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Mekong: A Fairytale-Like Asian Oasis

The Vietnamese port city of My Tho sits on one of the Nine Dragons, narrow branches that the Mekong fans into near its mouth. It’s almost a two-hour drive across the delta horn the bustling urban sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where we’d landed that morning. During the van ride, my three kids had been plugged into their devices, barely glancing up as we passed villages with open shop fronts, canals where merchants steered sampans with single oars, green rice paddies dotted with pastel-painted ancestral graves. When I begged them to look at the world instead of at their smartphones, my 14-ycar-old daughter retorted, “This is the world, Mom,” without lifting her eyes.

Then, as we ascended the gangway onto the Aqua Mekong, the sleek wood-and-glass, three-deck ship on which we’d be sailing from Vietnam to Cambodia over the next five days, my daughter stopped to point out to her 11-ycar-old sister the late-afternoon sun over the river—a vast orange ball cooling its tail in the water. Max, 6, my youngest, bolted past the staff lined up to greet us and planted his nose on the lee-side picture window to watch a woman in a conical hat haul a net of glittering fish onto her sampan. I was reminded of British author Graham Greene, who lived here in the 1950s—when it was known as Indochina—and wrote so vividly about this tableau. He also understood something about the chance impressionability of youth. “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in,” he wrote in Vie Power and the Glory. Could this be it? But as the woman emptied her net, Max turned around.

“Only small ones,” he said with a shrug. As the kind of traveler who reads every-thing about a place before going, I’d told Max that the Mekong is the most biodiverse river on the planet after the Amazon, containing some of the most gigantic fish anywhere: The catfish and carp can weigh up to 300 pounds. Max, it seemed, was looking for his Moby Fish. I’d come with my own romantic view of the Mekong, which owed something to my love of Greene, but also to the fact that 18 years earlier, my husband and I had honeymooned in Vietnam and took a barge ride on this river, squashed between motorbikes and a woman transporting sugarcane on a donkey.

A sampan glides along the Mekong at sunset.
A sampan glides along the Mekong at sunset.

(It had seemed romantic at the time—but so did everything.) The Clinton administration had just restored trade with Communist Vietnam, and two decades later its new prosperity is evident everywhere: buildings going up in the cities, more cars than bicycles on the road, people in Western clothes instead of the once-ubiquitous ao dai tunic. Also better off since my newlywed days, I found watching my children board this unthinkably luxurious ship to be as disorienting as deja vu—time folding past experience onto the present. Truthfully, it felt just as long since we’d had a real vacation—as family holidays had turned us into dc facto tour guides and porters. And so as we settled into our rooms—TV-free, with floor-to-ceiling windows at river level— we were relieved when the kids disappeared to the top-deck infinity pool.

My husband and I took the boat’s signature gin cocktail (flavored with ginger and lemongrass) onto the first balcony with the only other passengers—a couple from Barcelona and another from Buenos Aires—while the vessel silently set off. We drifted past bamboo stilt villages and gilt-roofed temples. Kids washed their hair in the river, women washed clothing, and people napped in hammocks like cocoons in that distinctly Southeast Asian melding of public and private life. As we pushed up the gold-green river, I gave in to the thrill of solitude while the busy spectacle of humanity unfolded around me. The Mekong is a vast, vibrant life-support system, from its beginnings in the snowmelt of the Tibetan Plateau down through China, Bunn a, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where it issues into the South China Sea 2,703 miles later.

Its delta is home to 17 million of Vietnam’s 94 million people. Most of the country’s fish, fruit, and rice come from the region, and it shows: Almost everywhere something is flowering, fruiting, or being harvested. Women in classic non la straw hats steer loads office on low wooden craft to a husking mill on the bank; larger vessels carry fish with the family laundry flapping across the stern. Wooden working vessels have glossy black eyes painted on each side of the prow, giving them a can-do attitude, like a boat in a Richard Scarry children’s book. Much of this cargo winds up in the market stalls lining the river in each town, which is how the Aqua Mekong maintains its flesh supplies. Food is a serious feature of the trip, as parent company Aqua Expeditions signed chef David Thompson of Nahm, in Bangkok—who is something of a food god in our native Australia-to oversee their menus.

He also occasionally helms the kitchen, as lie did on our trip. On our first morning, the ship moored outside the village of Sa Dec, and Thompson walked us through the riverside market. We passed baskets of huge sea snails, pails of transparent shrimp, and every imaginable green vegetable and flower. Chickens fussed in a basket, possibly unnerved by the woman sitting opposite them plucking ducks. As we walked, Thompson introduced us to unfamiliar ingredients—picking off a new variant of coriander for us to try, or a bud of spinach-like “morning glory.” The children’s eyes widened when they touched the mustachioed snakefish flapping in a plastic trough—“Ugly as anything,” Thompson said, “but delicious”—and again as a woman arriving on a motorcycle hauled a freshly butchered pig out of a sack by the cars.

The Buddhist temple Chua Long Son, on Sam, the tallest mountain in the Mekong Delta.
The Buddhist temple Chua Long Son, on Sam, the tallest mountain in the Mekong Delta.

Stallholder’s smiled under their hats, or dozed in hammocks behind colorful jars of fermented fish. A rice store showcased huge, potbellied sacks of rice—all labeled, Thompson explained, to identify the crop by type, age, and region, “a bit like the notion of terroir in France.” As we passed a man with a cart of fried grasshoppers, he quipped, “The spiced tarantulas are better.” Back on board, Thompson used the market haul in a delicious lunch of crispy yam rolls, caramelized pork ribs in young coconut juice, grilled river lobster, and chicken and lotus-root salad. At every meal, our 11-ycar-old, usually a reluctant cater, updated her Instagram feed via the ship’s spotty Wi-Fi: “Now this is my favorite food.” At that moment, I realized she wasn’t deflecting the world with her screen; she was celebrating it.

The aqua Mekong carries four motorized skiffs for daily excursions. Onshore, the children loved the tuk-tuk rides through small villages that, unlike the city, looked remarkably as they did 20 years ago. At the pagoda on Sam Mountain, we gazed over the patchwork of rice paddies to the Cambodian border, while below us, a young monk sat reading under a rock ledge. Inside, packets of chocolate cookies were stacked in pyramids on either side of an enormous Buddha, making the kids giggle: What deity wouldn’t want offerings of sweets? On other days, we took the skiffs up tributaries like the Bassac Canal, where a cluster of boats revealed itself to be a floating fruit market. When our driver noticed some buzz around a fish farm, we zoomed in and watched workers haul hyacinth-reed baskets of gleaming silver catfish through a trough in the bottom of the boat.

“All small,” I heard Max mutter. One afternoon, we set off with an Aqua guide to visit the home of a local family at My An Hung and disembarked next to a flimsy stick bridge that looked like a child’s drawing. How picturesque, I thought, until the kids hopped onto the swaying structure. A local girl passed them by, tapping nonchalantly on her cell phone and not looking at her feet at all, demonstrating dexterity in a digital age. In the front yard of the wooden home, the matriarch, her hair in a chignon, smiled from behind a table loaded with local fruits (including durian—“smells like hell; tastes like heaven,” according to the guide, who was right) and a regional rice wine called ruou gao. Shoeless, we entered the house, and in an airy living area, the woman and her husband played an electric zither (dan tranh) and electric guitar, and sang a doleful duet in wavering notes.

The children were less taken with the music than the room, lined with an array of electric flashing Buddhas, a portrait of Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, and shrines bedecked with flowers and incense. On one wall hung framed photos of our hosts from the 1960s to the ’80s—turns out they were the Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash of Vietnam. When we crossed into Cambodia, the river was noticeably quieter. In its fractured past, Cambodia had endured the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79), which yielded to the Vietnamese occupation and then a UN-led administration in the 1990s. Consequently, it is less developed and notably poorer than its southern neighbor. We bicycled through fields of taro plants large as triffids, passing creamy Brahman cattle with tinkling necklaces and saffron-robed boy monks walking barefoot.

Flowers drape the roof of a house in the town of My An Hung, Vietnam.
Flowers drape the roof of a house in the town of My An Hung, Vietnam.

In the villages, local children, some with baby siblings on their hips, popped out to greet us with cries of “Hello! Hello!’’ and laughed when we called back. These encounters with other children fascinated our kids, prompting a lively discussion with our daughters one night about poverty’s roots in colonialism and war—one of those parenting moments where you’re struck, and even a bit thrown, by their precocious insight and empathy. At Preah Prosop, we visited an elementary school where we could hear the students chanting their lessons from open classrooms. Our guide motioned us in, but Max refused and walked off to sit under a tree with our tuk-tuk driver. I wondered if he shared the self-consciousness we felt as Western tourists disrupting this peaceful scene, or if maybe he’d overheard our discussion with the girls.

But no, it seemed he simply didn’t want to be the new boy in class. Then, at the school’s temple, we met with four monks, ages 14 to 36, who sat on the floor in their robes. Any boy can join a monastery, they explained, where he receives an education funded by donations. The monks began chanting a blessing in Khmer, as the elder monk anointed us with water from a silver chalice. When we walked out, none of us spoke for some time. Then Max said, “Did you see that silver cup? They are so rich.” “No, they’re not,” his middle sister said. “They are rich,” my oldest daughter responded, “in culture, not in money.” “Maybe both, sometime soon,” my husband said, as we started walking. The elder monk had told him lie was studying for an MBA—wise preparations for his next incarnation in this gradually emerging economy.

On our last evening, the staff set up a bar on a sandy riverbank so we could swim. Not a giant catfish in sight. But as in Melville, and in our most profound travel experiences, you inevitably find things you didn’t know you were looking for. Watching my family’s heads bobbing in the Mekong at sunset, I thought about how kids are born ambassadors, observant of—but not unsettled by— cultural difference. Our adult projections about race and culture are as much a screen that keeps us from engaging as anything the kids hold in their hands. Max is just a boy looking for a fish, who does not want to go to school during his holiday. His middle sister is a tween for whom it makes total sense that God has a sweet tooth. And his big sister sees vast cultural riches in a world without running water. The future is global, and—as Greene predicted—they have let it in.

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