I hadn’t been to Chau Doc in nearly two decades, so was definitely looking forward to this trip. Though my wife doesn’t travel well, she came along because she wanted to visit Mistress’ Temple. All over Vietnam, there are Mistress’ Temples, with most dedicated to Guanyin, but the Chau Doc one was built for a found statue whose origin most worshippers are ignorant of, and have no interest in. Scholars have established that it is definitely Cambodian, for the entire Mekong Delta belonged to Cambodia until three centuries ago, a blink in history.
By the 17th century, Cambodia was a shadow of its Khmer Empire greatness. Squeezed by more powerful Thailand and Vietnam, King Chey Chettha II decided to side with the Nguyen Lords (who ruled half of Vietnam), and this fateful decision led to Vietnam eventually swallowing up a third of Cambodia.
Chey Chettha II’s antipathy towards Thailand can likely be traced to his being taken hostage by them from age 21 to 31. That would piss me off, too. Chettha II exacted his revenge, somewhat, at the legendary battle of Kampong Chhnang, where his troops slew many Thais. Enthroned, Chettha II married a Vietnamese princess.
Ah, all these obscure figures and places, but then again, what does Bunker Hill, Saratoga, Antietam or Chancellorsville mean to a non-American or, for that matter, recent American college graduate?
Shiloh? Isn’t that, like, ah, a Jewish holiday? At my college, we always celebrate Shiloh.
Sovereignty lost, Cambodians in the Mekong Delta became an ethnic minority, and as recently as the 1970’s, some were still trying to evict the Vietnamese, but it was way too late. The Mekong Delta hasn’t just become Vietnamese, but quintessentially so, just as California, taken from Mexico, is emblematically American, but nothing is final, of course, for maps are constantly being redrawn, at least psychically. One can board a plane for a familiar destination, only to land in a completely alien territory. I don’t know what I will see the next time I visit St. Paul, Bolzano or Brussels, for example.
The Mekong Delta has its own singing styles, chamber music, blues, folk theater and perhaps Vietnam’s best modernist writer, Ho Bieu Chanh, an author of 64 novels and 12 collections of stories. Marguerite Duras met her Chinese-Vietnamese lover on a ferry in the Mekong Delta. Once colonized, any land breeds an entirely new culture and mythology that erase all that came before them.
Beginning in Tibet, the Mekong flows through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, before reaching Vietnam. In the 90’s, China started building dams on this great liquid dragon, and there are now seven, with an eighth planned for Cambodia. Controlling the river’s flow, China has all these yellow countries by the balls.
Porfirio Díaz lamented, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States,” and the same can be said of Vietnam apropos China. Their easily crossed border has witnessed many invasions, and even the sea off Vietnam’s coast is now claimed by China, so that it can’t even extract its own natural gas. Mexico has reasons for hope, for its beefy, bullying neighbor is already decomposing after merely 241 years, but China is as eternal as any nation.
On the way to Chau Doc, we stopped in Long Xuyen for lunch, and the presence of so many itinerant lottery ticket sellers spoke of the relative poverty of the area. The city of 400,000, though, looked much improved from 2001. The roundabout downtown was anchored by an ornamental steel tower that’s crowned by four orange stars, four red flames, four street lanterns and four pseudo clocks, and if that description makes little sense, the sight itself was nearly as baffling, but at least it wasn’t a brutal socialist statue slapped together with chunky concrete blocks.
Visiting Chau Doc in 2000, my wife and I stayed with a friend, Mrs. Nga, who owned a bakery, cranking out baguettes. The front room had a picture of Mt. Rainer, wrapped in yellowing and slashed plastic. Cobwebs decorated the upper reaches of each wall. Graciously, Mrs. Nga gave us her own bed, with its thin mattress and homey mosquito netting, so everything was fine, except there was not a bathroom in the entire house. Rural Vietnamese used to refer to relieving oneself as “going to the field” [“đi đồng”], so many of them, like Mrs. Nga, never considered a built-in toilet a necessity.
During these pre-cellphone days, the outside world only reached remote Chau Doc via video cassettes, so at night, there were these half-lit oases of men watching, enraptured, Hollywood movies, including Vietnam War travesties.
The stretch from Long Xuyen to Chau Doc used to be particularly beautiful, with verdant fields to one’s left, and a river to one’s right, with the mostly miserable shacks that lined it not detracting but adding to the picturesqueness. If one doesn’t have to endure it, poverty can be charming or even sexy.
In 2019, these shacks are almost entirely replaced by solid, concrete houses, and the buildup mars both sides of the road. The Vietnamese first called their southernmost third Deer Field [Đồng Nai], but there are certainly no deer left, much less tigers, though an image of the fearful beast still guards many temples. Men come, mess up the land, then lie beneath, and after many a summer, croaks the poisoned swan.
We reached Chau Doc without an argument, a rare achievement, for my wife doesn’t travel well. An extremely meticulous person, she must micro manage every detail of each second, so the numerous surprises of being on the road often frustrate if not infuriate her. At home, she’s always cleaning and putting things in order. For two decades, my wife has clipped my toe nails, for she simply doesn’t trust me to do it right. I’m a frightful pig in her eyes. I also suspect that she must control what she can since our lives have been so uncertain, thanks to my writing pursuit.
Many American men have the opposite problem, I know. When I visited a white friend in North Carolina a while back, I found him always washing the dishes, while his girlfriend lazed on an armchair. Ringed by assorted garbage, including used condoms, their messy bed would be shunned by a hobo, and no, my friend was not “white trash,” but a PhD-educated transplant from Connecticut. His girlfriend, too, was an academic. She never cleaned on principle.
The center of Chau Doc is but a mile from the Cambodian border. In 1978, the Khmer Rouge crossed into nearby Ba Chuc and massacred 3,157 Vietnamese civilians, so there’s a macabre memorial there, complete with skulls in glass cabinets and photos of impaled women. Like each man, a nation only remembers the wrongs it has suffered, not those it inflicted.
The main road into Chau Doc is a wide boulevard flanked by hideous modernist sculptures. The marriage of glib abstraction and bureaucratic decision making has resulted in millions of steel and stone monstrosities blighting vistas worldwide. I cringed. The Khmer Rouge would not have put up with this.
To accommodate increasing throngs of visitors, Chau Doc’s Mistress Temple had been greatly enlarged, I soon discovered, with even an entrance fee for each four-wheeled vehicle. Supplicants arrive with tons of food each day, and since a stone sculpture can’t eat any of it, these bags of rice, roast pigs and all sorts of fruits are resold, with the proceeds supposedly going to Buddhist charities.
A while back, I wrote about the general elegance of Da Lat, as manifested in its architecture and dress. Chau Doc was the exact opposite, for everything was particularly tacky, garish or clownish, even by Vietnamese standards. The people, too, appeared unusually coarse, but perhaps these are exactly the types that would flock to worship an alien statue, crudely painted.
Inside a small shrine the size of a dog house, there was just a stone chunk that didn’t resemble anything, yet it attracted a succession of austere worshippers, each with incense sticks held high over his forehead. They had no idea what they were praying to. It didn’t matter.
Roaming through Mistress’ Temple, I photographed many outlandish scenes, making for an intriguing set, I thought, one of my recent best, then I noticed a No Photography sign. Too late! Plus, the security guards there didn’t seem to mind. I had done my work, with even the Mistress herself captured.
On the way back, we stopped in Can Tho, the chief city in the Mekong Delta. In 1999 or so, I saw a few queers sashay near the Ho Chi Minh statue by the Mekong River. Sitting near me, a man exclaimed, “Hi-Fi!”
“Yes, they’re gay.”
Hi-Fi, you see, sounds like hai phái, meaning two genders. Stereo sexuality. I learnt a new slang.
Can Tho features prominently in my novel, Love Like Hate. I wax, “Before 1975, the richest families owned vast tracts of land and lived in colonial-era villas built in a style that was a hybrid of East and West. Tucked in tropical gardens leafy with coconut, mango, plum, durian, jackfruit, guava, papaya, custard apple, banana, betel nut and lemon trees, each of these solid brick houses boasted a spacious porch with square columns. The high ceiling of the front room was often painted in pastel colors with bucolic scenes evoking somewhere in Europe. It was the rococo, Mekong style. On the floor were cool floral tiles, ideal for the hot weather. The furniture was made from teak, ebony or rosewood.”
Can Tho in 2019 is nothing like this, needless to say. Now, there’s a 30-story, five star hotel where most of the waiters and bartenders have college degrees, with at least a decade of English lessons behind them. A suspension bridge, opened in 2010, eliminated the once-iconic ferry crossing, with its festive, messy array of eateries and itinerant food vendors at each end. Gone too are the tiny shrines to an underwater dragon [thủy long].
Another icon, the thatch hut, is becoming scarce. In this region’s constant scorching heat, a cool thatch hut is quite suitable, actually, plus it is super cheap, but among the drawbacks are its tendency to leak during storms, vulnerabilities to termites, break ins and flames, size limitations and short lifespan. In place of thatch huts and the equally quaint wooden houses, one now finds concrete clad homes of up to six stories that flaunt a mishmash of Western architectural features. Even when grand and comfortable, most of these are rather hideous looking, for they manifest a rootless, borrowed aesthetics not even half-digested.
Duras, “There are no seasons in that part of the world, we have just the one season, hot, monotonous, we’re in the long hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal,” or one can say that each morning is renewal and spring, with lush plants and birds chirping, though by noon, it’s oven hot, a daily ordeal. Without autumns and winters, the Mekong Delta is deprived of ready metaphors for decline and death. Never gloomy, it is a world where even the most abject desperation is brightly displayed in a beautiful, cheerful sunshine.
My late father’s first law office was in Can Tho, and as a young, successful attorney, he had a large stone plaque made to announce his business. “Everything went downhill after that,” he would tell me, laughing. “It was too much like a grave marker!” What a silly old coot, I would think, with his superstitions!
I’ve sought out a master musician in My Tho, attended a wedding in Cai Be, scrutinized nameless graves near Sa Dec and consulted a shaman in Vinh Chau, so I have some history with the Mekong Delta, and I’ve seen it changed. With words and photos, I’ve striven to preserve some of its current peculiarities, before they’re all washed away, just like a woman’s remains in my novel, “Reduced to a grayish white powder, the dead woman’s soul merged into the muck and flow of the Mekong River, a giant anaconda muscling its way toward the Pacific Ocean, overstuffed with half-digested cats, human beings, rats, toothless combs, toothpicks and rusted pull rings from exploded hand grenades.”
Back in Saigon, I started to process my photos, starting with those of Long Xuyen, with Chau Doc, the most crucial to this article, saved for last. The photoshopping would take several days.
That morning started normally. I got up before dawn to read the news and answer emails, then went out for quick breakfast, with the walk itself a head clearing exercise. Returning by 8:30, I was eager to, finally, fine tune my Chau Doc photos, but the entire folder, to my surprise, had disappeared from my desktop. I scoured my hard drive, but it was nowhere to be found.
Even minor losses sting because they point to our impotence, futility and irrelevance. I kept fidgeting with my computer while thinking, hard, about what could have happened, before finally calling my wife, who said that, yes, she did clean my laptop that morning. Everything must always be spotless, you see, and that’s how all of my Chau Doc was accidentally shoved into the Recycle Bin, then permanently deleted.
Of course, the most logical Vietnamese explanation is that I got exactly what I deserved for daring to point my Fujifilm X100F at the Mistress of Chau Doc, and I’m lucky my blasphemous camera didn’t explode in my unbelieving face!
With its canals, creeks, swamps and, of course, nine branches of the eponymous river, the Mekong Delta is dominated by waterways, and on these, there often float duckweeds. Adrift, tossed about by currents, unable to determine their destination and essentially homeless, these duckweeds symbolize men in many Vietnamese poems, songs and sayings.