THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 8 NUMBER 2
The Sacred River
Will Never Be Drained Dry
A SHORT STORY BY
Through nine wide openings the River of Nine Dragons flows into the sea,
The long river sings its formidable endless song.
From the Sacred Mountain at an elevation of 15,000 feet in the lofty Tibetan Highlands, from somewhere in the immense whiteness of snow-covered mountain slopes, the Mekong River originates and swashes downstream as a major river of Asia. From its origins, that frenzied blue river takes a length of time, over numerous rapids, across many climatic and demographic regions before reaching Viet Nam where, embracing a sacred land, it takes on the name Cửu Long Giang, River of Nine Dragons, stretching its nine branches all the way to the South China Sea.
It is a known fact that after leaving Cambodia and entering Viet Nam, the river splits into Sông Tiền and Sông Hậu (Tiền River and Hậu River), which rivers then subdivide and empty into the sea through eight mouths. But because nine is believed to be a more auspicious number by geomantic divination, Tranh Đề is counted even though it is merely a very tiny estuary. This is similar to the case of the area called Thất Sơn, (Seven Sacred Mountains), where the favorable number seven is chosen for its name even though in actuality there exist more than seven mountains.
One may wonder when the name River of Nine Dragons was coined. According to Gia Định Thành Thông Chí—Chronicle of Gia Định, a fortified township known during the French period as Nam Kỳ (Southern part of Vietnam) -- the name Cửu Long was created by Trịnh Hoài Đức. Born in the Fukien area of China in 1765 -- the same year of birth as the great Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Du—Trịnh migrated to Trấn Biên (which would later be called Biên Hòa), where he passed the national civil service examinations and subsequently served both Emperors Gia Long and Minh Mạng, ranking high in the hierarchy of civil mandarins, and known by the pseudonym Cấn Trai. Together with Lê Quang Định and Lê Nhân Tĩnh, Trịnh studied under the renowned master Võ Trường Toản. Well known for poetry, these three scholars were referred to by their contemporaries as Gia Định Tam Gia Thi (Three Great Poets of Gia Định).
When talking about the Mekong delta, the native land of Điền and his sister Bé Tư, images of rice and floods immediately come to mind. To co-exist with floods is nothing new to those who live on the banks of the river which is interconnected with a tangle of canals and ditches. Those inhabitants expect the annual arrival of floods which bring not only layers and layers of silt deposit to render rice fields more fertile, but also plenty of fish and shrimp. That is to say nothing of the great service provided by floodwaters in washing away harmful acid sulfate from the soil, and in removing some portion of chất độc Da Cam / the toxic Agent Orange still embedded deeply here and there in the dead forests ever since the end of the Vietnam War.
It seemed like ages ago, but Điền could never forget the biggest flood in the year when, having just turned ten, he was considered almost grown-up by country folk. It had been around the middle of May when the first rising floodtide, vivid red, from upper reaches poured downstream in torrents. “The red color comes not only from silt sediment; in some years the water was mixed with blood,” Điền’s father had said without further elaboration. Only much later when he grew up did Điền come to understand the meaning. It turned out that the blood came from hapless Vietnamese victims beheaded and dumped into the river by Cambodians during their brutal depredations along the border.
At the sight of that rising water, everyone in Điền’s village had known immediately that the flood season was on the verge, promising a huge deluge, judging from the familiar warning signs: red ants abandoned their nests and transported their eggs up to treetops; swarms of small honeybees coming from the mountains also made their hives higher in elevation. Unlike the fierce Red River in the north, both Tiền River and Hậu River, even during intense flooding, usually rise gradually until they overflow the riversides and spread out. This more gentle flooding results from the fact that a portion of the flood waters reverses course and empties into the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia.
However, what had happened in that particular year was quite unexpected. Not only was the flood bigger and its current faster, but it also came about ten days earlier than usual, which caught farmers unprepared. The flood waters flowed uninterruptedly downstream, dragging along dry twigs and batches of duckweed adorned with violet flowers. Steadily the water level increased from eight to twelve inches per day, so fast that even floating rice became submerged, its stems not being able to elongate rapidly enough to keep its grain heads floating. Water completely overflowed canals and fields, powerfully swept across roads, to the extent that one could not tell where river ended and fields began. In low-lying areas, the water rose almost to the roofs of houses, its undulating movement tattering branches and twigs. On thatched and tin roofs were seen people and dogs emerging from the flood, in the company of a few dispirited chickens. In contrast, flocks of ducks, the swimming birds, nonchalantly displayed their unruffled feathers. Điền and his younger brother and sister sat timorously on the roof of their house. To spare the girl embarrassment, their mother allowed Bé Tư to keep on her trousers, while the two brothers went completely naked rather than wearing wet clothes all day long. The sky lowered, consistently appearing darkish as if drenched with vapor, and was only blessed with warm sunlight around noontime, even as below it the flood waters continued to rise, immense and cold. Golden rice fields were no longer seen; instead, ripples of water were speckled with gracefully undulating điên điển blossoms in bright yellow. From early morning, Điền accompanied his father in a small sampan to gather điên điển / sesbania flowers and to fish for cá linh, a popular fresh water small white fish.
Duckweeds are marked with violet flowers
Điên điển adorned with yellow blossoms
Điên điển plant is called Srock Snor in the Khmer language. It grows wild along the banks of canals and rivers, yielding yellow blossoms which, if gathered early in the day, will make a delicious soup or a salad mixed with cooked shrimp. But if gathered late, when the sun is already high, the blossoms will be no longer good, having a bitter taste.
Oblivious of the flood and cold wind, Điền was delighted with the silver-white little fish trapped in the net. One eats white fish in the rainy season, black fish in the dry season. Điền well appreciated the familiar adage that tells of a rhythm in life of the Delta. Indeed, uncountable numbers of fish were now swimming down from the Tonle Sap Lake. It took Điền and his father only just more than half a morning to fill up several tin boxes with fish. They intended to keep some to eat and save a portion to make fish sauce, and sell the rest in the market. The so-called market was actually no more than a few scattered bamboo stands temporarily moved to a part of the road not yet submerged in water, which served fellow villagers for the duration of the flood.
A few days earlier, Điền’s father had dived into the deep water and cut and salvaged a few bushels of rice. Now that the sun had come out, father and son spread them on the road to dry. It was hardship, but they endured it without complaint, tolerated it with perseverance, in the manner that had been lived for more than 300 years by one generation after another of migrants from a few provinces in Central Vietnam – from Thuận Hoá and Quảng Nam. Those early settlers had followed the Nguyễn Lords in their southward movement, the aim of which was to clear and develop wild wetlands where “up in the mountains mosquitoes cried a flutelike sound, down in the water leeches swam like round noodles in a Southern soup dish,” as described in a folksong. Back then, people believed that the banks of the river were fully inhabited by spirits and ghosts, alongside poisonous snakes, tigers and crocodiles. By association, Điền could not help recalling a more sentimental folksong:
Stranger, since you have come all this way, please stay. When your trees take root and your plants grow green, You may return, if so desires your heart.
Not only until trees took root and plants grew green, Điền thought with amusement, but even after having had a family blessed with children and grandchildren, none of the initial migrants ever quit the lush delta and returned to their native villages and towns.
The summer-fall crop in that unlucky year was thus considered completely lost, the suffering made more intense by loss of lives, most of them children, including a boy named Sanh who had been Điền’s intimate friend since they were first-graders. Loss and pain notwithstanding, everyone kept a close watch on the flood level, waiting for the moment when the water began to recede before throwing themselves into cleaning up their houses and fixing damage, and in sowing whatever remaining rice seeds—in other words, they would begin the planting process once again. Was it ever too late to begin from the beginning? Regardless of what anyone might say, Điền’s memory of his childhood in the village was filled with more joy than sorrow. Nature is rich and also could be unfeeling, and sometimes hard but more often beneficent to human beings, he thought. When the Delta does not suffer high floods, a rice surplus can be counted on, orchards prosper with a large selection of fruit varieties, and fields are populated with fish and shrimp and frogs. “In the afternoon the crow tells the kite, Ông Chưởng Island is full of fish and shrimp,” a folksong joyfully remarks. It is common knowledge that not only are local crops plentiful, they also carry a unique deliciousness drawn from the quality of the soil in the Delta’s fertile fields and orchards.
Điền remembered how he had thoroughly enjoyed his regular summer visits to his paternal grandmother in Bến Tre, where he had consumed to his heart’s content ripe tamarind fruit, sweet coconut milk, coconut candy, coconut puff, shrimp stewed in coconut milk, and butter-fried white larvae found in the top of the coconut palm tree; not to mention divine dishes prepared by his grandmother, like catfish braised in caramel sauce in a clay pot, and sour fish soup. Years later, living abroad where there was a surplus of foods, Điền never had the experience of eating anything approximating such Món Lạ Miền Nam / Wonderful Dishes from the South as vividly described in a book of that title by writer Vũ Bằng, or of drinking a glass of coconut milk with the mellow taste nourished by the Delta’s soil. Similar to Bồng Sơn and Tam Quan in Central Vietnam, Bến Tre in the South—where belonged Điền’s paternal lineage—was a land of the coconut, the type of palm tree that in Điền’s opinion was useful from crown to roots. It was probably because of that view that the thesis he submitted for graduation, to the well-known College of Architecture, Cal Poly State University at San Luis Obispo, was a design not for a modern shopping mall in Hanoi or Saigon, but for a light-filled house completely built with materials taken from the coconut tree, suitable for farmers living in the Mekong delta.
The popular metaphor for an immense field—as one where an egret can fly with its wings completely outstretched—was in Điền’s memory associated with the times, as a child, he had gone hunting for field rats and egrets in the rice fields. He had more than once engaged in these activities in the company of his childhood friend Hộ. Having smeared mud all over their faces except the eyes, the two would go to the middle of a certain field where they would lie down waiting for the birds to come – any of them from cattle egrets to white herons to fiery storks. All they would need to do was to immediately jump and catch the one who came within their reach. Hộ, having no fear of being pecked at the eyes, would doggedly remain on his back, waiting without moving a muscle for as long as it took a fooled bird to virtually alight within his arm’s reach; this clever ruse made him the only one between them who could catch egrets. Điền was never successful in this game. On the other hand, he and his sister Bé Tư were skillful in catching a lot of soft-shelled crabs which their grandmother would preserve in salt, or use as the main ingredient in her famous dish bún riêu, crab noodle soup. Điền admitted that it was fun to engage in the game of egret hunting. He was told the flesh of the cattle egret was rancid, that of white heron more tasty. But the thought of eating egret congee and meat of field rat turned his stomach, and he never cared to try.
Recently Điền again met Hộ who had earned no less than a doctorate. When Điền reminded him of their time of rat and egret hunting, Hộ only laughed. Though still attached to rice fields and fruit tree plantations, Hộ had other passions as well. If not busy with teaching and research, he would be seen spending a whole day at a time, rain or shine, with a group of students studying agriculture and forestry, moving around some fields, attending to newly transplanted rice seedlings. They were experimenting with techniques of intensive cultivation aiming at four and a half crops per year, by weekly, when the time was right, transplanting and harvesting the rice in alternate plots of equal size. It was their hope to increase annual rice output of each acre from 15 tons to 30 tons, guaranteeing to raise levels of export and of domestic consumption during the 21st century. It was Hộ himself who earned the utmost credit for introducing HYV, High Yield Variety, rice to the Mekong delta, which achievement rested chiefly on his success in persuading farmers to do away with their habitual methods of cultivation, to abandon old varieties of rice for the short ugly-looking rice plant which was sure to produce greater volumes of grain. Convinced farmers later dubbed HYV Lúa Honda (Honda Rice). Its high productivity helped them rake in extra money, so much so that they could afford to purchase Honda motorbikes, and Honda electric generators which provided them with power in the evening to watch TV. Their most favorite program was the weekly Saturday show of renovated theatre cải lương, and the second most watched program featured “teacher Hộ” who would answer their questions related to rice cultivation. Indeed, the achievement which saw Viet Nam turning into the world’s second biggest rice exporter had to be credited to Hộ and the Department of Agricultural Science at the University of Cần Thơ, Điền considered. Modestly, Hộ protested that the credit should have gone first to the farmers’ efforts, then to the support from UNDP and the International Rice Institute.
Hộ was originally from Bến Tre, the native land of Đồng Khởi, the general uprising movement of the intelligentsia of former South Vietnam. Having issued from a farmer’s family, he was robust and healthy. His family was poor, but that did not prevent Hộ from becoming a good student of Mỹ Tho high school from which he graduated with honors. Subsequently he was awarded a Colombo scholarship to study in Australia, where he earned a B.Sc. degree in agricultural engineering and went on to obtain a doctorate with a voluminous dissertation entitled “The Ecosystem of the Lower Mekong Basin”. Hộ declined a teaching job offer there, as he never entertained the idea of living and working abroad. The path he took as a committed intellectual—clinging to the Delta soil and its rice fields, living in harmony with plants and trees as well as with relatives and fellow villagers—could be said to be full of difficulties, if not to say adversities.
Hộ showed little concern for references to his designated status after 1975, as an intellectual being lưu dung, kept thanks to the communist government’s forgiveness; and certainly not being lưu dụng, kept on and used for his abilities. The vast difference in meaning and feeling between the two phrases is marked by a single dissimilar tone, as a medical doctor pointed out to Hộ. After the Geneva Accords of 1954 divided the country, the physician had chosen to stay on and serve at Phủ Doãn hospital in Hanoi instead of fleeing to the South like a million other people. In spite of that, he had been placed in the former category lưu dung. Even twenty-five years after the experience of humiliation, the man still talked about it with bitterness.
No matter how he himself was classified, Hộ worked 14 to 16 hours a day, more energetic than those who were voted as advanced model workers. Besides teaching and research, he also personally managed a newsletter designed for transmitting common scientific knowledge to villagers. The bulletin dealt with many subjects, from topics close to home such as familiar local trees grown in the backyard like cay mu u or Calophyllum inophyllum, that could absorb and thus remove some acid sulfate from the soil, to distant matters like a space shuttle in another country. There was nothing so unusual about a space shuttle, the going and coming of which being so frequent that it had stopped being a hot topic in the world at large. But even so, Hộ had to pay a price when writing about it. Năm Lộc, a Communist Party member in charge of propaganda and instruction, whose educational level was no higher than seventh grade, and who continuously lectured on “the indispensability of the Party nature in science”, demanded that Hộ add to his piece of information the comment that, even though the US had produced the space shuttle, the Russian progress in space science was still half a century ahead. In a meeting of the paper’s staff, Hộ frankly protested that such a comment was not correct, and proceeded with displaying photos and data to support his repudiation. The result was that his item about the space shuttle did not make its appearance in the newsletter. Hộ told his colleagues that he would rather have it unpublished than giving out disinformation in the field of science. In his opinion, this incident represented not a struggle between the old and the new, or between capitalism and socialism. Rather, it was a conflict between truth and falsehood. Were he to make just one single step toward accepting a lie, Hộ believed, he would himself quickly degenerate and become corrupt like a number of his colleagues in the North. In his straightforward view, no matter where and when, every citizen must bear part of the responsibility for both the good and the bad deeds committed by the regime under which he lived. The land reform program which had been implemented in North Vietnam in the 1950s, complete with denouncement and accusation of landlords in public trials, could not have been easily carried out in the South; and even if it had been, it could not have gone to such a drastic extent.
Coming from the South, Hộ extended his network of friends and colleagues to North Vietnam and overseas. He became associated with the Mekong Forum Group, the members of which he had never met face to face but only had come to know well through the Internet, their common denominator being genuine concern for the future of the Mekong River and human ecology in the Mekong delta region. Among those distant friends, mention should be made of Duy, an M.D. who lived in the U.S. and taught molecular biology and genetics at Stanford University. Duy was born in North Vietnam, grew up in the South, and graduated from a university in America. Though authentically of northern roots, Duy held an extremely biased view of the riverine culture of the Mekong delta. In his opinion, during the upcoming millennium, the center of Vietnamese civilization would no longer be the Red River delta; it would shift to the Mekong delta. Even civilizations once glorious spared neither decline through the passage of time, nor decay marked by negative impacts on the environment brought about by people. To use genetics terminology, one would say that the gene of such a civilization had become exhausted and defective. Duy reflected that during the last 50 years alone, as the protracted war wreaked havoc on a divided Vietnam, people and their language were taken advantage of in the interest of divisive and deceitful political purposes, resulting in the exhaustion of the mother tongue. Words no longer carried their true meaning. Mind and heart were no longer one. Even ordinary honest people had become a rare image in literature. Against the length of the history of Vietnam, that span of time was insignificant, yet it had a detrimental mutation effect on the roots of Vietnamese civilization. Also in Duy’s belief, the young and healthy gene of the riverine civilization of the Mekong delta would dominate and replace the old gene, and would have the potential to restore the heritage of the entire country which was now on the verge of bankruptcy.
Hộ did not share Duy’s extreme negative viewpoint. Nonetheless, such a new and fresh perspective made him ponder. Hộ himself had great faith in the civilization of rice, or more inclusively speaking, in the orchard civilization—to borrow the subtitle Văn Minh Miệt Vườn of a well-known book by Sơn Nam on life in the part of the Mekong delta where fruit tree plantations predominate. The Delta as a whole was the cradle of civilization for generations of pioneering explorers made up of simple and honest people, who were at the same time generous of heart, not yet contaminated with outdated practices and bent by restrictive rites and rituals. Aspiring for restoration, the country was definitely in need of a social order of such ingenuousness.
During the flood season, Bé Tư remembered, many portions of the roads were submerged in water, which made it impossible to travel overland, and one had to use a boat to move around. It was a truly tropical climate marked by heavy showers which came as suddenly as they went. But there was no shortage of cool breezes caressing and refreshing one’s face, bringing with them tiny drops of water generated from the waves splashing against the hulls of boats.
This was not the first time that Bé Tư came back for a visit to her native land. In fact, she had returned many times to visit several bird sanctuaries for which she had made every effort to raise funds, largely eliciting help from organizations like the American Conservation Group (ACG), the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), and the International Crane Foundation (ICF). Keen on studying the lives of birds, after having graduated from the University of Colorado, Bé Tư turned herself into a young and well-respected researcher in ornithology and the factors involved with environmental protection. Tràm Chim Nature Reserve, the bird sanctuary located in Tam Nông District, Đồng Tháp Province, was the image of paradise she had in mind, so close, right in her home country, and at the same time representing a remote beautiful Shangri-la still remaining on this planet. She also realized that Tam Nông District was not only a habitat of immense Melaleuca forests where all types of tropical vegetation grew in marshy wetlands, but also a cradle for the cycle of birth and growth of hundreds of species of invertebrates. In addition, the annual Mekong River flood waters brought in numerous fish and shrimp which made up an endless source of food for birds. Bé Tư could not help being surprised to notice that baby cranes doubled their weight within only a few weeks of living in Tràm Chim. For several years now, during the dry season from October to May, she had arranged to come back to this place as if going on a pilgrimage, for the pleasure of beholding migrant birds flocking here from very distant horizons. Her joy grew greater with each visit as she witnessed a steady increase in the number and size of flocks of migrant birds.
The weather had shifted and the rainy season was now gone. This was the first time Điền had returned to Vietnam with his younger sister, Bé Tư. His feelings were quite different from hers, owing to the vast difference in their respective life experiences. He had endured hardship during years of military service, encountered great difficulties when plans to escape from the country were discovered which resulted in the communist police shooting at his boat, and had been imprisoned and tortured mercilessly to be left with deep scars on his cheeks and forehead. Knowing full well that they did not share political views, brother and sister were determined not to discuss current affairs. This journey had a clear-cut purpose for Điền, complying with Hộ’s request that he study the feasibility of building the proposed light-filled house with materials taken entirely from coconut trees found in the Mekong delta.
Điền had achieved the first step in studying a method of mixing two local materials: coconut fibrous husk and clay, supply of the latter being almost inexhaustible from Bến Cát digs. Chemicals were then added to manufacture a type of pre-fabricated drywall able to withstand humid weather and prevent water permeation during the flood season.
On another level, Điền entirely shared Hộ’s perspective on human ecology. The two were against the viewpoint held by the Central Hydraulic Group based on their experience of the Red River, a viewpoint which resulted in a plan to build dams on the Mekong River for flood control, at the expected cost of billions of dollars. This plan would translate into a cutting off of the lifeline of the Delta dating back a thousand years. Hộ maintained the desire to co-exist with floods in a secure and happy way, making full use of endless sources of silt, fish and shrimp brought in by flood waters which also did an excellent job of washing away harmful substances from rice fields. Hộ even allowed his mind to go further when he talked with passion about the majestic beauty of the southern land during the flood season, which he perceived as full of potential for tourism development in the future. He thought that the Mekong delta, in both the dry and rainy seasons, presented unique features which distinguished it from any upper reaches of the river; and its scenery, so filled with life, would provide attractive images to be captured in the lenses of tourists’ cameras: areas of garden houses coolly shaded throughout the year by green fruit trees; floating markets at the Cái Bè Canal and Tiền River Confluence; floating markets at Phụng Hiệp Seven Corners, the meeting place of seven perfectly straight canals that spread out in radial arrangement like a brilliant water star, which in fact the French used to call Les Étoiles; modern floating villages engaged in aquaculture at the confluence of three streams in Châu Đốc; Thất Sơn (Seven Sacred Mountains), once inhabited by Taoist mystics; relics at Ốc Eo attributed to the civilization of the bygone Phù Nam Kingdom; and the Tràm Chim Nature Reserve enlivened with dances performed by cranes and other migrant birds.
Hộ asserted that what he visualized was no mere dream; it was already made real by its inclusion in the plan of the World Tourism Organization when this outfit decided to designate the Mekong River as one of the world’s ten most outstanding tourist attractions for the year 2000. It was virtually impossible to stop Hộ when he began to talk about the future of the Mekong delta, as if it was a blue horizon expanding infinitely.
Điền planned to build the first model house of coconut-tree materials, based on his architectural design, on the foundation of his uncle’s old house. This old house, since it was located in a low-lying area, and since it was built over an earth floor, had mud walls and a thatch roof made of leaves of the nipa palm, had become desperately out of shape under the impact of several high floods. The uncle was a former teacher of both Hộ and Điền. Retired, he had been living a poor and honest life in that dilapidated house. “Nephew, in our time, to live as an honest person is very difficult,” he said to Điền, in an unobtrusive way reminding him of a highly regarded moral value. The uncle-teacher did not complain, and had never been heard blaming anyone. In his heart Điền had nurtured the thought that the first model house, a product of his heart and mind, would be especially reserved for such a decent person. He imagined how happy he would be if his model house—built in the same traditional structural framework of three sections and two wings, more modern but in no way going against harmony with nature—was accepted and preferred by local farmers, so that in the near future it could be included in development planning for the whole area.
Before going to Tràm Chim, Hộ took Điền and Bé Tư for a visit to the floating market at the Cái Bè Canal and Tiền River Confluence, seen as a potential future tourist attraction. Since early morning, the market day had brought together hundreds of big and small vessels. The scene was animated like a festival. Sampans carried all kinds of local fruits in brilliant colors: bananas, coconuts, yellow oranges, and red mandarin oranges having freshly been plucked from trees with green leaves still attached to their stems. A few toddlers accompanying their mothers to the market were seen sitting smack in the middle of their sampans. A small sampan was usually managed by a lone woman, her head wrapped in a striped towel or her face hidden behind a conical hat, who stood on the stern oaring it toward big commercial boats. These wholesaler boats would purchase all local agricultural products from numerous small sampans, then resell them to warehouses at Cầu Ông Lãnh market in Saigon or all the way to markets in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. From a distance, the scene suggested the image of numerous piglets hanging on to their mother’s breasts. In the meantime, sampans with roofs, which kept their products hidden from view, employed as a marketing strategy a long pole on top of which were seen dangling samples of each of the available fruits and vegetables, and potential buyers would thus know where to locate what they wanted.
The boat carrying the three young travelers had to zigzag to avoid colliding with other vessels. The navigator eventually led Điền, Bé Tư and Hộ onto a big boat with wooden flooring expansive enough to contain a shop where were served coffee, seafood noodle soup, wine, and cigarettes, including the imported Triple-5 brand. After so many years, once again Điền was presented with thick black coffee filtered through a cotton bag shaped like a sock, which was steeped for a few minutes in a pot of boiling water—a coffee making method often seen in working class restaurants in Saigon and Cho Lon. Since the coffee was very hot, one usually had to pour it into a concave dish to cool it off quickly, and to drink from it before hurrying off to work. Điền also breakfasted on a hot pao dumpling just removed from a steamer. The refreshing and animated scene was a discovery very new and appealing to Bé Tư who had been absent from her place of birth for many years. She watched with fascination a motorized boat pumping fuel into a few boats adorned with engines of shrimp-like shape on their sterns; a boat marked with a red cross belonging to a wandering nurse who injected medicine for a fee; retailer vessels like mobile shops displaying a hodge-podge of merchandise; and even boats offering the service of rice husking right on the spot.
Such is the culture of the delta of which the lifeblood comes from an intricate network of rivers and canals, Hộ mused. He decided that he ought to create an opportunity for Duy to come back from the US for a visit which could extend to include the Medical School at the University of Cần Thơ that was in need of more equipment and more grey matter.
When the market closed in the afternoon, that floating town seemed to vanish without a trace, leaving behind a portion of the river that continued to spread out expansively and quietly. Its silence was broken now and then by the explosive noise of a motorized express boat loaded with passengers which rushed by along the river, big waves splashing sideways from its tail toward the banks and swaying the boat carrying Điền, Bé Tư and Hộ.
After a day at Cái Bè, the three still chose the river as a cool and romantic brown highway to travel upon, from which they could enjoy the beauty of both dawn and sunset.
In the evening, their boat went against the current when it entered a narrow section of the river. All they could see was the weak light of kerosene lamps here and there along the banks, and a moon sliver in the sky. From a distance, riding on soft breezes, came vague sounds of folksong like echoes from the earth emanating from the wilderness of the past.
What a place this is! A strange landscape
Where even a birdcall is alarming, a fish’s wriggle scary.
The boat had to maneuver between light signals to avoid getting entangled in fish nets set in the river. Eventually, at dawn, they made it to Tràm Chim, located in a floodplain marsh. A guide was with them, but that did not spare the boat from having to meander through a Melaleuca forest and thick reeds. Its noise created an uproar as a flock of wild ducks was startled and took off in fright, quacking noisily.
The amazing tropical landscape environment was rich and complex, but at the same time precarious. Within the Melaleuca forest was a smaller forest of birds and bird nests, their thousand melodious calls resounding far and wide. Thanks to his childhood memory, Điền was able to recognize the call of kingfishers and turtledoves somewhere among bushes in the distance. Then a wonderful sight presented itself: flocks of hundreds of red-crown cranes having elegant legs almost a meter long. The birds, living and being protected in the reserve, everyday went around catching fish in a leisurely manner, then paired off for dance, boisterously showing off their beauty and grace.
Bé Tư told Điền the names of rare species of bird like the Black Neck Stork, and the red neck Asian type Greater Adjutant Stork. The latter existed only in Vietnam, and its members, thought to be on the verge of extinction a few years back, were being gradually restored. Happily, for the first time during the last few years, one witnessed the appearance of Eastern Sarus Cranes, gorgeous with their smooth white long necks, red crowns spotted with white, slender bodies on graceful long pink legs, and an elegant way of walking. Not merely hundreds, but thousands of cranes, as the last remaining migrant birds in South East Asia came flying from the east to nest in Tràm Chim of Tam Nông. It was good news not only for Vietnam but also for the whole world. Old folk in Đồng Tháp Province took it as an auspicious sign, which did not simply mean that good land is where birds make their nests as a folk adage says; but more significantly than that, it alluded to their belief that precious rare birds like cranes chose to live only in an area considered sacred on the banks of a sacred river.
Further, it was in these people’s belief that in the Mekong delta, perhaps within the Seven Sacred Mountains area, there was an extremely rare tree called Ưu Ðàm / Udumbara which was supposed to flower only once every three-thousand years, and every time the mythical flower bloomed it would presage the arrival of a Buddha to save sentient beings. Presently, though the third Christian millennium had only begun, by the Buddhist calendar the year was already 2544, counting from the birth of Gautama Buddha; and therefore less than 500 years from now, the Udumbara tree would flower again in the Mekong delta, a sacred land. Followers of a folk Buddhist sect called Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương (Marvelous Fragrance from Precious Mountains) also believed that when that time of blooming came, Phật Thầy, the departed founder and Buddha Master whom they worshipped, would be reborn “to enter the world and save mankind from sufferings.”
Both Man and Earth seemed to be painfully struggling in the scorching sun, wishing for cool water from a heavy shower.
Điền pondered on Bé Tư’s generation, born during the height of the Viet Nam War. Delivered in the period of the Tết Offensive of 1968, his sister was seven when that war ended. It was therefore hard to label the Viet Nam War as the war of her generation. And it was also quite understandable when these youngsters did not have to carry on their backs the heavy burden of a very sorrowful past, but freely walked straight ahead into their own futures.
Suddenly Bé Tư turned to her brother and asked, “Big brother, what’s the meaning of the Vietnamese phrase tuổi hạc?”
“Tuổi hạc, a crane’s age? Oh, Bé Tư, it means tuổi thọ, or longevity.” Điền still preferred to address his sister in the familiar endearing nickname for a little girl, Little Tư, by which she had been called when they both had lived in their home village with their parents. Bé Tư had been taking Vietnamese language lessons at the University of Hanoi each summer, with the dream of becoming an instructor not only at the University of Cần Thơ at Hộ’s invitation, but also at the village school which for years she and her former college friends had done their best to support.
Điền remembered when brother and sister had just arrived in Saigon, which was not really far from the Mekong delta. They found that very few people they talked with in that city had any idea about the annual flood problem in the Delta. This made him understand more the same ignorance on the part of overseas Vietnamese living at greater distances. These people, even when they learned about a flood disaster in the land of their birth, would show their indifference. In far away places like Europe and North America, if someone was moved and had the nerve to discuss contribution to flood relief for Vietnam, someone else would be ready to confront him outright: “I wouldn’t spare a single dollar to help; let that regime fully reveal its evil face…”
Bé Tư had her own separate concerns which were not confined to Tràm Chim. She enthusiastically discussed with her brother a project for refurbishing the village school in such a manner as to ensure that during the flood season the teachers could still come to teach and the children would not have to skip classes.
Moved by the unaffected and pure concerns of his sister, Điền came to realize that he himself, like everyone else, would have to try to bury the hatchet, forget the dark days of the war and chemical weapons like Agent Orange, forget the Fields of Death and the scene of boats on rivers and canals filled with blood and death when destroyed by B40 rockets during their attempted escapes from Vietnam. Thus exorcised, he would be able to return to that familiar current of water to bathe and wash away worldly concerns, to live happily with the floods that would come down every year, to be contented in both the dry and rainy seasons on the banks of the Mekong River—the sacred river that would never be drained dry.
NGO THE VINH
The Writers Post
founded 1999, based in the US.
Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).
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