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Traveling to Tra Vinh

By F.R. "Fritz" Nordengren

It's another beautiful sunrise in the Mekong Delta. I know because we have agreed to get up early and watch the sun rise over the floating market here in Vinh Long from our hotel balconies.

When I open the door to my balcony, I'm immediately struck by the difference in temperature and humidity. The air conditioning was set quite a bit cooler than I was used to, and this morning, because I have left my camera and video gear in the room overnight, the heat and humidity are going to slow my picture taking.

So for the first few minutes, I sit with a few friends and listen to the sounds of the Mekong river market. Two-cycle engines with long shafts connecting the motor to the propeller power the riverboats. The hacking cough of a two-cycle engine is distinctive and the combined noise of the many boats creates a chorus of commerce outside our hotel.

These river boats appear to be about five to seven meters long, although there are a few that reach close to eight meters. Most are simple and are covered with make-shift fabric tops. Others are more elaborate in their shelter. It becomes obvious that some of the larger boats are home for the families aboard. As the sun climbs higher and my camera lenses are no longer fogged, I set up and begin to shoot video of the morning activity. Several boats move back and forth across the viewfinder, leaving and entering the small inlet of the river near the hotel and heading either to the market or to the larger Mekong. One boat, in particular, catches my eye. It is not much larger than the typical boat. Perhaps two meters wide, and seven meters long. It has a wood cabin. What catches my eye is a chicken, pecking on a fabric top. As I slowly pan across the length of the boat, I see three small children aged about 5, 3 and 1, playing in the open aft section of the boat. The two oldest children are exchanging sibling punches. A dog hops up on the stern and looks around at the activity in the market this morning. The mother of the children casts a watchful eye over the two older siblings who have lost interest in their battle and are now looking over the market, too.

Moored next to the family boat is another boat, of similar size, but configured for tourism. The aft section has a tarp covered hammock. The remainder of the boat has two rows of seats, facing the centerline of the boat with seating for about 14 people. This means that it may be possible to contract with private boat operators for river tours, however, as in My Tho and Can Tho, it is best to make local inquiries.

As activity on the river begins to slow, I walk to the street market with one of my travel companions, Deb Holbrook. The market is very busy as we walk through the stalls. I notice the contrast and variety of products for sale and look over the abundant produce of the delta.

Outside the main building, the stalls have fresh and dried fish. Dried shrimp are piled high on trays. We see other dried flat fish and a vendor selling dried starfish. Two women are busy slicing vegetables into a barrel of water. Their slices are almost paper thin.

Inside the building, the smells of the market again wake up my senses. Rice, in various colors and shapes, is offered at many stalls. Salt(in large rock form), spices, beans and packaged foods are available. There are mounds of fresh garlic and rice noodles. Here, too, are stalls selling china and tea sets, cooking utensils, and clothes.

In one of them, a shopkeeper carefully shapes dry rice into mounds in the display sacks. Mounds of each variety look attractive and invite buyers to scoop the rice they need. She reaches into a second container with her hands, cups the rice, and carefully mounds it again in the display container. Much like the process of "facing the shelves" in a grocery store to make the canned and bottled products look better, this shopkeeper knows what it takes to sell her product quickly.

Across the aisle, an artist works on a photo realistic painting of an older woman. He is working from a photograph, and in his stall are dozens of paintings, all with the realism of a photograph and the nuance of a hand-made illustration. I later learned that these photos are often used to remember the dead. It is also common for the portraits to be of the person at a young age.

The Mekong river has nine branches as it runs through the delta. Vinh Long is on a branch with Phnom Penh, Cambodia to the west and Tra Vinh to the east just before it empties into the South China Sea. Vinh Long and Tra Vinh are the largest towns in their respective provinces. What makes Tra Vinh province special is that it is approximately 70% Khmer and Tra Vinh City is home to about 300,000 Khmer.

Viewing the sunrise, market and enjoying a breakfast at the nearby Phuong Thuy restaurant, we decided to hire a car and visit Tra Vinh. We decided it would be a good way to explore parts of the Mekong many people overlook. Based on our previous luck of finding great photo opportunities and nice views, I am surprised to find Deb at the hotel counter looking over some postcards. She picks a set with some delta scenes and rice harvesting.

We meet the transportation captain affiliated with Cuu Long Tourist in the lobby of the hotel. We outline our need for a car and driver for the day. As we want to be back in My Tho for a late dinner, we negotiate a three-legged trip from Vinh Long to Tra Vinh and to My Tho. Our negotiated fee is 600,000 dong, a bit high, but still reasonable. We pay the captain and confirm that tipping the driver is up to us.

Before we leave the lobby, I look out once more at the river. The lobby is very close to the bank and low to the water. It wouldn't take more than a two or three meter rise in the river to put it under water.

Driving along the highway southwest of Vinh Long, the rice farmers are working their harvest by the side of the road. Each morning, sacks of rice are spread along the side of the road to dry them in the sun. At the end of the day, the rice is picked up and re-bagged for storage. It's an interesting sight and attracts our attention. We see a group working near the side of the road and we ask our driver in our best broken Vietnamese, to stop the car.

Being courteous, or not understanding what we are saying, he drives safely past the group of workers and continues for nearly half a kilometer before stopping. With the photo opportunity now clearly in our rear view mirror, Deb and I get out, snap a few pictures and climb slowly back into the car. Then we remember the postcards. One of them includes a scene of exactly the image we want to photograph. We pull it out and show our driver and explain, again in Vietnamese, that we want to take pictures. He smiles. We drive off, and when we find the next group by the side of the road, he stops without being asked.

It is this kind of cooperation that makes traveling in Vietnam much easier than I expected. Keeping a phrase book close and being patient to work through sign language or multi-cultural charades, you can explain almost anything.

Further down the highway, just outside of Tra Vinh, our driver pulls to the side of the road and takes a smaller dirt road away from the highway. We stop and park in front of a temple. It has been explained to me that in Vietnam, the difference between a temple and a pagoda is whether or not there are monks who reside there. This temple has resident monks and is called Chau Anh, originally built in 642.

We walk down a tree-lined path. The traffic noise from the highway is just as strong, but with each step, we walk further into the lush tropical jungle that surrounds the temple. Some of the guidebooks suggest there are as many as 140 Khmer temples and pagodas in Tra Vinh province with perhaps fifty Vietnamese and five Chinese pagodas. This is an area of the Mekong that is rich with religious history. As we reach the midpoint of the path I recognize that, instead of talking, Deb and I are now whispering to each other. I also notice the steady hum of traffic is replaced by the gentle, rhythmic raking of rice, laid out to dry on the steps and walkways of the temple. The young man raking the rice looks up to acknowledge us, but continues his chore. The compound has several shrine structures around the main temple building.

My curiosity is answered when a young monk, dressed in saffron colored robes, approaches and asks where we are from. Then, silently, he leads us behind the large sanctuary. The drone of traffic quiets and suddenly we hear the chanting of a priest through an amplifier system. While it is usually acceptable to take pictures, use a flash, make video or audio recordings of these ceremonies, we always ask permission before doing so. Our guide leads us to the back of this second sanctuary and, after we take off our shoes, he encourages us to step in and videotape the ceremony.

Although each temple is different, the typical Buddhist temple has three main areas: the altar, the side altar and the meditation area. The altar is at the head of the sanctuary and contains the primary statue of Buddha. Each temple can be dedicated to one of many Buddhas. The side altar will contain pictures or statues of the founder as well as the lineage of the temple. The lineage is the students who have followed the teachings of the founder. The third area contains the pews or meditation cushions used by the congregation for worship.

During my taping, I see two rows of young monks sitting listening to the priest. At the end of the rows, near the altar, a priest leads the chant which the congregation answers. Many in the congregation offer incense during the ceremony while a young couple walks to the altar to make an offering to Buddha.

As I finish taping, the young monk leads us back outside to a courtyard. Here, we see a statue of the reclining Buddha which is not a common image of Buddha in Vietnam. The statue is engraved, in Vietnamese and English with a description of the Buddha's life that includes the words "the Buddha entered into nirvana in 543 BC after preaching for the welfare of the peoples for 45 years."

He then leads us into the main sanctuary and while showing us around, tells us the story of the temple in broken English. Prior to letting us take pictures, the young monk turns on the electric blinking lights around the altar and behind the Buddha's statue. As we finish our discussions and picture taking, the raking sound from the rice filled courtyard stops and is replaced by a gentle shuffling as the man working the rice begins shuffling his feet through the rice in a back and forth dance, sifting the grains between his feet. We climb into the car for the rest of our journey.

Our arrival at our second temple, Chau Hang, is near noon. The temple has a large retaining wall around it with a gate. Following a drive down a short lane, we entered a dirt courtyard. A large sanctuary building, painted bright white is in front of us. Opposite it is a two-story dormitory style building and flanking each side are one- story structures. A few young monks are enjoying the shade they have found. Midday is not the best time to visit here. Many tourists come to this area and visit Chau Hang and Chau Co (about 45 km away) for the bird sanctuary. Many storks nest here and are often seen in great number at sunrise and sunset. Other travelers have suggested the best way to see the area is to wander on our own but we are quickly greeted by a young monk whose English is as strong as his desire to practice with us. In the main courtyard, he offers a history of the temple and monastery, telling us that 28 monks and 25 nuns made their residence here. "Nuns" he describes are seminarians or monks newer to their learning. As he leads us into the sanctuary, he too turns on the flashing lights behind Buddha's head before we take pictures. As he tells the stories I walk around. On the walls, there were several posed photographs that look like class pictures of groups of monks. Some have dated captions, others are not dated but the fading of the colors in the prints gave some clue to their ages.

Back on the road and after a brief look around Tra Vinh, we head for My Tho. We are just outside of Tra Vinh when I see, what I think is a casket on a small boat in a small stream near the road. There is a group of about 100 people standing around the road, so I ask the driver to stop. As we approach a group, I recognize that it is, indeed, a casket being loaded from the boat to a small blue pickup truck parked on the opposite side of the road. As we watch, people climb on top of the pickup and into the back with the casket.

Sitting in the front seat are two boys; one of them is holding a painting of an older woman. The woman in the painting is sitting at a table and looks to be his grandmother's age. The painting was very similar in style to the ones I saw in the market in Vinh Long. The boys in the truck and several of the mourners are dressed in white. A bundle of incense is burning on the dashboard and several people hold incense. As many as 15 people have now climbed in and on top of the truck with the casket. In a wagon pulled behind a honda om, a group of musicians sits waiting to play. As the other mourners mount bicycles, hondas or get in line to walk in the procession, traffic, still trying to move along this stretch of highway, slows to let them cross the street. A young photographer snaps the scene and, as the procession is ready to move, he hops on the back of a honda, facing backward, clicking his shutter.

The musicians begin to play, a cymbal beat and drums keep time. And while the music is definitely eastern, it sounds similar to a Scottish pipe and drum corps. My office, in the United States, is across from a cemetery and I see dozens of funeral processions a week. This one, even though so far from home and certainly a long way from my Presbyterian upbringing, reminds me of the similarities of each of us in the world.

The procession moves on and so do we.

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