If you’re not very organised and plan your trip around intuitive inconsistencies like ‘what feels right at the time’ or you go for practical ease like ‘where’s the nearest place to here’, eventually you’re going to end up somewhere you don’t particularly want to be. And the reason you’re not particularly going to want to be there is the weather.
Coming from a place where the weather is perpetually crap (north of England) I can make the best of most meteorological phenomena. Too cold? Wear a jumper. Raining? Get wet. But too hot? Ah, that’s a different beast altogether.
You’d think we would have learned by now. Myanmar in March 2014 when the temperature regularly goes over 40 degrees; April 2014 in Bangkok when it’s as humid as the devil’s armpit and now, Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in April 2015 when even the Australians are staying indoors.
Our Vietnamese visas ran out in ten days and we planned to cross over into Cambodia by boat from the port at Chau Doc. I thought there was something special and kind of romantic about crossing the border into a new country via a river. Like, how can you draw a line in water that ebbs and flows with the tide? Screw it, we thought. With lots of cold drinks and a decent electric fan, we’ll be fine.
We left Saigon for Vinh Long on a local bus feeling like great explorers. Neither of us knew that the local bus from Saigon District One to Saigon District Five, a distance of around 5-7km, would take an hour and a half, more than half of the total time it would take to get all the way to Vinh Long. But what’s an hour and a half when your time is entirely your own and the views are views you’ve never seen before and there’s a breeze from the open window and you’ve got a bottle of ice tea to drink.
You can stay in Vinh Long town in a hostel or hotel and take a boat excursion out onto the Tien and Hau rivers from there but we decided to go for a homestay on the tiny An Binh island instead.
The only two times I have felt unsafe on a motorbike in Vietnam was when I drove one myself for the first ever time in Mui Ne and when I took a motorbike taxi from the ferry port on An Binh Island to our rural homestay.
I climbed aboard the ancient Honda and before I even had my feet on the pegs he took off. The weight of my backpack dragged me backwards and I grabbed onto the driver’s skinny shoulders to stay in my seat. The motorbike bounced in and out of potholes and skidded across rock-strewn tracks and I genuinely thought we were both going to come off. The driver must have too because he laughed all the way there. If there was a joke I was definitely the punchline.
We made it to the homestay and passed through a narrow archway ablaze with pink flowers. The whole garden that surrounded the property smelled really delicious, so sweet that it seemed artificial. Some kind of party was in full swing and the owner of the guest house was really drunk which I though was a nice touch. I wanted to join the party but instead we dropped our sweaty, exhausted, badly-treat bodies into hammocks and slept until the mosquitoes came out and spoiled it.
There were other travellers staying at the homestay but they weren’t very friendly or maybe we weren’t, it’s hard to tell sometimes. The ice between travelling strangers is very thin but if no one steps forward to break it, it stays exactly where it is.
Early to bed, early to rise, that is the lifestyle of rural people, a lifestyle I wanted to get on board with but after a night of tossing and turning on a hard mattress where the 35 degree air was only slightly moved around the room by a rotating fan that was too far from the bed to feel, I rose for a boat ride to a floating market feeling like I had been wrapped in plastic and thrown down a flight of stairs.
Is it okay to say that the floating market experience the next day was underwhelming? It doesn’t feel OK. It feels bratty and unimaginative but it was. The market was authentic, people were selling sweet potatoes and watermelons, not souvenirs but there weren’t many of them. Most sellers take advantage of the new roads connecting the island to the mainland and take their wares to land-markets by motorbike, a development the floating market venders of today are either too old or too unwilling to embrace. Land markets are less picturesque for tourists but for the people who actually have to live this life it’s easier, which is all that matters.
In the afternoon we borrowed bicycles and braved the heat (without a hat because I’m an actual idiot) to ride around the island looking for something, I don’t know what. Whatever it was we were looking for we didn’t find it because truly, there was nowhere to go.
Close to the ferry dock we cycled past a sign that said ‘garden café’ so we parked our bikes and shyly pushed open the gates into a little courtyard off a small house where we found a teeny, tiny, wizened old man and a teeny, tiny, wizened old woman sitting in front of a TV. At first they didn’t notice us so we waited, not knowing what else to do, until they saw us standing right in front of them. When finally, the old man began to stand we pointed to a row of cans, once red now bleached pink by the sun lined up in a glass cabinet and said ‘coca-cola’?
The old woman creaked into action and took two fresh cans out of a fridge, the joy, but went on to offer us ‘ice’ which was frozen in a plastic yoghurt pot and had streaks of black running through it. I think it was the only time I’ve ever declined an offer of ice in my drink in Vietnam and I think it was the right thing to do.
If someone had told me that couple were 110 years old I would have believed it and I felt unworthy of how happy they were they we were there. We drank up, enjoyed the old man practising a few bits of English with us and let them get back to their TV.
Our stay on An Binh Island was a back to basics taste of real rural Vietnamese Mekong life. There were hammocks and copious Dragon fruit and Rambutan trees but after two nights of no sleep, no air conditioning, no restaurants and no cafes I had had my fill.
I had intended to spend an afternoon at Viet Artisans, an arts and crafts school on the island that helped local women to learn handcraft skills and work their way out of poverty but, sadly, I just couldn’t drag my pathetic body across the island in that heat.
I was really mad at myself for that. In fact I felt kind of mad at myself for the way I had wilted in the heat and struggled to find energy for the whole two days. What kind of great explorer was I?
As we left An Binh island behind, taking a local ferry over to Vinh Long then a local bus the few hours drive to Can Tho, I thought about my lack of ‘great explorer’ skills. I’m perpetually tired, I walk with a limp and one of my favourite pastimes is day-dreaming, but that’s me and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I went to An Binh Island, I came, I saw and I did not conquer – it was too damn hot for conquering.