Long Xuyen City, Vietnam 

SWEARER CENTER OF BROWN UNIVERSITY,

STORYTELLING ABROAD 2019

At five in the morning, most people still slumber deep within the sheets of their beds. At five in the morning, I however, sat in a wooden motorboat watching the orange sun rise over the Mekong River. Every shade between pink and purple draped over the sky, reflected across the glistening water. Mason, a student from An Giang University, had kindly offered to take me to the Mekong Floating Market, one of the country’s most beautiful sights.

My head was buzzing and my eyelids were heavy. These were

signals from my body that it was definitely too early for me to be awake at such an hour. However, as our boat bobbed past other fishing boats and floating houses, I realized that the locals had started their days long before I even turned on the lights. Boats kissed one another, connecting person to person as they traded harvested pineapples and coconuts. A man stood at the front of his boat, practicing various morning stretches. A woman sped up next to our boat, offering hot bowls of pho that she had been selling on the water for the past thirty years. 

Back on land, motorcycles sifted through large intersections, and food stands selling coconut pastries guarded every street corner. We were staying in Long Xuyen City, a small city in the An Giang Province that was just a five hour drive away from Vietnam’s capital, Ho Chi Minh. An Giang is located in the Mekong Delta, tucked away within southwestern Vietnam.

It is known not only as Vietnam’s agricultural heart,

but also as its Mecca due to the province’s large Muslim population.

 

I was at first unsure how well we would all immerse ourselves within merely ten days. But soon enough, our mouths watered at 7 AM for boiling bowls of pho, despite the scorching hot weather that already made our bodies sweat. Pungent smells of sour fish sauce became our oxygen, despite how the scent made us immediately cringe.

We all boarded the ferry boat that day. The boat’s engine roared, and we shattered the glass water below us. We passed a strip of homes along the water, which were supported by wooden tilts and tin walls. Another student from AGU, Hao, stood next to me and said that those who cannot afford to live on land, live on water instead. 

 

Hao informed me that Tiger Island has slowly become a tourist attraction, for the island houses a famous wooden house that preserves the artifacts of President Ton Duc Thang. This house is surrounded by neighboring majestic temples, flower gardens, stone steps, and koi ponds. But to get to this tourist haven one must walk along the long stretched road filled with neighborhood marts, local hair salons, tin homes, and plastic red stools. Following a single file line, we passed by people rocking back and forth in red cots, shaded away from the scorching sun. Echoes of karaoke could be heard in the distance. Roosters and chickens that were skinny to the bone would scurry across the road before we got near them. I walked past the most beautiful flowery bushes. I gently wrinkled the thin fabric of purple and pink roses, the same rich hues I had admired in the rising sky above me early that morning. 

 

We had arrived at the local elementary school. Little boys were kicking a football around in the sunlit courtyard, but they scattered away in giggles as they saw us file through the bright green gates. We loved the colorful flags that decorated the school, and took cover under tall mango trees. 

After 30-minutes driving straight on one road out of Long Xuyen City, I had arrived to the SN’s team working site. Can Dang is one of An Giang’s more rural and impoverished areas. We entered the village through a dirt path off the main road. I squeezed myself between various houses made of tin walls. Some houses were as small as the bedrooms we had in Hong Kong. Some houses stood on narrow stilts above a muddy stream, in which I saw an old man wash himself, his skin glistening under the scorching sun. 

I walked through the local wet market, holding grocery bags and tight wads of Vietnam dong.

We wandered between vendor to vendor, comparing prices of chicken, fish, and various produce. Our knees got sprinkled from the water splashed by fish flipping and flopping in their water tanks. Our eyes avoided looking at the women chopping the heads off of live chickens. I attracted the eyes of local shoppers who greeted and smiled at me, knowing I was indeed a foreigner. Each vendor we shopped at held a rainbow of different vegetables. One woman sat on top of a mountain of onions, cabbage, and cucumbers. The woman across from her slashed at chunks of marbled red meat, her children lying in a cot next to her, watching her work. 

After my visit to the market, in which the aromas had sucked my nose dry of a western palate,  I sat in the home of a man so thin that his cheek bones and shoulder blades stuck out. When my peers told him that he was suffering from malnutrition and needed to eat more, he refused. He spoke quietly in Vietnamese to our translator.

 

After a few moments of silence, she murmured, “He said he doesn’t eat his meals because he would rather starve than let his children go hungry.”

© 2020 Lauren Shin