of the river in every directions, like the unnumbered tentacles of a giant squid. We walk and walk and purposely get lost, choosing the most beautiful paths, one after the other, but trying in the same time to carefully keep an eye on the compass to keep moving in the general direction of the mouth of the river.
But it is quite hard to stay focused when so many wonderful sights await you at every turns. The landscape is simply wondrous. The whole Mekong delta seems to be a fantastic orchard and everything grows here with no rules nor limits. Bananas, pineapples, mangos, coconuts, jackfruits, delicious sapodillas… We just have to reach out to pluck our lunch. To add to this general harmony, colourful bunches of flowers grow along the tiny countryside houses sitting along the canals. Vietnamese tend to there gardens wonderfully, creating peaceful havens full of beauty.
But if Vietnamese people have a green thumb, they are on the other side far more discreet and quiet than their neighbours from Cambodia. Their burning curiosity is well under control here and it seems to be a common cultural thing that they are not wanting to disturb us (or anyone) at any cost. We wonder if it could be coming from the hard history from the war… It is then harder to really meet the locals, even if they always politely answer with a smile anytime we salute them with a bright « Xin Chào »! We actually enjoy it, because it literally pushes us to go towards people.
At the end of the first afternoon, we are warmly welcomed to drink some tea by a very nice family. The women are hand-braiding some beautiful baskets, using natural fibres. We laugh a lot all together as we try to explain our journey to them, showing them maps and gesturing crazily around. They naturally agree to let us pinch the tent next to there home.
But as we are getting ready to go to sleep, a chubby angry little man suddenly appears from the dark on a tired scooter. We instantly know from his « bad news » face that this guy is a plainclothes cop but we nonetheless act like unknowing idiots, trying discreetly to determine what to do next… We are in the middle of nowhere. No doubt that somebody reported on us or the guy would never have found us. The policeman is getting redder and redder. He furiously yells at us while pointing at our tent « NO, NO, NO! » (the only word he knows in English). All right, all right, Mister officer, but where do you want us to go? We are on foot and it’s pitch black! Of course we want to go now. We don’t want to indirectly harm the nice family who welcomed us in their garden by the consequences of our foolishness… If it’s not them who reported on us to the police in the first place! We perceive better now the heavy atmosphere floating in this country, a totalitarian country ruled by fear and denouncement, propaganda, corruption and police control. The husband of the family who is hosting us is now talking very seriously with the policeman, most probably telling him we invited ourselves without asking. The grandpa sends us some poor smiles, visibly sorry about the situation. « No choice guys » he seems to think.
We are not sure what we should do. The fractious policeman finally hands us his mobile phone, at the end of which a hesitating voice is talking : « You must follow the police officer or you will be arrested for illegal camping! » Whaaat? Interiorly boiling, we fold back the tent and everything while the cop’s subordinates arrives to join the party on an rusty old moped. Moments later we are both sitting uncomfortably behind the policemen with our big backpacks, hiking poles, etc… and racing in the darkness on the small paths zigzagging in the ricefields! Somewhat a bit scary… Let’s hope they don’t bring us back at our starting point!
Finally all ends well. After what seems to be an eternity, the cops drop us in front of a gloomy building. The police station? No, only a ratty hotel! They leave us there with a last suspicious glance. Doesn’t matter, we are happy and relieved not to spend the night in a cell! Plus they drove us a bit forward regarding to our direction. Perfect!
In the rice fields
After this mishap with the police force, we decide to slightly change our plans. We won’t camp any more. This is to risky. We don’t want to be a problem for the local population nor to threaten the success of our project. This means we must find a hotel every night ! Last night, we spent hours bent on Google Earth, trying to spot the very tiny paths that we could take, calculating distances, gathering informations about the towns we plan to rally… To plan it this way was actually the best idea we have had in this trip. For the two following days the plainclothes police force won’t let us alone one minute, monitoring our every move. They always manage to find us anywhere, even when we try to escape a minute from there attentive watch by getting lost in the rice fields’ labyrinth!
Even in this tense climate, we can’t help to notice the beauty of the green scenery surrounding us. The rice fields are simply glorious, undulating under the light fleecy veil of the few clouds above, moving like the ocean under the caressing wind. Long straight alleys cut through the plantations and we feel a bit like Moses crossing the sea, except this one is not red but green!
Unfortunately, our itinerary sometimes forces us to walk along bigger roads, boring and hopelessly noisy. Then the unbearable heat, our tiredness and the army of suspicious policemen following us weight heavily on our souls, making it hard to keep going forward. Where is this damned sea? Will we get there one day? Even the poor innocent vietnamese people who did nothing against us are found irritating. Our efforts to learn a few words of viet vocabulary ended with a huge failure and even the language of signs is not working with them. Their body language seems to us completely goofy and vice versa. We understand nothing ! Add to this that Vietnamese people have the annoying habit to invariably answer « no » to any of our questions and then abandon us to solve all the situations by ourselves! You understand then that to find our way around or a shop or a hotel are not the simplest tasks to accomplish and everyday we need a great deal of patience to get what we need or want.
As for the cities we crossed on our way to the sea, the first we stopped in was Uuh Thanh. This city is a pure product of the fanatic communism of the 80’s. Propaganda speakers, profusion of red flags, stern martial town hall of the party, giant posters of Ho Chi Minh… This is welcoming indeed! Though we quite enjoyed this peculiar atmosphere, late witness of another era. A huge contrast compare to what we’ve seen in the Mekong delta so far.
The next town we went through is Tieu Can which is absolutely opposite to Uuh Thanh as to its general ambience. Utterly charming, pastel, pretty, quiet and nice, this city along the canals is the most agreeable vietnamese town we had the pleasure to visit for now. But we were so determined to go forward that we only stayed overnight and reached Tra Cù the following day, an horrible industrial town which instantly made us long for sweet Tieu Can. In our frenzy to make ahead, we fled very early in the morning and walked like madmen to Dinh Van, sitting only 25 kilometres from the mouth of the river ! Now, we are nearly there ! One more walking day and we’ll reach the end of our expedition!
But before that, we try to relax and enjoy the present time by walking around Dinh Van, a lovely little port where river boats and sea trawlers alike float quietly. The sea is so close now. The air is full of iodine smells, the wind is fresh and brisk.
The port is full of colourful people. We meet a joyous fishnet repairer, a mechanic virtuoso making all the boats’ spare parts by himself, a flan maker (delicious flans by the way), many laughing fishermen unloading their cargo, women scaling off the fishes, workers from the ice factory and an endless stream of happy children playing around. What an amazing buzzing place, full of life and colours and smiles! We love it very much, being in the same time intensely conscious of the precarious life of the locals. These poor people don’t have much to live on…
We are also sadden by the terrible state in which we find this arm of the Mekong river. The pollution there is unthinkable! From the pure Himalayan source to the delta of Vietnam, we saw our dear river getting dirtier and dirtier to reach this dreadful paroxysm, sending all the human garbage to fatten the 7th continent of plastic somewhere in the ocean and slowly poisoning our world like a sick artery brings death to a tired heart… This state of things seems so inexorable that we can’t help sometimes to feel totally discouraged concerning the future of planet earth.
The last 25 kilometres to the sea are the longest of our entire life. Our impatience is fuelled by a bleak deserted landscape of an accumulation of human-made basins for shrimp farming, a profitable activity as well as a very risky one, for it is easy to lost everything at the slightest change in the weather. Unfortunately, a lush mangrove swamp on our right hides the view on the mouth of the river so we have nothing to look at while on the other hand no trees or any kind of vegetation grow along the endless track to keep us from the burning sun. Since dawn, the sky has turned iron white hot and the whole place is so luminous that it is hard to keep our eyes open. Only the smell of the nearby sea gives us the strength to carry on.
The closer we get to the ocean, the more invasive the mangrove swamp gets. We meet not a single soul on the way. Around midday, though, a line of pine trees appears at the end of the track. Beyond, we know we will find the sea. Suddenly we feel shy and slow down and stop talking. We take our time and appreciate this last moments on the Mekong track. We are a little bit scared too, to be honest, and a great deal emotional. And then here we are, standing on the beach. We dreamed of this moment a hundred times, and yet now we don’t know how to react. The beach is long and deserted, burning white in the asian furnace. The sea rolls on and off quietly, brown and smelling of seaweed. Weird time, weird place. We want to cry and shout, we want to throw our shoes in the sand and run barefoot to the water, we want to celebrate loudly and dance, we want to stay silent and unmoving and watching, we don’t want to be here and we want to never leave. We look at each other and put away this conflicts in our heads. We firmly hold hands and silently walk to the sea to share a long tender kiss.
Two hours later we finally start to realise what had happened. We’ve made it! We reached the end of the Mekong! Seven and a half months earlier we were standing above the clear still waters of Zaqixiwa, the holy source of this mighty river, lost at 4880 m high on the Himalayan plateau. Today here we are, 5000 km downstream, of which we walked more than 2000 km, at the end of it. Quentin lost 27kg and Mariette 7kg, our hips and shoulders are brown and marked from the weight of our backpacks, our hair is shaggy and dry and dirty, and our feet so painful. But we feel so well. We are so happy to have lived this adventure so thoroughly, to have known those magical, precious moments, to have met all those wonderful people on the way and all those fascinating ethnic groups, to have crossed all those incredible landscapes… But we are also proud to have done this together, to have overcome the trials of the way, to have been able to support each other to keep moving forward. This experience is priceless and will change us forever, even if we don’t know yet what sort of consequences it will have on our lives and what kind of marks it will leave on our hearts.
Thank you amazing Mekong. Thanks also to all the beautiful people we met on the way with whom we shared the travelling spark. And thanks to you too, who followed our adventure on the blog and who encouraged us all along. You don’t know how much it helped us in critical moments!
And what about now? This adventure is not yet over. We will spend three more weeks in Vietnam, to discover the northern part of the country and meet amazing remote ethnic groups from the mountains, before travelling back to Europe to prepare the next travels! Stay tuned!
See you soon
M. & Mme Shoes