That was not the best of nights. This is not the best of mornings. I am far from 100 percenting today, but the show, this rather excruciating show, must unfortunately go on… and on. Nothing more than a dry baguette and an uninspired omelette to sustain me. Travelling once having succumbed to even the most minor inconvenience or illness of course sucks, but I maintain that I’ve had a pretty blessedly easy journey in this regard to date, so actually, little complaint is to be heard from me. Mario informs me I didn’t miss out on any cultural revelations of ‘authenticity’ at the so-called ‘Home Stay’ that I skipped on last night. No Biggy.
This morning our destination is the biggest of the Mekong Deltas many famed floating markets.
Banana Boy :)
The Cai Rang floating market. These are early doors affairs so come 6.45 we’re in a bus (briefly) and on our way to the waters edge. Here our guide Jaing starts organising the complicated job of ushering 45 tired and bumbling tourists down the slippery stone, bank side steps to decant us into 3 small Lon Tail style boats that will carry us to, and through the market. As a solo traveller (Mario still not having arrived from the home stay) I am pulled prematurely to the front to fill a space, which then filled anyway is denied me, and I must wait, perched by the waters edge to be squeezed into one of the later boats.
The floating market at Cai Rang is by far and away the most interesting thing that we observe in our two day ‘tour’ of the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam.
I would not say that it justifies the effort and tediums of the rest of the journey. But it is a unique situation, and vision for me, so it goes some long way to restoring my travel karma. As the title suggests, this is a morning market that takes place entirely aboard a vast flotilla of boats that bob and drift mid-stream in the river itself. Tens of tens of boats, jostling and grating together. All of them a mini hive of activity and stacked high with produce of all descriptions… principally food. Mountains of pineapples, over spilling baskets of cucumbers and other greens, onions by the ton; fruits by the million. Amidst the prows and bows of the larger market boats a gaggle of smaller produce rowing boats are propelled dexterously about this temporary river maze by the hard working, ‘limpet’ hat adorned Vietnamese women of the Delta.
These large bamboo poles project from all Cai Rang's floating market boats; the produce tied to them announces what the particular boat has for sale.
They push and twist their large crossed oars through the muddy coloured Mekong waters. These are powerful ladies despite their often lean and weather-beaten looking frames. All of them, as throughout Vietnam, dressed in their infinitely varied colour and patterning of pijama style clothes.
Pulling of the easterly flank of the market our boat glides peaceably along through the scene. I’m sat right up front so have a great position to take it all in. As we move along, in the distance a large green tanker-style ship heads down stream towards us. A construction barge. It does not remain in the distance for very long as it travels towards us at a fair old clip. Normal traffic, the interactions of the little and the large upon the river.
Well used to such arrivals our boatman starts to propel us to the left in anticipation of this ship and its ensuing bow wave. The second of our three boats tacks off to the right, the sight of it soon lost as the vast expanse if green steel glides rapidly past us and the barge continues on towards the mouth of the river.
In my next couple of photos I notice, curiously, that absolutely every market person is suddenly stopped in their activity and staring towards the east bank of the river. A line of conical hats all slanted in exactly the same direction. Our boat, punting on slowly at this moment, has its own attention suddenly and firmly cast in the same direction. There is a great commotion of towards the far bank of the river.
A cluster of little boats swirls about, everyone looking into the river waters. A growing crowd. Raised voices. There’s confusion over there. There’s confusion over here. What are we looking at? Is there a rare creature spotted in the water; a river dolphin perhaps? Is everyone after a prized photo of something? What we cannot tell. And where’s our second group boat? And what are those bits of wood floating in the water now?! Oh god. Oh dear, oh dear. A penny starts to drop. Into the water it drops. Something’s gone wrong. Very badly wrong. The confused mass of people and boats is just getting more impenetrable in the distance as we urge our boat driver in vain to turn back.
We call out to two members of our group, spotted on the far shore in a fluster… and soaking wet from head to toe!??? Drenched completely. They motion with body language something which looks like ‘backpacks’, pointing into the river. Our boat though, despite our protestations is carrying on to a pre-arranged drop off point and we leave the scene in mounting confusion, concern and anxiety.
The various parties of the tour group are completely thrown into disarray and fragmented by this event. An event from which it will be some hours before we are all reunited, rumour, frightening rumour will be dissipated… to be replaced with the awful truth. The second of our three boats, the one that peeled off to the right of the cargo barge was caught short and smashed by the too-rapidly advancing bigger boat.
Their boat was smashed, overturned completely and sunk in the Mekong, all of its passengers flipped over and dunked deep into the waters of the ‘Mother River’. The cargo barge, sped on away from the scene of the accident whilst our gang floundered and attempted to make it safely to shore, their possessions and many passports given up to the river depths. Two of our group though sadly never made it back and drowned, claimed forever by the Mekong’s watery embrace. Of the 45 odd people in our tour group, 3 of them were Vietnamese, and it is two of the Vietnamese men that have died as a result of the collision. As we are ushered sombrely, and still in some state of confusion back into the bus ( “How many?”, “What? How?!”, “They’re dead!!!”, “Two people!? Are you serious?”, “Are they really dead?!”, “Have the bodies been recovered?!”, “Did anyone get the boat driver?!”
) Mrs Quan, whose husband is missing in the Mekong sits over the aisle from me, distraught, sobbing and crying her heart out.
Inconsolable. Does she grieve too soon. Comforted by another member of our group. Unfortunately she does not grieve prematurely. A line of soaked passports are strung long the curtain rail of the bus, their sodden pages drying and curling in the sun. A most strange testament to some of the identities that have been saved from death in the Mekong.
We are driven back to the hotel of the night before in grave silence. The presumed and soon to be confirmed widow, poor, poor Mrs Quan’s sobs and simpering the only noise on the bus. She and her husband had been taking the Delta tour as a scenic means of reaching the far westerly Delta town of Chau Doc.
"What is everybody suddenly staring at?"
A pilgrimage as well as a holiday. Here they were to pay homage to and make thanks; offerings of gratitude at a renowned temple to a revered Vietnamese folk god to whom they had prayed and asked for prosperity many long years ago, Jaing later tells us. Their journey was an earnest quest to make good on a promise made decades ago that if they led happy and prosperous lives - which they since had enjoyed - they would make the journey as a gesture of their gratitude. It seems life occasionally throws up these moments of fateful and cruel, cruel irony.
We stay in the reception area of the hotel all day. Many long and strange hours of anticipation whilst the police and other authorities take detailed depositions from those directly effected in the collision and witnesses.
Passports strung out and drying on our tour bus.
Jaing looks tired, emotional (of course) and harassed having to deal with the most difficult day in his 8 years of tourism, if not his life to keep everything together. Keeping tired, shocked tourists and the bureaucratic authorities as happy as is possible under such tragic circumstances. As the day progresses, details fall into place but I will spare you those other than to say that of course at some point the two bodies are confirmed as recovered; yet beyond hope of mortal recovery. Mrs Quan, sat and thronged about by the ministrations of police and hotel staff is disappearing from view, in a mist of agony and tears. Her image being claimed, overwhelmed by the harsh events of the day; of her life today. A monochrome, weeping portrait of heartbreak and suffering.
Our battered tour group returned to the hotel lobby to assist the authorities.
She is so brave today and she has my condolences and thoughts still; as well as the family of Mr Van Khoi who also lost his life today.
Later. Much later. We make the long, arduous and silent return through nightmare traffic all the way back to Saigon. It’s been an incredibly strange and difficult two days. Everyone is tired and emotionally drawn out. Passports dry now. But not all the tears. I am still ill, but this is of no matter or consequence. I am safe in body if a little shaken in mind. I am 100 percenting in mortality. Reasons to be thankful. The first time on my journey I have ever so faintly heard the wings of fate - today someone else’s fate - beat above my head. Too distant.
Aware of a sense of tragedy, of 'news', a passing street-vending family stop and stare in to see if they can glean what has happened.
High up and a little to the right. They didn’t touch me. Not this time. So the journey carries on.